Ancient Photography on the Strip

“It’s more than a camera. It’s almost alive.”

If you like watching vintage television commercials on YouTube or have been around long enough to remember black-and-white TV, you may recognize the words crafted to hawk the first inexpensive Polaroid camera. “Swinger” has morphed into a word more associated with promiscuity than instantaneous photos, but back in 1965, it sounded pretty hip to teenagers with “nineteen dollars and ninety-five” to spend on instant gratification. Watch the video for a trip down memory lane with Ali MacGraw while Barry Manilow sings the ditty. (Warning! It has a tendency to stick in your head.)

Swingers, like all of Edwin Land’s magic cameras, are now relics of a bygone era. Rendered Jurassic by digital photography and smart phones, they live on only in the memories of people of a certain age. Well, that’s what I thought, at least, until I happened into the new Fotobar store at the Linq on the Las Vegas Strip. Fotobar, which is a new franchise with stores in Florida as well as Las Vegas, uses the Polaroid brand to market its photo printing and mounting services. Using a smart phone or a terminal in the store, you can have your digital images printed in a variety of attractive formats and choose a shadow box or frame to display them with. Fotobar also sells its services on the Web – check out its offerings here.

Dr. Edwin Land on the cover of Life magazine in October, 1972
Photo by Megan Edwards

This is all interesting and nice, but it is not what drew me inside Fotobar’s doors. What did was the store’s other attraction, the Polaroid Museum. After a stop at the cashier to get a token to make the turnstile work, I headed upstairs to a spacious white gallery filled with exhibits about Edwin Land, Andy Warhol, and the history of instant photography. One display quotes Steve Jobs, who considered Land a national treasure and personal hero. There’s no disputing that both men delivered magic machines to an awed and adoring public.

20×24 Polaroid Camera built in April, 1976
Photo by Megan Edwards

Easily the most impressive piece of equipment on display is the huge camera capable of generating an instant photographic print 20 by 24 inches. Created as a way to show off Polaroid technology at a shareholder meeting, the behemoth is one of only five still in existence. It still works. You can even have your picture taken with it if you’ve got the scratch -– about a grand for one print.

Self Portrait of Andy Warhol, 1979
Photo by Megan Edwards

The Andy Warhol “Capturing Celebrity” exhibit has several dozen portraits of luminaries including Truman Capote, John Lennon, and Dolly Parton as well as a few Warhol self-portraits. A couple of his Polaroid cameras are on display, too. I particularly enjoyed the display of images created by Marc Serota using Polaroid cameras. A photojournalist by trade, Serota used a process he called “image transfer” to create artistic portraits from Polaroid prints by placing them face down on paper while still wet. The result is something you might call psychedelic, and you might also recognize some of the images from vintage album covers.

“It’s more than a camera. It’s almost alive.”

An advertising exec wrote these words to promote the Swinger camera, little guessing how apropos they might be half a century later to describe Edwin Land’s legacy. More than just a camera manufacturer, he was a brilliant creative spirit. Polaroid technology has been eclipsed by more recent innovation, but that doesn’t mean Land’s inventions are dead. Like vinyl records and manual typewriters, instant cameras and the images they produce still amaze and delight. The Polaroid Museum is a pleasant way to soak up some of the magic.


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