This makes me chuckle every time I see it. A book by a guy who never got out of the foreign-language gate was published last week in Taiwan, translated into Mandarin. (You can order here, if you can read it.)
You might be mildly amused by some scholarly footnotes about the cover. There are ironies in the choice of these specific characters. I checked McGraw-Hill’s 2010 Chinese dictionary by Quanyu Huang, plus my beloved dog-eared 1931 dictionary by R. H. Mathews, from the China Inland Mission of Shanghai and the Presbyterian Mission Press. It’s been with me before I met Cheryl [Bill's wife] and it’s those old missionaries who didn’t miss a trick. McGraw-Hill, feh.
I never noticed the Chinese transliteration of the name Polaroid before. These 3 characters are Romanized as Pai-li-de, pronounced more like “Pie,” “lee,” and “duh” than the People’s Republic spelling which is a royal pain in the behind. They use it in Taiwan, too, by default. The musical tones are an integral part of the name if you like music in your everyday discourse.
The character Pai by itself means to slap, hit, strike a deal, slap the table (in anger), or shoot a photo. So Americans associate photography with guns, whereas the Chinese don’t kill you with their cameras, they merely bruise you when they steal your soul. Go figure.
The character li means to erect, to set up, to establish; to exist; upright, vertical; immediately, instantaneously—this is the only element on the cover related to instant photography and it’s a phonetic element.
The third character de means to obtain or catch; to be finished or satisfied. The only fun part is that Mathews includes this character as part of the phrases for “to win the lottery,” “just what I wanted,” and de dao, “to enter Nirvana.”
The subtitle is weird, ’cuz literally translated, it means “the not-dead spirit of” a photography system. There’s no reference to “instant” here. I wonder why they didn’t use your exact word (must be upgrading the branding). But I’ve always loved the beautiful fifth character in that line (ying), which means a shadow, image or reflection. The Chinese term still used for movies is literally “electric shadows,” and I used that title once for a documentary script (that Ted [Voss] paid me to write but we never had time to shoot).
So two of those characters Mathews defines as to receive, to enjoy [benefits]; to present or accept sacrificial offerings. I thought Hey, Phyllis Robinson would approve: It’s like opening a present. [Ed. note: See explication below.]
Finally, the last two characters jing-shen, or spirit, also mean magical or miraculous and that’s the twist of a good translation. It also means sperm but I won’t go there.
Strange things happen to brands over the years, and I begrudge the owners of the Polaroid trademark nothing in their attempts to keep the old girl going. Still, this is a very peculiar bit of licensing: the Polaroid Yoga Mat, available at Amazon.
What does Bill de Blasio, the recent winner of the Democratic primary for the New York City mayoralty and the presumptive next mayor, have to do with Polaroidland? Hah! Everyone has something to do with Polaroid, if you dig far enough.
That said, the Boston Globe today revealed that his connection is sturdier than most: His mother, Maria Wilhelm, worked in Polaroid’s public-relations department for nearly twenty years. A quick search of newspaper databases reveals plenty of quotes (and a few “no comment”s) that she offered the press down through the years, especially surrounding the Kodak lawsuit. I asked Donald Dery and Sam Yanes, each of whom ran Polaroid’s PR operation (Don until 1980, Sam thereafter), and they remember her well. (She died in 2007.) Sam offered this:
I could agonize for hours about how a word or phrase might be interpreted and take that craziness home with me. But Maria Wilhelm would just plow ahead, like a pro, working from 9 to 5, always on deadline, always on point. Her main job was to place “Amazing Things Are Happening Here” stories everywhere. And she was very good at it—case history after case history. Because she was older than the rest of us, and decidedly more elegant, when I was out of town, she looked after our financial and corporate communications concerns. But she was not comfortable with this level of responsibility, and I would invariably have to return to Cambridge if a material disclosure was in order. My former wife, who was (is) as cynical as they get about corporate actors, thought Maria was best actor of the bunch, and loved seeing her.
She was a historian on the side, too, and wrote a well-regarded book about the Italian resistance during World War II. I shouldn’t be surprised to find, yet again, that Polaroid people were awfully smart. But it’s nice to see it again, and I feel a little extra kinship with her, being an after-hours historian myself. Also, I really enjoy picturing little Bill de Blasio, future Socialist, playing in the hallways with little Grover Norquist, future anti-taxer and drowner-in-the-bathtub-of-government.
Someone recently asked me about the big Polaroid camera—not the 20×24, which is alive and well and well-tended, but its giant sibling, now retired.
One day in the mid-1970s, Edwin Land went to John McCann, one of his close deputies, with an idea. Land wanted to make a full-size reproduction of Renoir’s Bal à Bougival, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “It’s 39 inches wide,” he told McCann, “and our film is slit at 40 inches. We can do it!” McCann, whose job often involved executing wonderful, near-impossible ideas that had alighted in Land’s fertile brain, soon had constructed a large camera, one the size of a room, a sophisticated cousin to the camerae obscurae of the ancients. The lens of the Museum Camera, as it was called, weighed 50 pounds (custom-built, and not, as legend has it, pulled off a spy plane). The film actually measured 44 inches wide if you counted the margins, and could be shot in sheets about 80 inches high—in other words, this camera made instant photos wider and taller than a typical door.
Built to reproduce paintings—starting with that Renoir—it spent most of its life in the Museum of Fine Arts, and rigged-up versions were built at the Vatican and other places that allowed their artwork to be photographed this way. You could, up until the late eighties or so, buy one of these uncanny one-to-one reproductions, which were much richer than conventional four-color prints: Polaroid Museum Replicas, as they were called, required no reducing and re-enlarging, and thus showed no loss of detail, though their flatness and sheen did give an odd kitschy quality to the perfectly reproduced brushstrokes. The Cambridge Historical Society reproduced its rarer paintings, and to this day exhibits the copies, keeping the originals hidden away somewhere for safety. Here’s a post showing the camera at work.
A number of artists also tried their hand at making these giant prints. Chuck Close shot himself, and some megasized nudes; Marie Cosindas shot ballet dancers. It was maddening to use for moving subjects, because the depth of field was about an inch, and the camera had no focusing mechanism; those dancers stood in front of the lens, shuffling in and out till they were in focus. Then they had to stay put till the film was pulled down into place—it was held flat to the back wall of the camera with a rigged-up Black & Decker shop vacuum—and the picture was made, quickly, with huge banks of flashes.
Sometime in the 1990s, the camera was dismantled and sold, and then was reactivated in New York by a fellow named Gregory Colbert, who among other things made experimental image transfers with the giant film, a process I’d certainly like to have seen. (He nicknamed the camera Moby C, in honor of that other New England whale.) In 2001, it had what turned out to be its last hurrah: a monumental project in which first responders to the 9/11 attacks were photographed by Joe McNally, as they came off shift. Firemen, cops, laborers, and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani—nearly every one looking haunted—all posed, and the results were published by Time magazine and exhibited in Grand Central Terminal. You can see a slideshow of them here, and read McNally’s account of making them here and here. If you were in New York during that unreal time, the photos hit you extra-hard. The ones showing the firemen, especially—a lot of these guys had just buried their brothers, and are covered in the gray-white ashy dust of the buildings. It all became a book, which you can buy here.
Soon after, under circumstances I’ve never quite nailed down, the camera was dismantled for good, its film stock having run out. I don’t know whether the lens or the processing rig still exists. I hope so: Theoretically, if New55 gets where it needs to be, a run of 40-inch-wide film could be produced, and the camera reactivated, but the odds of that are vanishingly small. Maybe it’s fitting that it went out with such an epic project, though I sort of wish it had been a happier one.
INSTANT: THE STORY OF POLAROID was published a year ago this weekend. (I can’t put my finger on the exact date; it was either September 26, 27, or 28, pushed up at the last minute from October 2. I remember it as a Friday, which would be the 28th, but Amazon says the 26th, so heaven knows.) The day after publication, Princeton Architectural Press and I got a huge jump-start thanks to Scott Simon and Weekend Edition, and I realized that people might actually read this thing.
So, once more, thank you to everyone who contributed to my strange and excellent experience this past year: interview subjects, supportive family and friends, people who wrote nice things about the book, everyone at P.A.P., and all of you Polaroidland visitors, who have helped this weird little volume get out into the world and into its third printing. It has sold very nicely, well enough that it should help the my next book proposal find a publisher. More about that soon.
Book news is scant these days, since things have slowed down lots, but here’s a little something: Translations for Taiwan, Japan, and Korea are in the works. I am tickled at the prospect of seeing myself write in Japanese, and about the new cover designs, and I’ll post about them as they appear. Interestingly, they happen entirely without me. My only involvement has been one e-mail exchange with the Taiwanese translator, who asked me to clarify one English phrase he didn’t understand.
(Photo, and nifty cork Polaroid camera, comes from Ruthi Auda.)
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