Written By: Ben Cosgrove
Instant photography is now, with smartphones, the law of the land and a defining aspect of our digital age. But the phenomenon has pre-digital roots. Polaroid co-founder Edwin H. Land introduced his first “Land Camera” way back in 1947.
His real advance came in 1972, when Polaroid unveiled a marvelous (in every sense of the word) device called the SX-70. That version of the instant camera fully captured the imagination and the attention of photography buffs, industrial design aficionados and pop culture commentators alike. Far from a mere consumer product, the SX-70 quickly became associated with, and in a sense helped to define, the early Seventies.
Self-described gadget-nerd Harry McCracken put the camera’s significance in perspective in a tremendous piece on Land and the SX-70 a few years back. Citing the writer and scientist Arthur C. Clarke’s “law” that advanced technology is, at its best, indistinguishable from magic, McCracken wrote that he could not think “of a greater gadget than the SX-70 Land Camera. . . . The sheer magnitude of its ambition and innovation dwarfs the Walkman, iPod, and nearly every other consumer-electronics product you can name.”
Here, LIFE.com pays tribute to Land’s vision and his determination to, as he once put it, “provide an opportunity for creativity that other photography doesn’t allow.”
In the gallery above are pictures made with the first-generation SX-70 by LIFE photographer Co Rentmeester, who experimented with the camera—before it went on sale to the general public—while shooting the cover story on Land for the October 27, 1972, issue of the magazine.
Liz Ronk edited this gallery for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.