The Camera Does the Rest How Polaroid Changed Photography
by Peter Buse
University of Chicago Press, 2016
Cloth: 978-0-226-17638-3 | Electronic: 978-0-226-31216-3
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226312163.001.0001


In a world where nearly everyone has a cellphone camera capable of zapping countless instant photos, it can be a challenge to remember just how special and transformative Polaroid photography was in its day. And yet, there’s still something magical for those of us who recall waiting for a Polaroid picture to develop. Writing in the context of two Polaroid Corporation bankruptcies, not to mention the obsolescence of its film, Peter Buse argues that Polaroid was, and is, distinguished by its process—by the fact that, as the New York Times put it in 1947, “the camera does the rest.”
Polaroid was often dismissed as a toy, but Buse takes it seriously, showing how it encouraged photographic play as well as new forms of artistic practice. Drawing on unprecedented access to the archives of the Polaroid Corporation, Buse reveals Polaroid as photography at its most intimate, where the photographer, photograph, and subject sit in close proximity in both time and space—making Polaroid not only the perfect party camera but also the tool for frankly salacious pictures taking.
Along the way, Buse tells the story of the Polaroid Corporation and its ultimately doomed hard-copy wager against the rising tide of digital imaging technology. He explores the continuities and the differences between Polaroid and digital, reflecting on what Polaroid can tell us about how we snap photos today. Richly illustrated, The Camera Does the Rest will delight historians, art critics, analog fanatics, photographers, and all those who miss the thrill of waiting to see what develops.


Peter Buse is professor and head of performance and screen studies at Kingston University, London. He is the author of Drama + Theory and coauthor of The Cinema of Alex de la Iglesia and Benjamin’s Arcades: An unGuided Tour, as well as editor of Ghosts: Deconstruction, Psychoanalysis, History. He lives in London.


"Buse gives us an account of the experience of the Polaroid camera and an extended analysis of its distinctive photos. Most striking is how he traces its presence in novels, advertisements, and films, proving its iconic status in our culture despite its recent demise. The Camera Does the Rest will be of interest to anyone involved in photography, from students to visual and cultural study scholars to members of camera clubs."
— Geoffrey Batchen, author of Forget Me Not: Photography and Remembrance

"In this engaging and wide-ranging account, Buse gets at what made Polaroid special: as a technological triumph, an array of popular products, a generator of social rituals, and harbinger of a digital era in which everyone is a maker and consumer of instant photographs. Buse’s approach obeys the guideline he cites from a 1981 Polaroid newsletter—'stay close to your subjects'—with exemplary results. His survey of the practices, materials, and legacy of Polaroid photography will serve as a model for cultural histories of imaging technologies."
— Britt Salvesen, Los Angeles County Museum of Art

“In The Camera Does the Rest, Buse brings his gift for in-depth reporting and insightful commentary to this convincing argument on the cultural and social impact of the Polaroid brand. Buse helps us answer the questions on the minds of many ever since 2008 when the company ceased production on instant cameras and film. What was Polaroid? Was it the magnum opus of a brilliant inventor? The results of decades of hard work by a team of experts? A mere toy? A party camera? A covert device for making home pornography? An invitation to artists to experiment? A sophisticated tool for professional photographers? A gateway to the world of digital imaging? A camera for the masses to produce trillions of snapshots? As Buse shows, the answer to each of these questions is a resounding YES.”
— Mary-Kay Lombino, Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center

“In a series of brilliantly executed snapshots, Buse carefully but quickly reveals (in much the same manner as the actual photographs he writes about) a remarkable new history of Polaroid photography. Accessible, engaging, and often eloquent, Buse offers new insights and challenges conventional notions from ‘what makes a Polaroid a Polaroid’ to the cause of the company’s demise. It is a book that will make you see anew the story of a beloved American company and its influence on modern culture.”
— Deborah G. Douglas, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Museum

"As Buse argues in his smart and engaging The Camera Does the Rest: How Polaroid Changed Photography, amateur picture taking was originally conceived of as 'a form of play'....Looking at a Polaroid is unlike looking at any other picture because a Polaroid has that which a photograph is supposed to lack: an aura. Each shot is singular, unrepeatable; each life, a story; each image, a measure of hungry, sucking time."
— Harper's

"Mining the Polaroid archives in the Baker Library Historical Collections, Harvard Business School, Buse researches how Polaroid cameras were marketed, the aesthetics of the Polaroid print, and the social rituals associated with owning and taking instant images. Other books detail the life of Polaroid’s founder Edwin H. Land and examine the company’s distinctive milieu; this scholarly cultural history is distinguished by Buse’s background in ­performance studies. The author is less interested in studying pictures than he is in thinking about the performative moment of taking and sharing instant photos, an aspect unique to Polaroid—until digital photography came into existence—an innovation that led to Polaroid’s demise but was also facilitated by instant film. For readers interested in photography history, the cultural history of technology, innovation, and business ­history."
— Library Journal

"Scholarly yet joyful.”
— Wall Street Journal

"Polaroid is a technology whose sun has set. It casts long shadows nevertheless, and in this afterglow Buse pursues two lines of inquiry, both fascinating....One may debate the relative powers of the photograph when treated as a memento, or as a tangible object, or as a social act—and the history of the company reads like a précis of popular image technology in the 20th century. But, as Buse demonstrates, in being so different from so many other kinds of photographs, the Polaroid helps to reveal what photography has been, and what it does."
— The Nation

"The Camera Does the Rest is a well-researched and thorough history of Polaroid photography, covering both the technical aspects of the cameras and their film, and the influence of this technology on society. It’s generously illustrated but is by no means a coffee-table book. Instead, it’s a serious history and analysis of the Polaroid phenomenon, and each illustration is included to make some point.”
— PopMatters

"The Camera Does the Rest takes a deep dive into Polaroid’s corporate archives to reveal the company’s transformative influence on the photographic process. This book covers all of the cultural perceptions and scientific discoveries that made Polaroid something very special and leaves us with a clear sense of its lost pleasures, too. For Buse, Polaroid is not just an object of nostalgia, it is a catalyst undeniably linked to the massive changes we've seen in social rituals and imaging technology in our lifetime."
— American Photo

The Camera Does the Rest is a fascinating study of a unique product and the serious and quirky uses it saw. It will interest camera buffs or those that enjoy an unusual story."
— Galveston County Daily News

"The Camera Does the Rest is the best kind of cultural study, and refreshingly jargon-free. Buse steers a course between the mockers and admirers, and brings concision, shape and clarity to a complex subject through his skillful plundering of the enormous Polaroid archive in Harvard Business School's Baker Library. This well-illustrated, handsomely produced book is rich in facts, speculation, and anecdotes."
— Times Literary Supplement

"Critic and theorist Buse’s fine examination of the cultural history of Polaroid technology, The Camera Does the Rest, considers the societal forces at work as the company succeeded and failed, from the launch of its first camera in 1948 to its existence today. Scholarly and philosophical, the book is an intriguing read, although not a casual one. Buse’s answers offer insights into our interactions with technologies over time, as well as new ways of understanding the evolution of contemporary shutterbugs."
— American Scientist

"Buse poses a linked series of questions, and the answers and reflections about the industrial, social, cultural, and artistic responses to Polaroid tell its unique history from its rise to its fall. His intelligent, thoughtful, well-written essays provide the framework for an excellent overview of the subject."
— Choice

"The Camera Does the Rest has a richness of detail and language. Buse turns to myriad unconventional but vivid sources in his effort to resurrect just what it felt like to make, pose for, and view Polaroid images. This experience of instant photography is his true focus, and he addresses it from multiple, new, persuasive perspectives. In so doing, he makes the magic of the Polaroid moment vivid for those readers for whom that era is now a faint memory and for those readers too young to have experienced it. To my knowledge, the book has no peers in evoking the lost moments of Polaroid photography. While this alone makes it a mighty contribution to the study of visual culture, I would suggest that, in addition, the archeological approach Buse takes to his topic serves as an excellent model for scholars seeking in its archaeological approach, how to recuperate the novelty experienced when now familiar technologies were once new."

— Technology and Culture

"This book seems to be a perfect gift to all photography lovers who demand excellent academic research; its style is light and approachable and its thesis, well-argued, providing more than substantial information on this charming photo technique."
— Leonardo

"Drawing on unprecedented access to the archives of the Polaroid Corporation, Buse guides the reader through six thematic chapters which all break with the stereotypes [of Polaroid photography]. Richly illustrated, the book brings to light the multifaceted applications of Polaroid technology, including the diverse photographic practices that evolved, the different film and print formats, and various kinds of instant cameras. By doing so, the book draws a cultural history of the photographic technology. . . .The book is …  a valuable read for academics as well as those interested in specific camera technologies, their reception, and the companies behind such technologies. Far from being just an account of technological innovation, the book reveals the many shapes Polaroid took in the late twentieth century and challenges the concept of Polaroid as simply a snapshot company. By doing so, Buse’s account not only troubles the singular picture we have of Polaroid, but contributes to the burgeoning field of late twentieth-century analogue photographic practices."
— History of Photography


List of Illustrations


DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226312163.003.0000
[Polaroid, Joycam, camera, play, technology, instant, vernacular]
The book begins at the end, with Polaroid's last camera, the Joycam, which it takes to be typical of Polaroid photography, because it encourages play rather than memory. It goes on to consider how the Polaroid camera "does the rest," as the early newspaper headlines put it. It describes how the instant photography process worked and explains that the book is concerned with the consequences not the chemistry of the process. Establishes that the book is a cultural history of a technology and the emphasis is primarily on Polaroid as a popular snapshot form (although touching on its practical and artistic applications), and that it is not a biography of Edwin Land, nor a history of Polaroid Corporation. (pages 1 - 24)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226312163.003.0001
[Polaroid, play, snapshot, Barthes, toys, memory, Kodak, Swinger camera, I-Zone camera]
This chapter begins with the founding story of Polaroid photography: the impatience of Edwin Land's daughter Jennifer in 1943 to see a photo immediately after it was taken. The story is used as a way to introduce Polaroid's longstanding association with children and play, and its difference from the traditional Kodak model in which the snapshot is a tool of memory. Taking the Swinger and the I-Zone as key examples, the chapter shows how the cameras were consistently presented by Polaroid as toys, confirming Roland Barthes dismissal of them as merely for "fun." It then argues that "toy" need not have negative connotations, but that play often meant experimentation. Gives examples of such experimentation, concluding with the camera's notoriety for making sexually explicit images. (pages 25 - 50)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226312163.003.0002
[Polaroid, photography, saturation, singularity, speed, darkroom, intimacy, sex]
This chapter asks what was different about Polaroid as a photographic technology--what distinguished it from other kinds of photography. It considers some of the standard answers, such as the saturation of the image and its singularity, crediting the latter more than the former, and proposes that Polaroid is in many ways a "perverse" technology (because it does not allow for copying, and requires larger cameras when cameras have historically gotten smaller). It argues that the combination of speed, singularity, and elimination of the darkroom are what distinguish Polaroid, and that together these make it an "intimate" form, where the photographer, photograph and photographed are in close proximity in time and space. Implications of this are explored, including the "sexual Polaroid," evidence of which comes mostly from literature, film and popular culture. (pages 51 - 74)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226312163.003.0003
[Polaroid, digital, photography, Captiva camera, apps, snapshots, obscenity, social Media]
This chapter begins by tracing Polaroid's ill-fated digital strategy in the 1980s and 1990s, taking as a key example the Captiva, an analogue camera that anticipated aspects of digital photography. While noting that digital was what made Polaroid obsolete, the chapter notes the return of Polaroid in ads and applications, and considers how there is more to this this phenomenon than simply nostalgia. The last part of the chapter examines the ways in which Polaroid and digital snapshooting habits overlap in many ways, because they both yield an image quickly and without the need of a darkroom. It summarises the shared practices of digital and Polaroid under the rubrics of feedback, obscenity, and exchange, suggesting how these are shared with social media. It also takes account of the major difference: Polaroid makes a single copy, digital an infinite number. (pages 75 - 104)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226312163.003.0004
[photo-materialism, Batchen, Edwards, party, Polaroid, photography, attractions, Tom Gunning, Edwin Land, Ted Serios]
This chapter uses the work of photo-materialists such as Batchen and Edwards as a way to think about Polaroid's use as a party camera. Drawing on Gunning's concept of cinematic and technological "attractions," it shows how this aspect of Polaroid extends well beyond parties. It takes in Polaroid's qualities as an "ice-breaker" in making new friends, as well as the ways in which the company considered the camera "one of the most demonstrable products in the world," showing it off at the Moscow world's fair and pushing it in theme parks and at other tourist attractions. The chapter finishes with two studies of Polaroid showmen who used the camera as magical attractions--Edwin Land, who amazed shareholders at annual events; and Ted Serios, psychic photographer, who astonished at parties in Colorado by apparently taking photos with his mind with a Polaroid camera. (pages 105 - 142)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226312163.003.0005
[Polaroid, photography, amateur, Cambridge, value, magazines, Wegman]
What were the wider reputational consequences of making "fun" party cameras? This chapter examines how Polaroid photography was greeted by professional photographers photographic magazines, and the ways in which it was a victim of its own success, and often scorned by serious photographers. The chapter shows how this clashed with Polaroid's own ambitions and self-image as a research-driven, Cambridge-based company. It then demonstrates the ways in which Polaroid combatted the criticism from photo-experts, by presenting its cameras as "prestige" products and by building links with Museums; but that such strategies went hand-in-hand with the promotion of Polaroid photography as an amateur system requiring little skill. The result: a mix of high and low culture which often resulted in kitsch, even in Polaroid artwork by photographers such as William Wegman. (pages 143 - 168)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226312163.003.0006
[Polaroid, photography, art, Aperture magazine, Ansel Adams, Minor White]
This chapter explores some of Polaroid's attempts to move beyond the snapshot business into more serious, culturally valued fields. Edwin Land from the beginning claimed that Polaroid photography brought together aesthetics and utility. The company made major contributions to practical applications of photography and it also employed art photographers such as Ansel Adams and Minor White to test its new products, as well as giving generous financial support to art photography, especially in the 1970s and 80s. Whether it succeeded in bringing together the aesthetic and the useful is another question, and one which is tested in this chapter. Art photography has generally been defined by its separation from utility, and the three case studies presented here--of Polaroid's work with the magazine Aperture; of the kinds of images it made use of in its Annual reports; and of its own magazine Close-Up--suggest that Polaroid sometimes simply reproduced that standard separation, but on occasion also anticipated a time when the art photograph would no longer be treated in isolation from other photographies. (pages 169 - 206)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226312163.003.0007
[Polaroid, bankruptcy, Petters, Fuji, Kaps, Impossible Project, digital, analogue, photography]
Brings the narrative to a close by recounting the bankruptcies and sales of Polaroid Corporation in the 2000s, in which it was above all the company's name that was valued by buyers such as Tom Petters. It goes on to tell the story of Florian Kaps and his company, the Impossible Project, and its reinvention of instant analogue film, revisiting in the process the pleasures of Polaroid play, as well as the ways in which the analogue takes on a new value in the digital era. (pages 207 - 222)