Cultural Regard for Technology: Literature, Film and Computers

Object Study: SX-70 Camera

SX-70 Camera And Case; Designed by Henry Dreyfuss (American, 1904-1972); USA; polysulfone plastic with a layer of copper-nickel-chromium alloy; applied leather; 1999-2-2-a,b

The SX-70 Camera was the first ever instant-photography device exhibited and later sold by the Polaroid Corporation. It ran in production from 1972-1981[1] and is still available commercially from Polaroid’s “Polaroid Originals” webstore.  It is a folding—or, collapsible—single lens reflex (SLR) Land camera. This means that the SX-70 utilizes a mirror and prism system that allows the user to view what will captured on the frame of the film inside the camera and that it self-develops the film, printing it out “instantly” (within 10 minutes of printing the picture, as opposed to the Polaroid Model 95 and Model 20 Swinger that required the user to manually remove the photographic paper and dry the individual shots). Famously during the 1972 annual company meeting, Polaroid founder Edwin H. Land took out a folded SX-70 and took five pictures within ten seconds[2], something that was impossible with previous cameras.

When the SX-70 went on national sale in the Fall of 1973, it arrived with a steep $180 retail price with individual packs of film (good for ten pictures each) available for $6.90. Adjusted for inflation, these prices come out to $1100 for the camera and $42 for packs of film. These steep prices limited demand, but by mid-1974 Polaroid had sold 700,000 units[3]. The SX-70 enjoyed a cult success upon its release that has continued into the modern day, with many vintage photography enthusiasts as well as professional photographers still using the camera for the style of images taken. The Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum has one SX-70 camera and accompanying leather case within its collection under the Product Design and Decorative Arts department (originally acquired in 1999), which is utilized as the basis for this object study.

While the debut of the SX-70 met with mixed success, in 1977 the Model 1000 OneStep absolutely exploded in sales. This was due to the OneStep’s affordable $40 retail price (equivalent to $170.30 in 2020), which was possible because of the OneStep’s remarkably cheaper manufacturing cost. This was due to the OneStep being composed entirely of plastic and that it lacked the SX-70’s stylish but costly collapsible portability.

As of 2006[4], the SX-70’s film was no longer in production by Polaroid. The original film of the SX-70 is only available through e-auction sites and goes for very low bidding prices given that most of the original film expired as of mid-1999. The reason that collectors and photographers would want the original film, even if it largely expired and past its projected use is that the SX-70’s print film was extremely malleable, and hobbyists used this to create unique effects that are akin to modern-day filters. Even though the image processing was “instant,” the images could still be manipulated for up to several days after the original printing (the time was dependent on humidity and temperature). This was all possible because the emulsion of the original SX-70 film was gelatin-based and stayed pliant, allowing users to squeeze and smooth the protective layer. Sadly, the SX-70 film that Polaroid Originals offers today (as of 2020) is not gelatin-based which leads to hobbyists searching for expired film, which in rare cases can be heated to allow for the original image-manipulation process.

While Polaroid Originals no longer utilizes the chemicals that permit the SX-70’s image manipulation, a subsidiary research and development team called The Impossible Project sought to resurrect the SX-70’s original technological capabilities. Launched on September 13, 2017, The Impossible Project[5] (having since collapsed into Polaroid Originals) creates original type film for Polaroid’s oldest cameras and even refurbishes vintage cameras to work as close to original capacity as possible.



Annotated Checklist (1-15)

The thrust of this item checklist for the imagined exhibition is a thorough examination into how the practice of image-taking and image-making has changed over time. While the inclusion of the various camera devices read as a self-explanatory move, the move to include computer operating systems as well as a video game console and video game development software may not seem like it makes a ton of sense at first glance.

  1. Camera Obscura, c. 16th

The Camera Obscura is many ways the ancestor to all modern cameras. An extremely close analogue to the human eye (an opening, a biconvex lens, and a surface where the image is formed). As progenitor to the later devices on this list, the Camera Obscura reigns as an interesting place to start our imaginations about how the user first began to form theory about how they viewed the world around them. Camera Obscura Kit, available from Monticello Shop (England) online beginning 2017.

  1. Camera Lucida

Unlike the Camera Obscura, the Camera Lucida was a specialized tool used by artists for figure drawing. The image of what was being viewed by the user was superimposed on the surface that the user chose to place underneath the device. This specialization of the camera apparatus is indicative of later advancements and the eventual ability to instantly print the image that the user frames. Patented in 1806 by William Hyde Wollaston, the NeoLucida XL is available online from NeoLucida as of 2013.

  1. Beau Brownie Camera

The Beau Brownie was designed by Walter Dorwin Teague and manufactured by the Eastman Kodak Company. The first model appeared for sale in October 1930. The Beau Brownie is a celebrated device from the Art Deco period and was utilized by news reporters as well as amateur photographers. It required the use of a tripod for best use as the slow shutter speed of 1/30s ended up producing unclear or foggy images if used by hand. The Beau Brownie symbolizes the move of the camera to a sense of user control over both the image and the narrative in its colloquial use.

  1. Baby Brownie Camera

The Baby Brownie was designed by Teague once again and was manufactured by the Eastman Kodak Company. The first model appeared for sale in 1934 and was discontinued in 1954. The Baby Brownie was a move by Kodak to make center the amateur user-photographer as the ideal customer base. It was more portable and more affordable than the Beau Brownie as its original $1.25 retail price represents $25 worth of buying power as of 2020. The first truly disposable camera, the Baby Brownie represents a further move from professional device use to amateur marketing.

  1. Jiffy Six-20 Camera

The Jiffy Six-20 Camera was designed by Teague and manufactured by the Eastman Kodak Company Ltd. Rochester branch from 1933 to 1937. It featured a Twindar periscopic lens and is the first camera produced commercially by Kodak with zone focusing, meaning it was capable of focusing an image beyond ten feet. It was also capable of taking both vertical and horizontal images and came equipped with two top-mounted viewfinders for focusing images of either type. The Jiffy Six-20 was a further advancement in making complex camera technologies user-friendly as it was the first folding-zoom camera that used a two-button extension mechanism.

  1. Model 800 Camera

The Polaroid Land Camera Model 800 is a Type-40 instant roll camera made by Polaroid between 1957 and 1962. While it was Polaroid’s fastest orthochromatic and sepia-film camera during the time of its use, the Model 800 was eventually beaten out commercially by devices that used Polaroid’s Type-41 b/w film. What is significant about the Model 800 is that it was an affordable Land camera with filmmaking in mind from its original use-intention.

  1. Swinger Model-20 Camera

The Polaroid Swinger Model 20 was a box camera released by Polaroid from 1965-1970 in the USA and England. The Model-20 used roll film and was one of the last Polaroids to do so, meaning the work-intensive process of film removal and development had to handled by the user before the image could be fully appreciated. The Model-20 did however feature a very early light-sensor near the camera’s lens that flashed a red “NO” in insufficient light settings. The Model-20 exists as an example of ease-of-use design that has since come to be factory-standard for any photo-capable device.

  1. Big Shot Camera

The Big Shot Camera was designed by Henry Dreyfuss and was produced by Polaroid from 1971 to 1973. It was a rigid-bodied model that dwarfed other cameras of its day and was designed for portrait use only. What is bizarre about the Big Shot is that it is a fixed-focus, meaning the user has to move the camera back and forth for the subject to appear in focus. Beloved for its eccentric design, the Big Shot represents that not all innovation of the camera device meant the best for the user.

  1. Kodak Project Instamatic 10 Camera, 1973-1976

The Kodak Project Instamatic 10 was a pocket-camera developed by Kodak from 1973-1976. It was the cheapest of the Kodak 110 cameras, and the Instamatic range specifically. The pocket Instamatic was sold with a flash extender as the camera itself produced red-eye effect and glare in 8/10 shots taken with it. The Instamatic line was easy to load however, and being so cheap, it helped create a new wave of amateur photography interest and gave way to a drove of imitators.

  1. Olympus O-Product Pocket Camera, 1988

The Olympus O-Product Pocket Camera was a point-and-shoot (read, amateur) device developed by Olympus Cameras in 1988. The O-Product changed the game as far as setting international standards for the casing of amateur or at-home cameras. The aluminum casing meant that the O-Product was durable as well as fashionable, as its central circle design calls back to the Art Deco cameras of the ‘30s.

  1. MS-DOS

Why an operating system? Microsoft Disc Operating System, manufactured by Microsoft Corp. from 1981 to 2001, was not only one of the most robust computer operating systems, it was also one of the first OS’s to allow for computer videogame play at home. When we conceive of how cameras over time developed to offer the user “control” over the image that they frame, the idea that the user can become immersed in the image that they observe is a revolutionary, if strange, direction to consider the camera image in.

  1. MS Windows 95

Microsoft Windows 95, manufactured by Microsoft Corp. from 1995-2001, saw the advent of the internet explorer web browser. As far control of the image goes, the internet present both the total democratization of user control for their own images as well as the complete loss of that control. As image-making is understood to be a curating and artistic practice, the way the image is engaged in either sense radically shifts during the beginning of the world-wide web, exemplified through this operating system. Which is does nothing to mention the early Office Suite of locally embedded editing applications that trace their origins further back than even Window 1.0’s alpha.

  1. Apple iPad

What if you could take, edit, and post “photos” all off of one device? While the ability to do so preexists the Apple iPad, manufactured by Apple Inc. from 2010 to the present (2020), the iPad represents another radical shift in image-making and curation. Now the editing and access capabilities of the computer and its operating systems was/is on the go. Presenting an even more troubling un-ownership of the image however, the iPad and all photo-capable devices that are portable and now invisible through familiarity present the clear and present possibility that even our own countenances cannot belong to us as anyone can take a “pic” of anyone else.

  1. MS Kinect

The user is the photo, and the photo is alive, and the user’s body is as much part of the interface as the Kinect’s movements sensors. Microsoft Kinect, developed by Microsoft Corp. from 2010 to the present (2020), turns the user’s gaze inward in a living embodiment of the “selfie” that of course runs prior to the Kinect through the history of the camera and photograph. The Kinect, aside from helping us blur the user/subject paradigm further and more tangibly than the selfie, also presents an amazing example of how ubiquity of technology means that infrared body tracking (something before quite the realm of science fiction or governmental/military use) lives at home.

  1. RPG Maker

RPG Maker is the name of a series of programs first developed by Japanese group ASCII in 1992, now succeeded by Enterbrain whose last stable release was in 2015. With these programs, the user as image-maker or image-curator not only directly interferes in the image that they behold within the frame of their GUI in a given videogame experience, the user now creates that immersion with the tools of the developer themselves now ready for use at home. The “amateur” (I use the term loosely here because the products themselves are quite complex, but not unfriendly) market reaches a further radical move in taking the tools of the market in development into the domestic.

[1] “Polaroid SX-70 Cameras.” Accessed March 5, 2020.

[2] Berger, Ivan. Popular Mechanics. 1973. 104-107, 202-204.

[3] McCracken, Harry. “Polaroid’s SX-70: The Art and Science of the Nearly Impossible,” Technologizer. June 8, 2011.

[4] Ebay. “Search: Polaroid SX 70 Time Zero Film.” Accessed March 5, 2020.

[5] “About Us.” Accessed March 5, 2020.