Dr. Land We Miss You

by Jeff Briley, Assistant Director, Oklahoma Museum of History

“Polaroid” is a name of near universal recognition. Cameras, film, and sunglasses are the objects we know best and were certainly the base of Polaroid Corporation’s existence. For myself, the name instantly conjures distinct yet deceptively inseparable topics: Polaroid Corporation and Dr. Edwin Land, corporate founder and mentor of Polaroid.

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For the sake of illuminating the lovely SX-70 Land camera in the collections of the Oklahoma Museum of History, Edwin Land is much of the tale.

Imagine being parents of a promising Harvard student when your son asked if he could put off his second year at the university and instead move to New York City to pursue work on an idea. Such was the circumstance for the Lands’ in 1927. Instead of one year, Edwin Land’s “idea” took three years to fruition and was the beginning of a stream of patents that would eventually number more than five hundred and place Edwin Land second only to Thomas Edison in number. With the New York Public Library as a reference base and literally stolen hours (access gained by an unlocked window next to a fire escape) in a laboratory at Columbia University, Edwin Land unlocked the complexities of constructing a medium to polarize light. Land, the young scientist, then founded the Polaroid Corporation, and the company forever reflected his personal character.

A question by his daughter wanting to see a vacation photograph immediately after it was taken set Land to the issue of instant photography and the company we are most familiar with. The First Polaroid camera went on sale in 1949.

In 1972, Land’s reinvention of instant photography arrived with introduction of the SX-70 Land Camera. From first glimpse one knows that this is a unique camera. A user pulls the calfskin paneled stainless steel body to open an amazingly sophisticated single lens reflex camera with motorized image ejection. The most hidden feature of the camera is that once the device is focused and the red button is gently pushed, with a distinctive whir a photograph slides in to the hand – the tricky part is that it is an image but is also an unstated membership card into the “Dr. Land’s Creative Science Club”. At some level, Polaroid products were an invitation to play, experiment, and understand the beauty of conjoined science and creativity. Perhaps that is a tall statement but the truth of it is in a direct line from the Polaroid print back through to the corporate approach of the company as a direct result of the brilliance of Edwin Land.

The Polaroid Corporation is one of the most studied of 20th Century Corporate models and any biographical look at Edwin Land is, at the least, inspiring. As to the photographs, one can find them from the back of a drawer in uncle Fred’s desk to the collections of the Museum of Modern Art.

Ansel Adams, that icon of 20th Century photography, used every camera and photographic film manufactured by Polaroid and authored a book on use of the materials. Polaroid was consistently generous with the use of materials by photographers and other artists.

So, the Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera (I’m even fond of the clever name) is a terrific tool, a series of amazing inventions wrapped up in a box that folds to fit a coat pocket, and a beautiful example of industrial design from a decade not remembered for beautiful design. An example – artifact # 1996.130.001 – is in the collections of the Oklahoma Museum of History.

Best Regards,
Jeff Briley
Assistant Director
Oklahoma Museum of History

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