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.
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