Instant photography exploded in the 1970s – and Kodak, watching from the sidelines, was itching to get in on the action.
Polaroid introduced its its SX-70 instant camera in 1972. They were a revelation: you pressed the button and the camera spit out a print that developed before your eyes. Soon, Polaroid offered an entire line of these cameras, and sold them by the boatload.
Kodak watched jealously, and plotted. They didn’t want to just make cameras that used the Polaroid films, even if Polaroid would let them. They wanted to own the films, too. So they developed their own instant film and cameras, and began selling them in the mid 1970s.
Kodak made cameras in two form factors, both of them large and ungainly. These two cameras from my collection, the EK6 and the Trimprint 920, are of the second, later form factor. The first form factor was wider and had a large handle on the side. The less-expensive cameras, like the one on the left, featured a crank for manually pushing the exposed photograph out of the camera. Higher-end models, like the one on the right, used a battery-powered motor to eject the photo. This Kodak commercial from 1977 shows a camera of the other form factor in action.
Kodak’s instant film was similar to the SX-70 film in how it worked. Polaroid had patented its SX-70 film, so it sued immediately. Polaroid won – but not until 1986, by which time Kodak had sold about a bajillion instant cameras. The settlement was enormous, setting Kodak back upwards of a billion dollars. Also, Kodak had to stop making instant film and cameras, and offer its instant-camera customers fat discounts on new Kodak non-instant cameras.
Those who claimed their settlement had to pry the nameplate off their cameras and mail them to Kodak as proof of ownership. The camera above on the left is missing its nameplate; it was glued to the white areas in the middle of the camera’s face. You’ll still find gobs of these cameras around; they’re useless and have no collector value.
I bought a Kodak instant camera at a yard sale when I was a kid, when film was still available. In 1982, I put one pack of film through it – only one, in part because it was very expensive (north of $10 a pack), and in part because the camera wasn’t much fun to use. I remember the camera being clumsy to hold and very susceptible to shake. Every photo in the pack I shot was at least a little blurry. I also remember it being critical to crank the print out quickly at a consistent cranking speed so that the developer would spread evenly across the print. It was interesting to try the camera, but these quirks and limitations were enough that I never used it again.
The only print I still have is one of me standing by a neighbor’s 1968 Mustang. The neighbor boy who took the shot was not careful to hold the camera steady, which is why the photo is so blurry. Despite the camera’s unpleasant quirks, the color fidelity was and remains very good. I have one SX-70 print from 1978 that has held its color too – but the colors have “that Polaroid look” and aren’t quite as realistic as those on this Kodak print.
Even though the Kodak instant film used a similar process to the Polaroid film, the prints could hardly be more different. The Kodak prints were 4″ by 3 7/8″ with a rectangular, landscape-oriented image and a matte surface. In contrast, the Polaroid prints were 3½” by 4¼” with a square image and a glossy surface. Also, the Polaroid prints were set in a paper frame, while the Kodak prints featured the matte-finished material across the entire print surface. Another difference between the two films was that the SX-70 films were exposed on the front of the print, while the Kodak films were exposed on the back. So the Polaroid cameras needed a mirror to flip the image right side out, while the Kodak cameras didn’t. But SX-70 prints shot out of the camera print-side out, while the Kodak prints went back-side out.
Later Kodak instant cameras and film offered a feature called Trimprint, where you could peel off just the rectangular image. The resulting print looked rigid like a regular film print, at least in the ads. I never got to shoot Trimprint film so I don’t know for sure. I do know that Polaroid never offered anything like it.
I’m sure Kodak knew it was gambling with its instant cameras and film; they were just too similar to Polaroid’s SX-70 system. Now they’re little more than a photographic footnote.
I love the packfilm Polaroid cameras, such as my Automatic 250. See it here.
Get more of my photography in your inbox or reader! Click here to subscribe.