Here’s one Polaroid product you couldn’t buy in a photo store: a little box made of maple, sized exactly to hold and sort SX-70 photos.
What’s special about this, you may ask? Well, it was not produced commercially. Someone (probably in the Polaroid shops) made up a few of them, especially for one consumer:
You can see the box at the bottom right in the photo above, on the low shelves. That’s Edwin Land’s office in the Osborn Street labs in Cambridge, where he spent most of his work time, and where the intricacies of instant photography were first worked out. Also on view: a Jaeger-LeCoultre Atmos clock, powered solely by atmospheric pressure changes (and what a bit of engineering beauty that is!), some very good stereo equipment, a whole lot of telephones, and (in the tall narrow bookcase behind Land) a great many Polavision film cassettes. That puts this photo between 1977, when Polavision was introduced, and 1982, when Land left the company.
Another photo, this time of the cluttered shelves under the window:
This item passed to Holly Perry, Edwin Land’s longtime lab assistants, and she sent it on to me. Needless to say, I am giddy to own it, and grateful for the handoff. Here’s Holly, who today is more often known as Sarah Hollis Perry, in the same room. (You can see the file box on the same shelves, behind her.)
She says she doesn’t remember who shot the photo of her, but it may have been one of Land’s close deputies—a man named Dick Chen—or possibly EHL himself.
I hope she still has the tweed jacket, which is completely back in style. Seriously, you wouldn’t think it out of place if you saw it at Barneys this fall.
Can the camera be racist? The question is explored in an exhibition that reflects on how Polaroid built an efficient tool for South Africa’s apartheid regime to photograph and police black people.
The London-based artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin spent a month in South Africa taking pictures on decades-old film that had been engineered with only white faces in mind. They used Polaroid’s vintage ID-2 camera, which had a “boost” button to increase the flash – enabling it to be used to photograph black people for the notorious passbooks, or ”dompas”, that allowed the state to control their movements.
As it happens, I wrote about Polaroid and South Africa in INSTANT, and cut the passage, for space, late in the editorial game. But it is an interesting story, one that I regret leaving out. And these artists have it mostly wrong.
In 1970, a woman named Caroline Hunter—a newly hired young chemist at Polaroid—ran across a mockup of a South African passbook in one of the company’s labs. She quickly discovered that the repressive government was indeed shooting its ID photos on Polaroid film, even though Polaroid claimed not to be doing business in South Africa. Turned out that an independent distributor was selling equipment and film, either against Polaroid’s wishes or to allow plausible deniability back in Cambridge. (Given that she saw a passbook in the labs, it’s hard to believe that Polaroid was completely unaware, though the level at which the information stopped and started within the corporation is unknowable.)
At the time, Polaroid was a pretty progressive outfit when it came to issues of race. Edwin Land had taken pains to increase black employment, and on the night of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in 1968 had gone to one of Polaroid’s factory floors to offer an impromptu speech about unity (“we must do better”) to the staff that many say they won’t ever forget. Compared with some multinational companies of this era (Coca-Cola comes to mind), it had seemed to be an enlightened company.
Hunter and a guy named Ken Williams formed a group called the Polaroid Revolutionary Workers Movement, intended to shame their employer into straightening this out, and although their tactics were a little cheap—accusations along the lines of “imprisons a black South African every 60 seconds”—they were on the right side of the issue. And at Polaroid itself, the South Africa news was handled hamfistedly. First came denials—”we don’t do business with South Africa”—which looked bad when the opposite was confirmed. Polaroid sent a delegation to Johannesburg to investigate, noting in its press releases that it was made up of two black employees and two whites. The group returned with the recommendation that Polaroid could potentially effect some good by continuing to do business there, leaning on its local affiliates to increase their hiring of black South Africans and upping their pay. Not a horrible idea—but one that smacked of self-justification. A big cash donation to some Boston civil-rights groups was also well-intentioned, and instead looked like a payoff. The whole affair made this enlightened company look retrograde, and no better than any other. (To be fair, the other side misbehaved somewhat as well: I have heard that one of the activists used to stand outside the headquarters on Technology Square, augmenting his shouted protests with threats on Dr. Land’s life.) Hunter and Williams were eventually fired.
It took Polaroid seven years to bail out fully from South Africa, by which time similar movements had cropped up in many other corporate environments. Anyone who went to college in the 1980s probably remembers DIVEST NOW campus protests, aimed at the trustees and the universities’ endowment portfolios. (My own school’s activists built a mock shanty, akin to the ones occupied by poor South Africans, on the quad, where it was desultorily occupied until it was firebombed one night by three frat guys.) The movement that Hunter and Williams got going was a major start to the worldwide economic pressure on South Africa that helped break the back of apartheid. The two of them ended up getting married, too; Williams died in 1998, but Hunter is still around, and spent her life teaching and doing civil-rights work. She received the Rosa Parks Award from the NEA in 2012.
As for these London artists: They have stumbled on a little slice of the story, but what they’re saying is mostly ill-informed. The ID-2 system used for making driver’s-license (and passbook) photos was calibrated for white skin, with an additional “boost button” for darker complexions, because most of the people who bought the cameras (and were photographed with them) were white. The compensation button was not there for South Africans; it was there for anyone with darker skin, which requires more light for the right exposure. Yes, at Polaroid, the Eurocentric executives probably did have a presumption of whiteness as the norm, and blackness as a variant; that was how corporations thought in a less enlightened age. But to suggest some scheme aimed directly at black South Africa, as these guys do?
The artists feel certain that the ID-2 camera and its boost button were Polaroid’s answer to South Africa’s very specific need. “Black skin absorbs 42% more light. The button boosts the flash exactly 42%,” Broomberg explained. “It makes me believe it was designed for this purpose.”
That’s just an inability to see the whole world beyond your own borders—this was an American company building cameras principally for its home market, with barely a thought to Africa. (Not to mention that black skin comes in a full range of tones, not just one.) Polaroid’s executives may have been naïve about race, and guilty of spin and backpedaling when they got caught behaving poorly. But they didn’t build that naïveté into the way light and silver halide react. Polaroid’s engineers were thinking about Cape Cod, not Cape Town.
UPDATE, 4/6/2013: Received some thoughtful commentary from Sam Yanes, who joined Polaroid’s corporate-communications staff in 1975 and ran that department for many years. Here’s what he adds:
I think you’ve got the story. But to fill it out a bit. A) We all felt and were very grateful that we produced a benign product, one that wasn’t designed for harm. And so we were taken aback as this story unfolded. When we got wind of this, our initial response was to sign a new agreement with Hirsch, our distributor, stipulating that no Polaroid product could be sold to the government for Passbook use. C) They broke that agreement, however, and continued anyway on the side and when we found out, we had no choice but to stop doing business in that country altogether. D) Williams was not someone to admire. He once threatened our Community Relations Manager, who is African American, with a knife. E) The ID business was important to us for Passports, drivers licenses and corporation badges. We wanted it to work well for all to show respect for all.
Nice story in the current (April) issue of ArtNews about the book, written by a long-ago New York magazine colleague named Bree Sposato. Always great to get a little more press, especially now that the initial bump has died down, and I’m grateful for this one. Link here, but how about buying it in print? It’s a hard life in publishing these days…
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