When you’re researching Polaroidiana, the names of certain people bob up around the edges over and over, and one of them is John Wolbarst. Wolbarst was the editor of a trade magazine, National Photo Dealer, in the late 1940s, and then moved on to become managing editor of Modern Photography in 1950. In that time, he saw the 1948 introduction of the Polaroid Land camera, and he was clearly one of the early guys to get the Pola-bug: He wrote about Polaroid steadily and enthusiastically, and in 1965 signed on as editorial director of its public-relations department. Before that, though, he’d already got involved with the company’s promotional efforts, putting together this volume, Polaroid Portfolio #1 (New York: Amphoto, 1959).
All it is, really, is a chapter of cleanly written and designed how-to, followed by about 110 pages of black-and-white photos, many at full-page size. The idea was to show off what Polaroid Land film could do, artistically speaking, and virtually every photo is captioned with technical details: whether it was shot on roll film or the larger sheet film, whether in a standard Land camera or a professional 4×5 system fitted with a Polaroid back, and so forth.
(It also contained this faintly comical errata sheet, whose instructions run almost as long as the correction does.)
The big photo of sailors and ship’s rigging on the right, explains the caption, was shot by Edmund Katz, Ph2, a Coast Guard cadet.
The glassware on the right is credited to Tosh Matsumoto, a fine mid-century photographer who, a brief online obituary reveals, died in 2010, aged 90. There are photos by many well-known artists in this volume, in fact–Ansel Adams, Philippe Halsman, Bert Stern.
Hands-down, the most entertaining bit of the book is this series of photos. They’re by a woman and are quite good, which seems to astonish Wolbarst, who (let’s be kind to him here) was no more enlightened than most men of his era. “Housewife’s Album,” these pages are titled, because the subjects are domestic (clothespins holding diapers on the line, neighbor kids come to visit). “Mrs. Paul T. Seamans is an attractive young Massachusetts housewife with four children,” it says, offering the textual equivalent of a pat on the head. “She is also an exceptionally able and imaginative amateur in the fine art of making pictures in a minute.” And then: “Her equipment is simple… With this, plus care, and an uncommonly perceptive eye, she has captured a record of her family, neighbors, friends, and their activies, of which anyone might well be proud.”
A later page reveals that she does, in fact, have a first name, which sent me off to Google, of course. I was delighted to find that the newlyweds reached their 60th anniversary. Mrs. Seamans along the way spent some years as a lab assistant at Polaroid, and not only did she keep taking photos; she got herself some serious art training, eventually built a following as a portrait painter, and got into sculpture as well. I would’ve liked to meet her , but I was (as with several people I wanted to interview for my book) just a little too late: Laurie Seamans died on March 23, 2011.
As for Wolbarst himself, he wrote another Polaroid-photography how-to volume, then joined the mothership full-time, staying at Polaroid until 1980, when he retired. He’s gone now, too: He died in Boston on November 12, 1986.
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