It was then I realized that I possessed the entire arsenal of Roman and Greek technology in my garage.
Replicas of the ancient tools that built roads and monuments that lasted for thousands of years.
Constantly honed in the hands of craftsmen. A slight change in bevel or alignment. A tender adjustment in curve or line to better fit the hand that holds it.
And then I knew.
I would never be seeking an auto-levelling/self-correcting micro-controlled and gps-driven AI device with advanced mimicry systems providing real time feedback and cleverly hidden smart technology in the monitoring systems – to do my driveway.
No.. I like my rake.
Over the next couple of weeks I will be featuring a series of pictures taken in the Soco area of Toronto. Toronto is a difficult city from many points of view. I lived there for a decade while I was developing my photographic skills and a great deal of my time was spent walking about the city day and night trying to understand what I was looking at, and seeing if I could capture it on film.
When I was young I eagerly waited to see the architectural rendering of a new project pasted above the hoardings. These bravely painted utopic scenes rendered with care and detail seemed to triumph over even the best works of socialist realism. They all promised tranquillity possibility and purpose. They were the giant calling cards of progress and provided compelling visual reinforcement that our proposed way of life would always be on the right side of history.
Once a project is complete and everyone moved in, the hoardings down and the surrounding traffic back to normal, no one sees that view again. Instead, it is added to this weird amalgamation of hyperbolic promotional material and media hype we carry around in our heads. Confronted with the real thing ‘in situ’ we only see the take away points. Connecting the dots is for dummies.
The area I walked through was once part of the Toronto harbour that was gradually filled in during the last half of the 1800’s and the first 20 years of the new century. The new land was necessary for railway lines that were rapidly replacing marine traffic. Industry and transport met at the foot of the city in a powerful testament to its importance and growth but when the economy faltered and then shifted mid-century, it was quickly and physically cut off by an ugly raised expressway so that it could languish and die out of sight.
Once dead, it has been the site of fevered reinvention as a cultural waterfront experience, an arts and entertainment district, a green transportation corridor, a transportation hub and a tourist destination. Once relieved of its ‘stigma’ of railway and industrial heritage it has become a crushing hotspot of speculation and hype and the the development of vast tracts of very private and very expensive condominiums.
For anyone who’s spent time developing pictures, spooling and dunking tanks, rinsing, tilting, waiting, mixing, measuring, weighing, washing, squinting, fumbling, while sitting in the dark listening to the shortwave radio and scribbling notes about dilutions and diminishing chemical strengths; what Dr. Land did on stage in those 5 seconds in 1972 was nothing short of a miracle. Up to that point, making a picture was always a very tangible process. Trying to insure the room was black, the temperature was stable, plenty of fresh water, everything in its place and our muscle memory reliable and competent. Constantly fighting humidity, dust, impurities and time. Balancing it with precision, knowledge, patience and skill. A good picture, not even a great one, was materially wrestled out of light and thin air. And whatever the process was, the first thing that comes to mind wasn’t fun.
I stepped outside this morning and was struck by how the morning light fell about the yard. It was a pretty mundane view but still it intrigued me so I pulled out my phone and snapped a picture. Maybe it would intrigue others too? I quickly checked the screen, it actually did a decent job of documenting what I saw.
In fact, just snapping an image and checking becomes an act of pleasure and entertainment in itself. And apparently I’m not the first to notice this. What Edwin Land’s SX-70 did was change forever how we feel and interacted with images.
All of a sudden pictures are instant, self gratifying and totally in our power. The whole process is exclusively ours with no one else involved We can enjoy the fruits of anything we record even before we leave the scene. Snap a picture and a minute later we’re looking at it, judging it, showing it off, and getting others to judge it. If everyone agrees, we have our picture. If not, we can immediately adjust the world until it looks exactly how we like. And then we try again.
There’s no driving to the store or taking the bus across town. No standing at the counter examining contact sheets with a plastic loupe. No horribly developed duplicate prints to shuffle through. No need to be marking little x’s and circles or pointing out bits of dust. No pushing or pulling and no coming back days later to see if we can decide which shots are good. Often seasons changed before you got your picture. One look at the commercials of the day and gets you an idea what it was like. *
To top it off, no one could count on someone else to deliver their prized memories and experience. We always end up siding with the woman standing at the counter braying ” if they come back shaky, I’m not paying”. Everyone knew it could be their own pictures coming back faded blue and green or murky black. People shelled out money and told themselves “I meant it to be that way” and quietly wished for better luck next time. Not with a Polaroid though, no sir! Suddenly we lived in a future where taking pictures was exciting and incredibly fun!!
Hello instagram, selfies, pinterest, flikr, facebook, tumblr and more. Kittens, puppies, lunches, babies, flowers, trees and any thing else that catches our fancy. The pictures aren’t that much different. It’s how we take them that’s changed. That and the sheer volume of them. Images have become a waste product of our daily lives. Inhabiting our internal landscape like a city in the midst of a garbage strike**
Imagine for a minute how many images we capture daily of the Eiffel Tower, Lotte World and Everland? Think of how people would have behaved or experienced taking those pictures in the 1930’s or 1860’s. Dr. Land’s strange and wonderful invention introduced us to a whole new way of imagining the world. Truly carefree and disposable in practice. The world we now inhabit is instantaneous, impulsive and without consequence or history. Free from the complexity and constant physical grappling needed to visually capture experience. We stopped gazing and contemplating and our records became as fleeting as our thoughts.
Equally the magic box of Dr. Land would turn out to be prescient of other trends to come. It would introduce a landmark patent case that would be familiar to us today. Devoid of inspiration or innovation like most American companies since that time, Kodak would try to steal this fun idea and disguise it as their own. They would have to pay for this infringement, $909.4 million dollars to be exact.
Polaroid’s public popularity would be brief. Peaking in less than 20 years. 10 years later they would file for bankruptcy. A labour force of 21,000 reduced to 150 people in the end. Crippled and left out in the cold with the rest of the photographic world. The change they ushered in would spell their doom.
But what surprised me most in stopping to look at Polaroid and Edwin Land, is just how many Polaroid products I have owned or used over the years. It was a bit of a shock really. I never really thought of them as part of the product of my workaday world. They often solved intractable problems incredibly well. For me, Polaroid was never a passion but it was always deeply fascinating, sophisticated beyond belief and above all else loads of fun!!!
** this is how I imagine our mental landscape
Today marks the day 65 years ago that Edwin Land received his patent for self developing film. I sort of came across this fact by accident. Like almost everything about him, I wasn’t looking for it and it wouldn’t normally have popped up during the course of the day. Fact is though, as soon as I saw it I knew enough to pay attention.
Edwin Land was a funny kind of hero to me for many years. I never really connected him to his cameras, or to his film.¹ For the most part, I was unaware of his quiet contributions but it didn’t stop me from regularly tripping over his name associated with something I was doing. As a person, he never ‘burst onto the scene’ and always seemed to remain just a little out of sight. But his timely contributions managed to shape a generation and his iconic inventions still influence our day-to-day life.
Land was a scientist and innovator capable of putting many of our current superstars to shame. I mean, here’s a guy who left after a freshman year of studying chemistry at Harvard to invent a film that contained millions of micron-sized polarizing crystals that all lined up with each other and were capable of filtering light. In order to do this he used the New York City Public Library to do his research and snuck into the laboratories of Columbia University at night to do his work.
He returned to Harvard but never finished his degree because he didn’t need one. Once he figured out a solution to a problem in his head, he just went ahead and solved it. He had little interest in writing it down, and even less in trying to prove himself to others.
Together with his Harvard physics professor he started a company to produce his polarizing film. Designed for optics and scientific work they managed to get it to work on sunglasses and camera lenses and this brought in enough money to start his Polaroid Corporation in 1937.
He went on to make the first full-colour 3D glasses, the brightness control necessary for all LCD’s, target finders, dark adapting goggles, the first passively guided smart bomb, and a stereoscopic system that could reveal camouflaged positions in aerial photographs. His team developed the optics on the U-2 spy plane, and the ability to project the entire spectrum with only 2 colours of light. But most importantly, on February 21st 1947 he demonstrated the first instant camera and film to the Optical Society of America. The Polaroid 95
Despite the fact that he never obtained any type of formal degree, his commitment to science had him perform at least one experiment every day and earned him enough respect to be called Dr. Land by his friends, employees and the press. The Wall Street Journal being the only known exception, adamantly refusing to attach the Dr. before his name.
Wall street in general took a dim view of him. They and his investors disliked the fact that he made his decisions based on what he felt was right both as a scientist and a humanist. He consistently hired women and trained them as research scientists and put himself and his company at the front of the affirmative action movement after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
When he died at the age of 81, his personal notes and papers were shredded by an assistant.
We’ve fast forgotten how physical the world of photography was for most of its existence. The glass plates, flash pans, massive tripods, stools, boxes and giant cameras. The problem of trapping light in a black box and getting it to physically stick to a surface was something more than alchemy, and that Dr. Land could permanently stabilize it in dye was more than remarkable.
There had been instant film for cameras since he introduced it in 1947. But it was still physical and messy. And in the 10 seconds that passed when Edwin Land pulled a folded camera out of his pocket and took 5 ‘instant’ photos at the annual meeting of his company in April 1972, this would change forever.
Congratulations and Happy Birthday to all, for none of this would be possible without the original patent for self developing film.
¹The whole story of his life is worth the read from the following link from which I have drawn a fair bit of information → Edwin Land
While many have mourned, written and reflected on the passing of some of the more self aggrandized and advertised figures in the tech world; a truly great human being passed away on December 30, 2015.
To quote the announcement on the Debian site:
“With a heavy heart Debian mourns the passing of Ian Murdock, stalwart proponent of Free Open Source Software, Father, Son, and the ‘ian’ in Debian.
Ian started the Debian project in August of 1993, releasing the first versions of Debian later that same year. Debian would go on to become the world’s Universal Operating System, running on everything from embedded devices to the space station.
Ian’s sharp focus was on creating a Distribution and community culture that did the right thing, be it ethically, or technically. Releases went out when they were ready, and the project’s staunch stance on Software Freedom are the gold standards in the Free and Open Source world.
Ian’s devotion to the right thing guided his work, both in Debian and in the subsequent years, always working towards the best possible future.
Ian’s dream has lived on, the Debian community remains incredibly active, with thousands of developers working untold hours to bring the world a reliable and secure operating system.
The thoughts of the Debian Community are with Ian’s family in this hard time.”
May he rest in peace.