Introduced in 1947, the Polaroid camera delivered push-button ease and instant gratification. Hold, frame, squeeze, and, ssszzzzttt, out the film slid, as if the camera were sticking out its tongue. Then the neat part: the image would slowly rise to life in the frame, as if surfacing from a milky void. Chemical magic! The whole process was neat, compact, and discreet, dispensing with the need for fancy equipment, f-stops, and film-processing labs (enabling people to take home nudies or drunken-party pics without some snoopy technician getting an eyeful). Not just consumer devices, Polaroid cameras became professional tools, finding a place in fashion, design, art departments, location scouting, and crime-scene forensics.
But perhaps Polaroid’s most lustrous legacy has been as art photography’s playful sidekick and social portraitist, from Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s dreamlike stagings to Andy Warhol’s celebrity headshots of Mick and Liza (and just about everybody fabulous), to Guy Bourdin’s weird concoctions, to Maripol’s club-hopping grab shots from the 80s downtown scene (Keith Haring! Madonna!). After a terrible lull following Polaroid’s bankruptcy and eventual closing, instant photography, thanks to the tireless efforts of never-say-die revivalists, has come back big with new films, new cameras, and a new generation of enthusiasts. A fitting time for the M.I.T. Museum’s “The Polaroid Project: At the Intersection of Art and Technology,” a jam-packed exhibition devoted to all things Polaroidiana. It may inspire you to oil up that old SX-70 and give it another go. —James Wolcott