An instant classic

It's always a poignant moment when technology once cutting-edge begins to be edged out. Dealing recently with a company that still insists on taking orders by fax machine felt like being in one of those Edwardian shops where money and receipts pinged around the eaves in cylinders on wires. And now, this week, we read the obituaries of the Polaroid.

The special smelly, sticky film that made scenes and faces appear magically in your palm - or, in lower temperatures, under your armpit - will no longer be produced because cleaner, even quicker digital has stolen the market for instant images. As a mass medium, the technology was barely in its 40s, which means it outlived the fax and the VCR, but it still feels too soon.

While the news will be of most note to those who were born before the Polaroid was, the passing should be mourned by all who use technology because these rapid cameras heralded two of the governing obsessions of today's culture: immediacy and self-production.

At a time when digital photography has already made it routine for people to process and print their own photographs, this death brings back memories of the years in which - except for obsessives with their own dark-rooms - knowledge of what the family camera had captured could be delayed for weeks - or, when processing was at its most advanced, for at least an hour after you reached the shop. The Polaroid offered liberty from this dependence on professionals with chemicals: a vision that has been fulfilled only now by digital cameras and publication software.

And the fact that the Polaroid has been killed largely by digital photography seems cruel, because it was the older camera that inadvertently hinted at one of the main tricks of the newer ones: the possibility of manipulating the image. Although cameras had always been able to lie, the Polaroid proved a better fibber than most because the developing process meant that the image could be smudged or otherwise interfered with before becoming fixed. Again, this was a preview of what computers would do for shooting.

It's true that the democratisation of photography first offered by the Polaroid was not always, or perhaps even often, used benevolently. The opportunity to take pictures that no one outside the frame ever had to see was of most benefit to the secretive: pornographers, criminals, cops, spies.

Two of these uses came together in the 1963 case that brought the sci-fi-sounding brand name into the English language. The notorious divorce-court pictures of the "headless man" being given head by Margaret, Duchess of Argyll, were taken through this newest of viewfinders. The revelation in evidence that "the only Polaroid camera in the country had been lent to the Ministry of Defence" focused suspicion on the defence minister, Duncan Sandys.

As the cameras spread, they were widely used for private pornography, espionage and law enforcement, changing the speed of policing by creating instant records of events. The device also visibly changed crime and thriller fiction by ending the inevitable existence of two separate sets of images - negatives and prints - which had driven numerous blackmail and break-in plots.

My own favourite Polaroid is a twist on the emergency service purpose. Arriving in an unexpected rush, my daughter was born in a casualty department, an event rare enough for the doctors to capture it on the A&E's instant camera, a rare happy employment of an instrument kept to record assaults for use in evidence. That image - a child's first minute, able to be looked at in her second - is an example of the miracle these portraits could be. Indeed, the Polaroid helped to restore the sense of magic to photography by widening the spooky experience of seeing a piece of paper become a scene.

Artists, whose job is to create such materialisation, inevitably wanted one of these machines around their necks. It's little surprise that Andy Warhol - an artist who was obsessed with capturing the instant - proved to be the Michelangelo of the Polaroid, trigger-happily snapping himself and numerous acolytes over 20 years.

What Warhol liked about the cameras was their speed: it was the closest that photography got to the sketch. David Hockney, though, used the technology with most imagination, creating photo-montages from Polaroided pieces of a scene stuck together, which, because of the gap of at least seconds between the images, creates an image that seems to show a single moment but is composed from hundreds.

The only drawback of the Polaroid was that it offered the shooter no insurance equivalent to negatives or digital storage. Every shot was a one-off and, as it turned out, fragile. That hospital picture of my daughter has deteriorated to the extent that you would date it not in 1995 but a hundred years earlier. These pictures were not meant to last, and nor, it turns out, were the cameras. But, having begun the move of photography from the laboratory to the home, they deserve to be remembered for more than an instant.

Mark Lawson