The death of the Polaroid

THE digital age has claimed yet another scalp. Polaroid instant photographs entranced a generation in the 1970s as colour images magically emerged from an unpromising white square of plastic.

The technological breakthrough was endorsed over the years by luminaries as diverse as Sir Laurence Olivier, Ali McGraw and Kermit the Frog. But now, with the push of a factory button, Polaroid has consigned its iconic invention to the history books.

The American-based firm has confirmed that it has stopped making its instant film and expects supplies to run out completely in 2009. The announcement has sparked a sales run on the cult cameras with enthusiasts rushing to snap up remaining supplies.

Polaroid is closing factories in Massachusetts, Mexico and the Netherlands with the loss of more than 450 jobs and will belatedly focus on producing digital cameras, portable printers for mobile phones, TVs and DVD players.

Polaroid has already stopped making the cameras. "We are trying to reinvent Polaroid so it lives on for the next 30 to 40 years," said Tom Beaudoin, the firm's president and chief financial officer.

Industry analysts claim Polaroid has suffered greatly by its refusal to embrace the digital technology that has transformed photography.

Instead, executives stuck to the belief that many photographers would want to be able to hold their developed pictures in their hands rather than view them on a screen.

Global sales of traditional camera film have been dropping by around 30% per year.

"Instant film has been falling as fast if not faster," said Ed Lee, a digital photography analyst at the research firm InfoTrends.

"At some point it was inevitable that it had to reach the point where it was going to be uneconomical to keep producing instant film."

Polaroid, which is privately owned, has always refused to disclose financial details about its instant film business.

The announcement has already led sales of Polaroid products to rocket in the US.

"My shelves are completely empty of instant film," said Jeff Newman, who runs Calumet Photographic in Cambridge.

"Polaroid enthusiasts are panicking and are bulk-buying all the stock that we have."

Edward Nute who runs a photography firm in Plymouth, and still occasionally uses Polaroid films for commercial shoots, felt the technology would be missed by many of his colleagues.

He said: "There's something exciting about peeling back a Polaroid photo and seeing the photograph develop before your eyes. I'm going to toast Polaroid for all the fond memories tonight."

Such is the popularity of Polaroid, it has earned an enduring place in popular culture. Outkast's 2003 global number one 'Hey Ya!' featured singer Andre 3000 urging people to "Shake it like a Polaroid picture".

In 2000, the acclaimed psychological thriller Memento featured Polaroid images on its cinema poster and video and DVD covers. In the film, which was nominated for two Academy Awards, the hero suffers from serious amnesia and uses a series of Polaroid images to record information about himself and others, to help track down the man who raped and killed his wife.

Over the years Polaroid used a host of big names to promote their cameras including the legendary actors Sir Laurence Olivier and Vincent Price. Screen siren Ali McGraw made her debut in a camera advert while Kermit and the Muppets were the face of the firm in the 1980s. Its heyday was memorably invoked by Heather Graham's character 'Rollergirl' in the film Boogie Nights.

In 1998 – as digital photography began to emerge – Polaroid turned to girl power and released the Spice Cam – which was covered in images of Posh, Sporty, Ginger, Scary and Baby.

Its last major attempt to connect to the internet generation came in 1999 when the firm launched the Polaroid I–Zone, which sounded hi-tech but was basically a rebranded version of their trademark non-digital camera.

Harry McCracken a Polaroid enthusiast and editor of the PC World Techlog website was shattered by the announcement. He said: "I have greeted the news with an instinctive combination of shock, grief and indignant fury."

But McCracken said it had only been a matter of time before the instant camera went the way of the cassette Walkman, the eight-track player and the MiniDisc.

"When photography went digital in the late 1990s all cameras become instant cameras in most respects that mattered.

"Poor Polaroid became an anachronism.

"But not that long ago Polaroid was the coolest consumer-electronics company going.

"I was eight years old when the Polaroid SX70 – the first instant camera that shot a photo out of the camera with no work needed from the photographer – was released.

"What it did felt closer to magic than any other piece of personal technology I can think of.

"Polaroid in its heyday reminds me of Apple. It was a company led by a charismatic and long-serving leader that made slick, innovative, somewhat pricey gadgets.

"As well as the good memories, I'll never forget the burning sensation when I peeled a Polaroid print apart and got chemicals on my hands."

He added: "Polaroid lives on as a shell of its former self making high-definition TVs and DVD players. I find most uses of the once-great brand on generic technology products to be embarrassing at best. Does anyone want a Polaroid GPS unit?

"The real Polaroid's technological innovations brought a lot of pleasure to lot of people for several decades."

From flash gadget to obsolete icon

Polaroid was founded in the 1930s by the American inventor and entrepreneur Edwin Land. The company originally made high-tech sunglasses.

In the US in 1948 it introduced its first primitive 'instant' camera, which came with a pack of chemicals that allowed users to develop images outside of the camera.

The company's 1965 Swinger camera went on to be named as one of the top 50 gadgets of the 20th century.

But it was Polaroid's iconic SX-70, complete with a leather case, that really allowed the firm to make a breakthrough on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1970s.

The Polaroid became a must-have item for families, as well as the bohemian party set, during the most flamboyant of decades.

Andy Warhol, the legendary American pop artist, was an outspoken fan of the Polaroid and used them many times in his work.

Sales also received a boost when Hollywood actor and lothario Jack Nicholson admitted publicly that he used the instant cameras to take risqu pictures of his many lovers.

Polaroid's overall revenue from instant cameras, film and other products peaked in 1991 at nearly 1.5bn.

But the rise of digital technology dealt the company a devastating blow and it went into bankruptcy in 2001.

It was bought four years later for 213m by the Minnesota consumer products company Petters Group Worldwide.

As the company seeks to reverse its fortunes and gain a foothold in digital photography this year, Polaroid plans to sell a tiny photo printer which is slightly bigger than a deck of cards, requires no ink and prints business card-sized pictures.

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