History of the Polaroid SX-70

 Images Polaroid-Sx-70-Camera-631

In 1972, Dr. Ediwn Land introduced the first one-step instant camera, the Polaroid SX-70. According to Charles and Ray Eames' short promotional documentary about the camera, embedded below, the SX-70 was designed from the beginning to topple "barriers between the photographer and his subject." It was, the Eames said, "a system of novelties.”

In the new issue of Smithsonian, Owen Edwards tells the history of the SX-70:

The genesis of the little wonder machine, the story goes, was that Land’s young daughter asked why she couldn’t see the vacation photos her father was taking “right now.” Polaroid was already a successful optical company; in 1947 Land and his engineers began producing cameras using peel-and-develop film, first black-and-white, then color. Sam Liggero, a chemist who spent several decades as a product developer at Polaroid, told me recently that Land had long envisioned an SX-70-type camera, involving a self-contained, one-step process with no fuss and no mess. Liggero describes Land as someone who “could look into the future and eloquently describe the intersection of science, technology and aesthetics.”

"How the Polaroid Stormed the Photographic World"


        1. It isn’t, but making copies and selling them to skin magazines would be “ripping off”, in my book.

    1.  Anyone with that interest already had an old-style Polaroid camera of the peel-off variety.

      Digitals, of course, took over that niche.

  1. In the video, did anyone notice the demonstration of how the Polaroid SX-70 can be used to infringe on copyright?

    1. They were also taking pictures of buildings, around 9:56, utterly unharassed by police or building security.  It was a simpler time.

    2. They made “business” Polaroid cameras with features that made it  simple and easy for someone who doesn’t know anything about cameras or photography to copy documents with them. As I recall, there’s a switch that flips in a lens element for close-ups. One of the thrift stores near me has had one on the shelf for weeks.

      The cameras themselves are essentially worthless since the Impossible Project film is so expensive (and hard to find outside of big cities – though most Urban Outfitters stores carry it). But still you’ll probably never find an SX-70 (or any other particularly cool model) at a thrift store because some hipster will have bought it to put on their shelf.

      However, it’s worth checking any polaroid camera you find at a thrift store, because they sometimes still have film in them. I’ve bought two in the past few months (including one just last week) and I estimate I have 15-20 shots, including an unopened pack of film and whatever is left in the cameras. I paid $10 for one and $5 for the other, and that’s cheaper per-shot than the Impossible Project film!

    3. That’s valid personal “fair use” — same category as a photocopier in a library. Circulating the photo would be a violation.

  2. My sister had an SX-70, but I had a Sun 600.  I thought it was great, but $10 for ten pictures back then struck me as pretty stiff, so I didn’t use it much.  (I was in high school.)

  3. A whole heap of R&D time and money was put into both the SX-70 and the Polavision. We all know which won out. 

    I love how my SX-70 is such a radical design when compared to my behemoth 110b that takes peel-apart film from Fuji. Too bad integral stuff from Impossible is so bloody expensive, and usually stocked in stores that sell Holga’s and flannel shirts from Norway for $160.

        1. I guess my Holgaroid, Mio, and Automatic 250 (large eyepiece) aren’t enough. In the future I’ll refrain from pointing out bad writing thereby.

          1. The only problem I see in the blurb that you took offence to is that it is initially accessible only by those who have knowledge in instant photography that extends further than knowing the lyrics to “Hey Ya!” or ownership of a Polaroid 1000 in their attics. In fact, I would’ve lost most people at “Polavision”. A comment more suited to the Flickr Polaroid board I concede. 

            Still, there’s nothing wrong with just doing a search if flummoxed, as I had to do with your mention of the Polaroid Mio (in Australia the Fuji Instax brand and camera units have a much bigger presence) and Automatic 250 (been a good while since I’ve mucked around with those folding Polaroids) with your latter reply. 

            Would’ve been quicker to do so than typing and submitting your former reply.

    1. You can always skip the Norwegian flannel shirts and just get it directly from their site.  I’ve found it saves me time.  I’ve also been seeing it a lot more at camera stores as well, they’re expanding their store partners rather quickly.

      I do prefer their monochrome to their color however, the black frame stuff is great.

      1. I ask all the photography stores I frequent if they sell a lot and they say no, what with the high Australian RRP. Though they do a great deal of business with Instax and with those studio oldies that buy Fuji peel-apart.

        Different matter with all the Urban Outfitter-type stores here (that sell the finest flannel in all the lands). They supposedly can’t get enough of it.

        Anyways, I will have to make a (online!) purchase soon. I’m starting to run out of legacy film that has been kept in my bar fridge. That monochrome stuff does look great!

        1.  Then I shall refer you to the 13 Australian stores:  http://shop.the-impossible-project.com/stores/australia_nz

          It looks like you’re set if you’re in Perth, with four of them in town.  :)

          I’ve been thrilled with the monochrome, the color I have yet to see a consistent set of 8 out of my cameras.  There’s either green shift afterwards or a lack of warm tones initially.  So I stick to what I find works well for me.  And I cannot recommend the black border enough, it totally changes the way you see the image.

          1. I’m quite surprised not to see any Perth photographic gear suppliers listed, of which I know two stock or have stocked Impossible. Maybe there’s a devillish contract to sign or quotas to be met. But they have their hipster/indie/twee gift store network working well for ’em. 

            Hah, I know everyone of those Pigeonhole kids. Doesn’t get me a discount though… :(

            Btw, anyone visiting Melbourne or lives there must visit Michael’s. Great private museum of cameras and associated gear where you’re usually the only one there marvelling the Leica’s and Rolleiflex’s of yore.

    1. I used to work in a camera store when SX-70 was introduced.  I was always impressed by the design, the engineering, and the manufacturing; very classy, very elegant.  Bonus: SX-70 film used azo dyes which which are very stable and fade-resistant.

      One fun thing to do, while the film was developing, was to push the dye/developer mixture around with a stylus to create new impossible scenes.

  4. In the late 1990s, Polaroid was a client of mine and I visited their Wayland, MA headquarters, near Boston.  The building’s halls were like a museum, filled with a wide variety of photo prints by many artists and displays with their history of cameras.  Many of the cameras also had cutaways to show their ingenious mechanisms.  I remember looking at the precision and complexity of one of their 1930s cameras, and marveling how high-tech that surely was at the time.

  5. The folding design with aspheric and fresnel mirrors in that camera is mind-blowing.

    The light-sensitive film which immediately becomes non-light-sensitive as it ejects is mind-blowing.

    Dr. Land was a genius on the order of Edison and Tesla.

  6. …and without the SX-70, we wouldn’t have had Tom Scholtz & Boston, and current classic rock playlists would be barren.

  7. This makes me feel old, we have a new generation growing up that would never see or use a Polaroid camera.  Remember waving the photo around quickly in the air to try to get it to develop faster?

    1. I remember that habit. FWIW, I believe the habit of shaking an SX-70-type photo is a remnant from the days of the original Polaroid camera, where, after you peeled the  covering off the developed image, you preserved it with a wipe-on sealer. People would often shake it around to dry the sealer.

      Even in the 80’s, professional studio photographers would often use a Polaroid back on their cameras to shoot quick reference shots of the set-up. They were the old peel-off type. I spent a lot of time shaking them around to dry the sealant.

  8. Shaking an SX-70 picture doesn’t make it develop faster. It doesn’t do anything except possibly crack the emulsion. But nearly everyone does it anyway.

    There’s a reason they do, and it’ll appear in my forthcoming book INSTANT: THE STORY OF POLAROID, out from Princeton Architectural Press in October 2012. Till then, lots more at http://www.polaroidland.net.

    1. Christopher, thanks for posting this and letting me know, I’ll certainly be getting a  copy as soon as I can!

  9. While I admired the SX-70, the original 1947 black & white Land camera made me a junkie for that fixer stuff on a squeegee that you had to wipe over the print when it came out. Those old flashbulbs also had a distinct odor that made picture-taking an olfactory event.

  10. I had one of these – and I think I gave it away when we developed a clutter of cameras – we inherited several from one relative who passed away.   I better check, someone more artiste-like than I am would probably want it.

  11. I was Polaroid’s first art director and consulted with them for over 25 years from 1958-1983, and in my opinion their best film was the peel-apart kind. FYI, there are examples on my blog: http://giam.typepad.com/the_branding_of_polaroid_/  

    1. I recently picked up a 250 in a big lot of cameras (couldn’t resist the Rainbow One Step and classy Kodak 828 Pony that were in there) and was shocked at the clarity when I ran a ran a pack of Fuji through it.  It ended up being the best camera in the bunch.

  12. I have one of these, rescued from the trash when it developed an electrical problem and would spit out the entire film pack the moment you closed the door. Thought about trying to track that down, but at $10 per test (back when you could get the film at all)… no.

    Gorgeous mechanical and optical design; it broke a large number of common-sense rules and made the result work.

    BTW, the flat batteries were a more significant part of this design than they’re given credit for. Fresh batteries with every film pack, cheaper and lighter-weight because they used the pack for physical protection.  And they typically had a lot of power left after you were done with the film; I know folks who used to rescue them for various projects.

  13. In the early 1960s my father and I went to the store where Polaroid was demonstrating its new 10 second b&w photos. Here’s the pic (along with the frame they put it in.

    Later, when I became a photographer, I got myself an SX70. Took lots of photos with it. I must still have it some place. 

  14. I had one of these during the first year they came out. It was an amazing amalgamation of new technologies, yet highly reliable in my experience. It was elegantly designed and well manufactured, and a lot of fun to use. 

  15. I don’t understand, the SX-70 was made because Land’s daughter wanted to see instant pictures? The PolaroidLand camera was already in production with the peel “Land”cameras ( which BTW make gorgeous photos) which were instant, this camera just eliminated the “peel”.
    Land’s was born in 1909, his daughter was 3 in 1943..so not the history of the SX 70, but the history of the Land camera..


    They came with a Zeiss Ikon lens; I pick these up for 5-10$ often with film still in them. IMO a far superior camera and film; the B&W is absolutely gorgeous.

    1.  True. But Land often said that SX-70 had been the culmination of his 30-year development plan. He’d always been trying for a photo system with no peeling, no interim steps, no tab-pulling, etc., and never felt that it was an ideal system until then. (Though I agree: The peel-apart film usually looks cleaner to me.)

      He once joked that, after his daughter asked him why she couldn’t see a picture right away that he’d worked out the details of his invention in three hours, “except for the ones that took from 1943 to 1972 to solve.”


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