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Photography: History of Polaroid Cameras - Model 95 Land Camera

Photography, HistoryTrey Takahashi1 Comment

A late model Polaroid 95 mounted on a tripod with remote shutter release and bulb flash. Photo: Trey Takahashi

The 1940s was a bustling time for photography. After World War II there was a huge increase in demand for cameras in the United States. Soldiers coming home were settling down, having families, and all trying to live out the ‘American Dream.’ Meanwhile photography has become a more affordable medium. 35mm cinema film had been adapted and inexpensive consumer cameras like the Argus C3 were hitting the market and selling hundreds of thousands of units. People were finally able to take part in capturing and sharing moments of their lives inexpensively without a professional studio or costly equipment. Photography was big business, and soon in the late 1940s a new camera would come out that would once again revolutionize photography and change just how accessible it was for the average person.

US Patent #: US002455111 for the Polaroid "Self-Developing Camera"

On November 28, 1948 on the sales floor of a department store just before the Christmas season, Polaroid demonstrated its brand new camera design. A little bulkier than a 35mm film camera popular of the day, nearly the size of a large format camera, but it offered something that nobody else in the field could promise. This collapsible camera came with a unique film also developed by Polaroid, one that in just a minute’s time could produce a fully developed picture ready to frame, save, or give to a friend. The idea was a bit novelty, but in a period when all film had to be sent off to be developed and then printed (all at a cost of course) combined with the wait time, the Polaroid offered convenient on-the-go photography that gave you your picture ‘instantly’. While the Polaroid Corporation had an idea about the success of the camera they had no idea how popular the camera would actually be. To test the waters, only 57 cameras named the Model 95 were produced, each priced at 89.95 (approx. $888.70 today) and putting them up for sale with a small stock of film at the Jordan Marsh department store in Boston, MA alongside the public demonstration. On the first day of sales, both the cameras and their roll film sold out; this camera that seemed equal parts novelty and practicality had just brought in a new type of photography that the company’s name would be synonymous for.

US Patent #: US002435717 for Self-Developing roll film.

Edwin Land, the prolific inventor and visionary had founded the Polaroid Corporation in 1937 after his breakthrough research in polarization technology and began to manufacture sun glasses. While this venture was very successful for the company, it would not be until 1943 that Land would come up with an idea for a revolutionary type of film. Asked by his daughter why she could not look at a photograph he just took, Land immediately began to think about a way to make that idea a reality. He took to his laboratory to find a way to create a photosensitive paper that contained all the chemicals necessary to capture and develop a photograph on its own and be ready in minutes after being exposed. The idea took years to come to fruition; it was not until 1947 Edwin Land shocked an audience when he debuted the first instant camera prototype to the Optical Society of America.

After customers cleared out their small inventory of cameras, Polaroid rushed to manufacture more, but demand was hard to meet. Initially Polaroid purchased lenses for the Model 95 from Wollensak before they had the facilities to produce their own. Along the way, changes were made to improve the camera and cut costs. The first production runs had engraved name plates, and a spring loaded front “sight” for the view finder, both later dropped in the later models. Aside from the minor changes, the center design remained the same and was quite functional for the period. It featured a 135mm f11 lens that only had 3 simple elements, the focus being controlled by moving the front end of the bellows forward and back. For the shutter, the 95 featured a simple 4 speed leaf design, featuring adjustable shutter speeds of 1/8th of a second to 1/60th, each being designated by a different exposure value for Polaroid film called “Polaroid Numbers.”

Each of the three Model 95 Land Cameras. (Left to right: 95B, 95A, 95). Each showing slight differences, most notably the view finder. Photo: Trey Takahashi

In all the Model 95 was met with a resounding success. In total approximately 900,000 cameras were produced, making it one of the best-selling cameras of all time. Building on the success of the original model, Polaroid would go on to refining the original Model 95 with the Model 95A (produced from 1954 to 1957) and Model 95B (produced from 1957 to 1961) each of which sold 500,000 units to 300,000 units respectively. Adding a new viewfinder window and adjustments to the focal distance and shutter speeds, the later models carried the legacy of the revolutionary design of this beautiful and very capable camera. Today the camera remains something that is primarily used as a showpiece, as the Type 40 roll-film was last produced by Polaroid in 1991. However, in the wake of unavailable film, many people have taken to adapting it to use modern Fujifilm instant film used in the 300 series of Polaroid cameras to breath a fresh bit of life into their aging 95 Land Camera. Listed as number 6 on Shutterbug’s Top 20 Cameras of All-Time, it is clear that the 95 holds a significant place in the history of photography.

A late production Model 95B, modified to use 3000-speed film, mounted a tripod on the side mount with remote shutter release. attached. Photo: Trey Takahashi

-Trey Takahashi