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.
Breaking news in Polaroidland, and this is actually pretty big.
I’ve posted before about the wonders of Type 55, the 4-by-5-inch peel-apart film that gave photographers both a print and a usable negative. It was black-and-white, and slow in speed–the negative was ISO 25 to 35, the print ISO 50–so its images were extremely fine-grained. It was last produced, along with Polaroid’s other film lines, in 2009. Any Type 55 that’s left is long expired and entering its final stage of questionable reliability. Soon the stock of this product—for which many photographers had a deep and longstanding affection—will be exhausted forever.
Since 2011, an entrepreneur in Massachusetts named Bob Crowley has cultivated a plan to produce a new positive/negative instant film. After experiments with single-reagant processing tanks and other methods, he and a small team have worked out a product they call New55, based on an available negative and their own positive sheet. It’s a complex thing to make, but they’ve figured out how to do it, and their prototype photographs look good (that’s one by Tobias Feltus in the Kickstarter banner at right). They have also improved one detail about old Type 55: this new product’s positive and negative will have the same ISO rating, so you won’t have to choose which half is over- or underexposed.
The startup costs of New55 are considerable, and Crowley and an investor have been footing the bill for R&D. Now it is time for New55 to test the market, to see whether this is a viable product. The Kickstarter campaign will begin this Monday, and you heard it here first. It’s a tall order—they’re looking to raise an amount in the mid-six figures. But I also know that there are still many, many people who used and loved Type 55, and did not want to see it go away.
I suspect Bob and his team are going to feel that love this month, and I myself will be signing on with a preorder. I hope you will do the same. This is, I think it’s safe to say, the very last chance photographers will ever have to obtain a new peel-apart black-and-white instant film. (Fuji’s final run of FP-3000B is due in the U.S. this very month, and it’s never coming back.) If this plan works, and the audience and the market prove sustainable, an extraordinary visual medium will have been yanked back from the edge of oblivion.
The sticking point may be price: This product is made at very small scale, and will be a lot more expensive than Type 55 was. On Monday we’ll see exactly how much, but I have heard $10 to $12 per sheet batted around. It sounds like a bracing number; then again, shooting a sheet of 4×5 Tri-X and having it processed, at least in my neighborhood, is now in the $6 range, and takes a couple of days.
Until the actual Kickstarter campaign goes up, click here to get the latest news. When the actual campaign goes live, I’ll add a link.
UPDATE, 3/22/2014: Kickstarter campaign is live, and here’s the link. You are encouraged to go click and donate.
LEGALITIESThis site is not connected with or endorsed by Polaroid or PLR IP Holdings, owners of the Polaroid trademark.
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