Hello! To anyone who’s still listening.
I have gone silent on Polaroidland these past few months because (a) I’m burrowed deep into the next book, and (b) this Website has had technical problems stemming from a malware infection, and has been intermittently shut down for scrubbing. Problem (b) has been straightened out, and we’re back up for the duration. As for point (a)—well, the manuscript’s supposed to be done this spring, and I hope to hell it’s any good.
It has been one bummer after another lately for instant-photography enthusiasts—at least, until this week brought some happier news. Earlier this year, Fujifilm announced its decision to shut down production of FP-100C, its last peel-apart instant film. Millions of cameras that take Type 100 film are now on borrowed time. That also left only New55 making any kind of peel-apart product, the early production of which ran into difficulties owing to a bad coating job by a supplier. And the 20×24 Studio has also announced that it will, most likely, make its final photographs in 2017. It sounded, for a few weeks there, like we were down to Instax and Impossible films, and that would be that.
However, this week brought quite a turn. New55 has announced that it will be Kickstarting a program to expand its production and begin making color instant film. If that fundraising effort is successful, it will serve as a proof-of-concept toward the production of packfilm. That’s right: small-scale enthusiast production of Type 100 film. For that, New55’s Bob Crowley will be working with none other than Florian “Doc” Kaps, co-founder of the Impossible Project. In other words, the only people outside Fuji/Polaroid/Kodak (and, I guess, the Soviet Union) who’ve ever manufactured instant film are pairing up to start a peel-apart line. I can’t believe they’re doing it; I also do believe that they can.
The Polaroid Swinger was introduced to the world in July 1965, and two recent newspaper stories marked the anniversary in fine form. One is from the Boston Globe, written by your Polaroidland host. It’s visible here, on BetaBoston, and (I’m told; haven’t seen it yet) it’s running in the business section of today’s print edition. Analog printing, baby! Nothing like it.
And about two weeks back, the New York Times ran a similarly nice post about the Swinger that draws heavily on, and name-checks, INSTANT. This one’s by the presidential biographer and historian Michael Beschloss, apparently taking a break from FDR and JFK to slum it with Dr. Land and me. I am delighted.
It’s almost alive! Still! And it would be, if only someone could make some Type 20 film.
A sad day here in Polaroidland: Bill Warriner died early this morning in Tucson, where he lived with his wife, Cheryl Cooper. He’d had heart trouble in the past year or so, helped but not entirely fixed by surgery, and (when last we e-mailed, a few weeks ago) was upbeat but realistic about his prospects.
In fact, upbeat just begins to describe Bill. I met him, electronically, in 2011, when I was still at work on the Polaroid book, and our encounter was unintentional. A group of Polaroid alumni and retirees, Bill among them, had been discussing a few pages from the book’s galley proofs on a long e-mail chain. Most of the commentary was along the lines of “sounds promising.” In among those one-line remarks, though, was a vast amount of commentary from Bill. It was thoughtful and incredibly enthusiastic, to the effect of “I don’t know this guy, but it sounds like he got it! This is the book we all wanted someone to do!” When I got in touch with him myself, he was no less bubbly, and his enthusiasm carried through publication and then some.
It may have been that, because he was a maker of films and pictures and books himself, that he understood the deep trough one goes into, mentally speaking, late in a project like this. Toward the end of a long push, when you’re verging on revulsion for your own work and your energy is not just flagging but drained, there is nothing like a few words from someone who knows what he’s talking about. Bill offered more than a few, for which I will forever be grateful. When I asked an old colleague of his about that, he chuckled and said, “Bill is always excited.” He was, it seems, an exceptionally positive soul.
And, my God, an erudite one. His résumé is a type you don’t see much anymore: the Air Force, a stint in Korea just after the war, studies at Yale’s Institute of Far Eastern Languages and later at Harvard, and then audiovisual projects everywhere, especially for IBM and, of course, Polaroid. Ask him about filmmaking, and he’d toss off a funny yarn about cutting negatives in a Fifth Avenue office in the sixties. Ask him about a translation of your book, and he’d explain how the three syllables “pol-a-roid” went into Mandarin as “pai-li-de,” more or less. He could still sing Tom Lehrer’s custom-written Polaroid version of “The Elements” from memory 40 years after it was commissioned, and even led me to Mr. Lehrer himself. In between the learned messages came the smart goofy ones: e-mailed jokes, silly pictures, funny political observations, random screenshots of beautiful science and the Arizona xeriscape. (A couple of weeks ago, he posted this link on his Facebook page.) He had interesting, informed things to say about coffee and geology and a lot of other things. And about Cheryl, whom (it was very clear, even from here) he adored.
As I’ve discussed on this site, Bill in 1970 made a short film of Edwin Land called “The Long Walk,” in which Land laid out his vision for the future of photography and seems to predict our contemporary smartphone world with uncanny precision. I’d seen the film on a transfer from videotape, and that was good enough to write about what it contained, but the day after INSTANT was published, a 16-mm. print turned up, uncannily, on eBay. Even more uncannily, I brought it home for not very much money. (You can watch an HD copy of that print on YouTube here.) When I posted the film online, Bill was able to see it for the first time in four decades, and his commentary, posted here, will give you a taste of how entertaining an e-mail buddy he could be. I wish we’d met in person; we came close, last year, but it didn’t work out. I am very sad that I won’t see more of those messages in my inbox.
More than a year ago here, I mentioned a history of Polaroid by Ronald K. Fierstein that was in the works. A Triumph of Genius: Edwin Land, Polaroid, and the Kodak Patent War has arrived in bookstores, and I am very, very happy to see it there. Ron was one of the lawyers on Polaroid v. Kodak, spending a lot of time with Edwin Land himself, and the book exudes the authority gained from years of deep research and immersive life experience.
As I have often said, my book may have been the first one to tell the complete story of Polaroid instant photography, but it’s hardly the end of the line: It was intended as an overview for a general audience. Since the company’s archives are now accessible to the public, further researchers will be digging into them and coming up with more detail and bigger books for years to come. This is the first, and (I venture to say) nobody will ever do the legal story better or more authoritatively than Ron has.
There’s a nice teaser in a recent issue of the Boston Globe’s Sunday magazine here, and an interview with the author on NPR’s “Marketplace” plus a little excerpt here. The book itself can be ordered from Amazon here—but hey, how about ordering from an indie instead? Here’s a Powell’s Books link.
I won’t be moving on from delivering Polaroid news anytime soon, but I’m happy to announce that the proposal for my next book has sold. It’ll be a biography of Weegee, a.k.a. Arthur Fellig, the greatest crime photographer ever to walk New York’s streets. Henry Holt will publish, and (based on my manuscript due date) the book is likely to appear in early 2017. Like INSTANT, it lies at a place where several of my interests—New York City, photography, newspapers, journalism as art—intersect. It’s an intimidating thing to sign a book contract, but I’m excited about it.
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