Nostalgic Viewfinder: The Instant Camera

What is your earliest memory of photography? For most of us it is probably the instant camera. A symbol of the democratisation of photography which started in the mid 20th century and laid the foundations for digital photography today.

The earliest instant camera, which consisted of a camera and portable darkroom in a single compartment, was invented in 1923 by Samuel Shlafrock. The instant camera as we know it today is accredited to American scientist, Edwin Land, invented for for the mass market in 1947 by Land’s company, now known as the Polaroid Corporation. Land was originally inspired and motivated to create an instant camera when his daughter asked “Why can’t I see them now?”.

Edwin H. Land, uitvinder van een camera die binnen één minuut een foto en een afdruk maakt (Polaroid fotografie) Foto''s in 10 seconden met de Polaroid Land Camera

Modell 80 l Polaroid Corp

The great thing about the instant camera is its ability to generate a developed film directly within the camera, without the need for a darkroom – taking only a few seconds to process after clicking the shutter. Once the film was exposed and then processed, the film was pulled out of the back of the camera and would fully develop within a few minutes.

Sofortbildkamera Polaroid Land Camera 1000

Sofortbildkamera Polaroid P

The real breakthrough came in the 1970s when Polaroid invented ‘pack film’. This type of film was produced in a flat box containing a battery, which could then loaded into the camera under the lens, rather than into the back. Once the shutter was released, the film was exposed, developed, and then automatically ejected from the front of the camera. One of the many appeals of instant photography are the often quirky results of the film, producing unexpected effects, meaning the photographer was never quite sure how their photograph would turn out.

Sofortbildkamera Polaroid Image 2 l Polaroid Corporation

Instant cameras have found many uses throughout their history, becoming especially useful for passport photos, ultrasound photos, and other uses which required an instant photo. They were also used by police officers and fire investigators because of their ability to create an unalterable instant photo.

Caliari Paolo (Veronese) - scuola - sec. XVI/ XVII - Moltiplicazione dei pani e dei pesci

After the introduction of digital cameras and the comparative expense of instant film, in the 1990s instant photography feel out of fashion and continued with it’s decline through the early 00s. Despite this, instant photography seems to be enjoying a revival and its unique and fun style has generated a niche market, embraced by enthusiasts and artists alike.

Retro Woman against Wallpaper Background VADS Collection: Student Response Bank, Authors MacdonaldStrand

Land’s original idea behind instant photography was to create a photographic system that was seamless and easy for anyone to use. This concept was ahead of its time and to some extent his timeless philosophy still lives on today through the digital camera. Explore more content related to instant photography on Europeana and share your favourite cameras and fondest memories in the comments field below.

2 thoughts on “Nostalgic Viewfinder: The Instant Camera

  1. I bought my first camera when I was 8 years old boy. I t cost me 6,40 francs only, that mean less than 1 actual euro. I still own all my first slides. After that my parents bought me an Instamatic Kodak. I bought my first Reflex argentic camera when I was 20 years old, then a digital one in 2000.

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