Grey Room

Instant Failure: Polaroid’s Polavision, 1977–1980

Erika Balsom

Polaroid. Promotional images for the Polavision system, 1977. Polaroid Corporation Administrative Records, Baker Library, Harvard Business School.


“An Instant Dud for Polaroid”: the title of the April 16, 1979, Newsweek article captured the prevailing sentiment about Polavision, the instant motion-picture format introduced only two years earlier after more than a decade in active development. With a camera using cartridges containing Super 8 mm film and a twelve-inch rear-projection playback device that doubled as a developing chamber, Polavision was a proprietary system for shooting, processing, and exhibiting film—a resurrection of the triple functionality of the Lumière Cinématographe—that was first made available to the amateur arena in 1977 for an introductory list price of $699 ($2,785 in 2016 dollars). Despite Polavision’s simplicity and its anticipation of a prosumer user experience that has since become widespread, Louis Lumière’s declaration about his short-lived Cinématographe would prove true of its late-twentieth-century descendant too; it was an invention without a future. However, during its brief life, Polavision would draw interest from experimental filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage, Morgan Fisher, and Andy Warhol—figures whose engagement with the format would both make claims as to its specificity and take it far beyond Polaroid’s anticipated uses.