terps-ballYou may know about the “common reader” programs that many large universities now conduct among first-year students: Over the summer, everyone is assigned a single book, so that there’s a talking point for all during Orientation. Last week came the news that INSTANT: THE STORY OF POLAROID is going to be the University of Maryland’s common-reading title this fall. Seven thousand students and faculty, all geeking out on Edwin Land and his nexus of art and technology and business and pop culture. I was speechless when the news came in, and have proceeded from there to flabbergasted, honored, delighted, humbled, and giddy. I am also, apparently, headed to College Park for an event or two in September.

You think I should tell them I went to Johns Hopkins? I’ll probably get beat up by a bunch of rival lacrosse players.

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End of a great run.

End of a great run.

The news leaked out of Japan a couple of months ago, but the official announcement appeared online just last week, and can be seen here (non-Japanese-speakers, click Google Translate).  Fujifilm is discontinuing FP-3000B, its last black-and-white instant film. Final orders for the U.S. will apparently be shipped in the spring, and the last Japanese deliveries will be in September.

It’s not a surprise. Peel-apart pack film is complicated to make, and it requires a lot of specialized materials that, I am sure, it is hard for Fujifilm to justify in this diminished market. (The large-format version was dropped two or three years ago, and the supply has dried up.) The black-and-white film constituted perhaps 20 percent of peel-apart sales, so the color (FP-100C) will continue on for now, serving Polaroid aficionados and the lingering ID-camera market in the third world. If we keep shooting it in substantial volume, maybe we’ll get another couple of years before it goes away too. If we’re lucky, a few more. (The 4×5 color instant film was dropped this year as well, which does not inspire confidence.)

As much as I like shooting the color–that Fuji red is just amazing–it’s the black-and-white that I love best, partly because of what it once represented. An ASA 3000 film for consumers was almost unthinkable when Polaroid introduced it in 1959. (The fastest film you could usually buy back then was Tri-X, rated ASA 400.) It was first issued in roll form,  called Polaroid Type 47, and it had been created largely by Meroë Morse, the remarkable chemist Land had hired from Smith College and entrusted with a big swath of the business. The same emulsion appeared in 1963 on pack film, under the name Type 107, and got an update about a decade later, removing the need for a film-coating swab. Pretty closely cloned by Fuji, it outlasted Polaroid itself. That’s a great run.

I still think Fujifilm is wrong about this, of course–I believe that the demand for products like this has bottomed out and will modestly tick up in the next few years, unless of course they have all been discontinued. The 11,000 signers of this petition agree. But it’s apparently an irrevocable decision; the supply chain has been rolled up, and there’s no going back. (I’m told that Fuji believes the large team of people required to make this film are better deployed in other, growing parts of the business, and that’s hard logic to argue with.) Perhaps someone could pick up production from Fuji, but that too seems unlikely; The Impossible Project was able to go on its crazy mission because the demand for integral (SX-70 and 600) film was very large. Peel-apart, being a niche product by comparison, presents steeper challenges.

What is especially frustrating is that this leaves us with no black-and-white instant film at all, apart from Impossible’s, which is much improved but still problematic: limited tonal range, splotchy results. The last best hope is the product under development at New55, but it will be in 4×5 format, and thus not really appropriate for fast casual shooting. It will also be expensive at the start: A single sheet is likely to cost about as much as a ten-shot pack of Fuji. So until New55 gets into the marketplace, this really is the end of a medium, if not quite a whole format.

Like a lot of people in the past few weeks, I just bought a case of FP-3000B, plus a mini-fridge, and hope to ration it out for as long as I can. As a rule, pack film lasts longer than integral film, and black-and-white ages better than color. Five years’ cool storage, with good reliable results, is not totally out of line. (Unfortunately, instant film cannot be frozen for very long-term storage as conventional film can.)  So I am set through 2019, the sixtieth anniversary of its introduction. That’ll have to do.

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Screen Shot 2013-12-27 at 11.12.21 PMPolaroid itself, as I understand it, kept a small museum display of artifacts and prototypes on view for awhile. I think it was in the Main Street/Osborn Street headquarters complex somewhere. But really, the only great visible display of Polaroidiana in our time has been in the lobby of the truly wonderful MIT Museum, which inherited the company’s museum pieces after the final bankruptcy, and has begun the long process of cataloguing and conserving it all. In the next couple of years, MIT will be doing a big show of this stuff, and I will certainly be there on opening day. It may even include a few things that were formerly cluttering up my apartment, because I recently donated some of the research material from my book—including a bound set of Polaroid Newsletters—to the museum. They got a pile of rarities and curios; I got back a couple of shelves in our closet, and the knowledge that the stuff would be preserved and kept safe.

But before MIT gets its show up, the enthusiastic folks at Polaroid Fotobar, the startup we discussed briefly here about a year ago, are looking to open an exhibit of their own. The flagship Fotobar store is planned for the LINQ complex on the Las Vegas strip, and it will incorporate a very large historical exhibit devoted to the history of the company and its pictures. (Here’s the Indiegogo page where the company is doing its fundraising.) Its executives are borrowing a bunch of cool stuff from MIT, and also drawing upon the expertise of Mary-Kay Lombino, who curated the Vassar College Museum’s “The Polaroid Years” exhibit and wrote its companion volume. So they have the right people involved, too, and access to the good stuff. Extremely promising.

Full disclosure: I too am doing a little bit of paid consulting work on this project, so I am hardly an unbiased observer. Either way, though, this is a surprisingly, and pleasingly, ambitious project. The company’s putting a lot of resources into the museum space, and is really looking to show a great portrait (heh) of the length and breadth of instant-photo culture. Couldn’t be happier about this.

 

 

 

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One more overseas edition, for fun.

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Japan’s widespread cultural affection for paper and printing—not to mention photography—has served me well here: It’s a really nicely made book, with good smooth white paper and a ribbon bookmark. You know, authors have absolutely control over this stuff—in the case of a foreign edition like this, your editor tells you “Japan rights have been sold,” and a year later they mail you a book. So when it turns out to have been made with care, it’s kind of a relief.

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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.)

PolaroidbookchineseNeedless to say, I have no idea how the translation reads. But Polaroid alumnus Bill Warriner, who speaks Mandarin, offered this finely observed analysis:

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.

Phyllis Robinson, copywriter for Doyle Dane Bernbach on the Polaroid account, wrote that memorable tagline.

Phyllis Robinson, copywriter at DDB on the Polaroid account, wrote that memorable tagline. (Click to enlarge.)

 

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.

polaroidyogamat
Maybe they should sell a version with a white border?

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