Snap! Photography and the Culture of Instant Gratification

By Ahmed Riaz

Published: December 21, 2009

“The Polaroid camera forever bifurcated the product experience of photography into two tracks: cameras for professionals and personal cameras that small girls and other amateurs could easily and enjoyably use.”

Most fathers would do anything for their daughters, but Edwin Land took a simple question from his inquisitive child and changed the world of photography forever. “Why can’t I have them right away?” asked the small girl, as her father—a successful chemical scientist—took photographs on a family vacation.

Why couldn’t she have the photographs right away? Keep in mind the context of the time in which she asked this question. In 1943, photography was the realm of serious professionals and ambitious hobbyists. Photographers needed to learn about chemical reactions to develop film and make prints. While working in a special darkroom, they had to give photos various types of chemical baths and patiently wait for prints to dry. Just the sorts of things small girls are rarely interested in.

Have the photographs right away? Ridiculous! Incredible! Unfathomable? Or was it?

We can thank Edwin Land for taking his daughter’s question seriously, leading to his creation of the first instantly gratifying, thoroughly magical Polaroid camera. The Polaroid camera forever bifurcated the product experience of photography into two tracks: cameras for professionals and personal cameras that small girls and other amateurs could easily and enjoyably use.

Perhaps, under his daughter’s adoring gaze, Land just couldn’t bear not knowing the answer to her question—but we have no way of knowing about that. What we can examine are Land’s insights in response to her very human desire. First, I’m sure Land recognized his own desire to capture memories with his child. Second, he must have understood consumers’ impatience with conventional photographic technology. Perhaps, in his Aha! moment, his train of thought looked something like what Figure 1 shows.

Figure 1—Land’s idea for the Polaroid camera

Land's idea for the Polaroid camera

Capturing Memories, Instantly!

“Before the advent of consumer photography, we carried most of our memories in our minds—where they were subject to fading or embellishment over time.”

Both as the object of self-reflection and because of our need to share with others, memories are a fundamentally important part of the human journey. We go through life collecting them. Before the advent of consumer photography, we carried most of our memories in our minds—where they were subject to fading or embellishment over time.

Such is the primal nature of memories that, in aboriginal cultures around the world, people convey their memories in the form of shamans’ stories, keeping the history and knowledge of the tribe alive. In our own modern lives, we gather with our parents and our children to look at family photos and relate our memories of people from our pasts and the great deeds they did. Our photos capture the knowledge and experience we pass down through generations.

Instant gratification provides an incredible human experience. How often do we feel it? It’s the emotion we feel when we buy a funny woolen hat or down a warm beverage while out on a cold night in a foggy city. Let’s face it. In our highly time-crunched lives, instant gratification feels pretty good.

“The Polaroid SX-70 instant camera … provided the perfect user experience—a combination of capturing memories and instant gratification.”

The Polaroid SX-70 instant camera, shown in Figure 2, provided the perfect user experience—a combination of capturing memories and instant gratification. The manufacturer’s inclusion of a battery and film with the camera eliminated all possible impediments to instantaneous photographic bliss. The photographic experience began with the way the camera opened up for use and the interaction of focusing an image as you looked through the viewfinder, then pressing the camera’s single red button to take a photo. Snap! Everyone experienced excited anticipation, hearing the camera’s bzzzzz-krk as you opened it to view your photo. When you were finished taking photos, the SX-70’s collapsible form snapped shut, and the way the negative space of the face slid in completed the shape of the camera.

Figure 2—The Polaroid SX-70, ready to use

Polaroid SX-70

How did it feel to instantaneously capture a moment in time on a small rectangular piece of paper? It must have felt like pocket alchemy when people took their first Polaroid photographs. In fact, it still does. Watching a ghostly photograph resolve into clarity on a Polaroid camera is a surreal experience. It’s truly sad that Polaroid is a dying technology.

“What killed the instant camera wasn’t the advent of digital photography. It was only when people found a way to share digital photographs freely online—setting our memories free—that the Polaroid really started feeling its age.”

What killed the instant camera wasn’t the advent of digital photography. It was only when people found a way to share digital photographs freely online—setting our memories free—as Figure 3 illustrates, that the Polaroid really started feeling its age. Slowly, but inexorably, the noble product shifted back into the domain of hobbyists and enthusiasts, then finally descended to the end of its market cycle.

Figure 3—Sharing digital photos online

Sharing digital photos online

The Impact of Digital Photography

“Digital photography has drastically reduced the cost of taking photographs, so we can capture anything and everything, without regard to cost.”

Digitizing photographs has had a number of different effects on our experience of photography. First, digital photography has drastically reduced the cost of taking photographs, so we can capture anything and everything, without regard to cost. Snapping a photo doesn’t mean as much as it used to. With so many chances to practice and get our photos right, it’s made brilliant photographers out of all of us. If you take about a hundred photos, there are bound to be a few amazing photos in there somewhere! Digital photography has also created an interesting subculture and aesthetic of bad photos. We have the luxury of experimentation, because our digital cameras provide a safe way to try things out. Cameras—more than any other technology—have allowed us all to easily become creators.

Now, we have the ability to share our photos with a large audience, with much greater ease than was possible before. This is a powerful capability that could easily become unwieldy to command. Hence, the growth of gated online communities, in which we can safely share our memories with only friends and family. A number of online services exist today that help us sort, edit, and share our images. But so far, none of them cater to my most insistent audience, my grandma.

Where Do We Go from Here?

“While we’ve seen great progress in our ability to share photos online, we still can’t truly share our photos instantly, at the moment of capture.”

While we’ve seen great progress in our ability to share photos online, we still can’t truly share our photos instantly, at the moment of capture. Once we’ve taken our photos, it is a complicated process to figure out how and on which social networks we’ll share and tag our memories. Why can’t we just hand over copies of photographs to our friends and family right there on the spot? You want prints? Bzzzzz-krk! Here they are. You want digital? Zing! Here’s that as well.

Even with our powerful ability to share photos online, our social communities are often walled gardens or third-party, paid services to which we can upload our photos only once we’ve uploaded them to our computers. So far, there has been no successful integration of a camera with an open platform to which you can upload your photos. If one existed, we could just zap our photos to whatever medium of consumption seemed suitable at the moment.

In the end, I think we need to go back to the moment that started it all. That young girl asking her dad, “Why can’t I have my photos now?” Our cameras help us to remember the moments we care about most, saves them, and lets us share them—not only effectively, but hopefully, with the magic the moment deserves. A product, an ecology, and a user experience—all melded together with a dash alchemy. That is the future of design.

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