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Polaroid’s instant karma

October 5, 2012, 2:00 PM UTC

Instant: The Story of Polaroid clocks in at a slim 192 pages, but it manages to be three books in one: a thoroughly charming, fact-filled stroll through the life and times of Edwin Land and the incredible company he built; a brief, poignant recap of Polaroid’s plunge from the heights into not one but two wrenching bankruptcies; and a small but lovely collection of Polaroid images taken by well-known artists.

Christopher Bonanos’s well-researched and well-written book features a terrific Andy Warhol photo of Liza Minnelli, self-portraits by Chuck Close and Robert Mapplethorpe, and a David Hockney collage, along with photos by Walker Evans, Andre Kertesz, and William Wegman. It also includes several photos by Ansel Adams, who signed on as a $100-a-month Polaroid consultant in 1949, when the company made its first move into photography. His recommendations strongly influenced the look and feel of Polaroid’s films and cameras.

Co Rentmeester shot one of the most evocative pictures in the book for a 1972 Life magazine story titled “A Genius and his Magic Camera.” The photo captures Land putting Polaroid’s new SX-70 through its paces for a group of children. The photo that accompanied Time magazine’s cover story on the debut of the SX-70 was taken by an up-and-comer named Alfred Eisenstaedt.

The story behind these headlines started in 1928, when Land left Harvard and set about inventing the world’s first synthetic polarizer. He was 18. Teaming up with a former professor, he turned his invention into thin sheets of polarized film that manufacturers of sunglasses and auto headlights used to cut glare.

In the 1940s, Polaroid shifted gears and churned out millions of pairs of goggles for the Army, along with bombsight optics for U.S. military aircraft. In late 1943, legend has it, three-year-old Jennifer Land asked her father why she couldn’t see a picture he had just taken with his Rolleiflex.

Land spent several hours roughing out ways to do what his daughter wanted and the next four years figuring out exactly how the camera, film, developer, and hundreds of other pieces of the puzzle he was constructing would fit together.

The results were unveiled in February 1947 at an Optical Society of America meeting in New York. The New York Times and Life played it up big, but it took another 20 months before the first actual cameras — big, bulky four-pounders called Model 95 — made it to market. They were priced at $89.75, and the public loved them.

So did Eastman Kodak, which signed on to provide the negative layers for the Polaroid film. “Anything that is good for photography is good for Kodak,” is how the company put it at the time, never believing for a moment that a product it saw as a curio would turn into a $2-billion-a-year business.

The first Polaroid pictures were small, brownish, not terribly stable, and anything but elegant. The company soon learned how to produce crisp black-and-white images. Rich color film appeared a little while later, and the clunkiness of the first cameras gave way to the sleek, streamlined bodies we all eventually took for granted.

In a look-back piece in our November 12, 2001 issue, Fortune’s David Whitford put it this way: “For three decades Land and the brilliant researchers in his Cambridge, Mass. laboratory were consumed with perfecting a trick that even today, in the eyes of techno-weary children and grownups alike, is more than cool — it’s magical.”

Land, a driven manager and a stickler for quality, was there at every step, demanding more and more from the engineers, scientists and chemists who joined the team. He was always a visionary. In 1970 he discussed the camera of the future, describing it as “something that was always with you,” a device that you would simply take out of your pocket, point, and shoot.

Land was also the ultimate salesman. At Polaroid’s annual meetings he would move to the center of an empty stage, wave to the musicians who were backing his performance, and put the company’s latest products through their paces. If any of this sounds familiar, it’s no coincidence. Steve Jobs, another college dropout who built a company that resembles Polaroid in many respects, often described Edwin Land as a role model and hero.

Not everyone believed in Polaroid. Its biggest critics were on Wall Street, which had a hard time buying Polaroid’s lofty valuations during the 1970s, when the shares sold for 90 times earnings. Eventually the skeptics were proven right. Polavision, the company’s entry into the motion picture business, got clobbered by video. Land retired. New CEOs and new products appeared, but Pronto!, OneShot, Spectra, and the other plastic-heavy Polaroids that rolled off the assembly line bore little if any resemblance to the classy leather-and-metal SX-70.

The picture was further muddied in 1976 when Kodak introduced its own line of instant cameras and film. In 1990 Polaroid was awarded $909 million in the biggest patent-infringement judgment in history, but it was much too little and much too late. By then one-hour photo labs had arrived on the scene, followed by the ultimate game-changer: digital photography.

Deep in debt and lacking the firepower needed to compete in digital, Polaroid filed for bankruptcy on October 13, 2001, a month after the September 11 attacks. The company has since been sold and resold several times, including one sale to a Minneapolis company that was interested in its real estate, art collection, and name. After the head of that firm was sentenced to 50 years in prison for running a Ponzi scheme, Polaroid filed for a second bankruptcy.

The company’s last few years are covered in a slim chapter at the end of the book, along with a look at the Impossible FPU (for film processing unit), the latest in a long line of products to carry the Polaroid name. According to Bonanos, the current owner of the Polaroid label “doesn’t know much about Edwin Land.” And that, in a nutshell, says it all.

Lawrence A. Armour is deputy editor of custom content for Fortune, Time, Money, and Sports Illustrated.