Material: Polaroid’s next chapter: the photograph, reimaged – Tommy Stadlen

Tuesday, November 12th, 02019 at 11:11 UTC
Material Conference 2017: Stories and the web – BBC R&D – Tristan Ferne

Tommy Stadlen is the co-creator of Polaroid Swing, a Silicon Valley startup writing the next chapter in Polaroid’s iconic history alongside Twitter founder Biz Stone. Swing’s vision is to reimagine the photograph.

Tommy is going to enlighten us about some of the challenges that Polaroid and other companies are facing. He’s going to look at Polaroid’s history and the intersection of art and science, the importance of tangibility and will explore the resurgence of physicality and nostalgia. Why are we all so interested in vinyl records to film photography?

We now have the power to capture and explore how memories move, how does that impact the way we think about or digital lives?


Tommy was the co-founder of the popular iOS app Polaroid Swing. Their goal was to reimagine what digital photos could be and they even had a secret hardware project which was shown-off but redacted from the video and audio.

When we got wind of some of these secret projects and learnt that Tommy was willing to be a speaker, we jumped at the chance. The rich history of polaroid combined with what is now possible on digital devices and their analog ambitions all made for an amazing wrap-up for the event.

Polaroid Web

The focus of the talk was to being digital back to analog. Which was a really good way to end the day, recapping a lot of the sentiment from all the previous talks. Maybe the best way to understand the Web as a Material is to treat it like existing analog materials? Maybe that’s the first step in understanding what is possible and what feels ‘right’ to us.

The Web is both a consuming and creating platform. When we are viewing digital photos and videos it is almost always consuming. The team at Polaroid Swing wanted to create something in between. Rather than simply making short 6 second videos that auto play, they thought about physical interaction. Much like the tactile polaroid photos, these new digital swing photos needed to be touched and swiped side-to-side to scrub the video forwards or backwards. It is an attempt to make the digital more physical through interactions. 

One of the things the Web is really good at is the ability to accelerate things. In Tommy’s talk, he mentioned Edwin Land, the inventor of the polaroid. It was invented because his daughter wanted to see the photo he just took. At that time, you sent the camera off for developing which might take weeks to months before you got your prints back. Within 100 years, we’ve closed that loop to lifting your phone, snapping a picture in your favourite app and then it uploaded and viewed by millions of people within seconds. Wether this good or bad for society and ourselves is another question.

Some of the odd ramifications of digital photography is that in the analog world we as consumers and companies are changing our habits. Fancy cocktails which look good on instagram are selling more. Restaurants are changing the way they plate food changing the color of their white plates for better photos. If someone is going to archive and share your food, and livelihood, why not hack the system and make it look as best possible to attract new customers? Are we optimising for looks over taste or other factors?

US National park attendance has also been steadily on the rise. Now, it is hard to untangle cause and correlation, but as instagram increased in popularity people visiting national parks to visit or take similar photos has increased. Is it a bad thing to get people out of the house to experience things for themselves? (Maybe not if it is always through the lens of a smart phone?) Either way, there is a measurable affect on how and what we do based on digital photos we see on the Web.

You can view all the video recordings and subscribe to the Material podcast on the Material Archive site.