A Rare Glimpse of a Master Presenter at Work

In 1970, Polaroid's Edwin Land talks about the future of photography.

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Polaroid's Edwin Land teases shareholders with a model of a futuristic instant camera in 1970.

I know I’ve been writing more about Polaroid than Apple, Google or Microsoft lately, and promise I’m not going to do it forever — but this is too good not to share.

For years, folks (including me) have written about the remarkable presentations which Edwin Land, Polaroid’s cofounder, longtime CEO and resident genius, gave. He’d stand on a stage by himself, talk and demo products — and he was so gifted at it that it’s impossible to discuss what he did without bringing up Steve Jobs, perhaps his only rival as CEO/technologist/showman.

Those of us who didn’t see Land at work in person, however, have had to trust the memories of those who did — very little video is available of the man, in part because the Harvard Business School, which has the Polaroid archives, hasn’t indexed its audiovisual holdings yet.

But Christopher Bonanos, author of the excellent recent book Instant: The Story of Polaroid and proprietor of the Polaroidland site, has uncovered a 15-minute film Land made for Polaroid’s 1970 shareholder meeting. In it, Land uses a helicopter and a giant blueprint as presentation aids as he talks about Polaroid’s plans for its next-generation instant camera. But mostly, he stands in a trenchcoat in an unfinished factory and talks about the future of photography.

And when he takes something he describes as a wallet-like camera of tomorrow out of his pocket, as Bonanos says, it’s almost as if he’s somehow gotten his hands on an iPhone 5 a few decades ahead of time.

The upcoming camera which Land discusses obliquely in the film was the revolutionary SX-70. When he unveiled it in 1972, it was strikingly more compact than any Polaroid before it, but wasn’t remotely wallet-sized. Land continued to talk about shrinking instant cameras down to truly pocketable proportions; he died in 1991, so he didn’t live to see the cameraphone. But I’ll bet he would have recognized it as the fruition of his vision.

Bonanos’s post includes new commentary by Bill Warriner, the film’s director, who says that Land was self-conscious in front of the camera, and was much more magical in front of a live audience. He’s still pretty compelling in this little movie. (His flinty, dignified seriousness reminds me of Gregory Peck; too bad Hollywood never made a Land biopic when Peck was around to play him.)

The legendary Land presentation I most want to see remains that 1972 SX-70 demo, also held at a Polaroid annual meeting. Here’s hoping that there’s film of it stashed somewhere in Harvard’s collection, and that it emerges someday.

Instant Artifact: “The Long Walk” [Polaroidland]