POLAROID AND THE ERA OF INSTANT FILM
While I was a student of Minor White’s at M.I.T. in 1971, Polaroid had a young artists’ program which offered our class (7 people) ten boxes of 4x5 Polaroid film to shoot and trade for one of our images. If their committee selected one image we continued to get ten boxes of film. We were each paired with a sponsor and invited to have lunch. My sponsor was Marie Cosindas, famous for her color portraits of fashionable women. She had to make the first selection of my work, and if she chose one, the other committee members could vote to take a second one and paid me $200 for the extra image. After my year at M.I.T., I returned to Durham and continued to shoot Polaroid for several years. At some point they did not choose an image and I was “out” of the program.
In 1990, I was shooting 8x10 film and needed Polaroid film so the people whose portraits I was making would have some idea of what was going on, engaging them further into the project. These were strangers I selected from Durham to shoot standing up. My home studio was only seven feet high. Every portrait client had to sit down on a piano bench. I was not comfortable bringing people I picked up on the street to my home since I lived alone. The Center for Documentary Studies gave me a grant that allowed me to rent a space in the Snow Building downtown to bring the strangers to a room where my cameras and lights were waiting. I called the curator of the Polaroid Collection, Barbara Hitchcock, but she told me they had discontinued the Young Artists’ Program. She gave me an 8x10 back and processor and several boxes of 8x10 film. I promised I would send ten images later so she could choose one for the collection in payment for the film. She agreed. The use of Polaroid eased the connection between the construction workers, firefighters, welders, tourists and anyone I found interesting that I could talk into coming with me to have their portrait made. Using the Polaroid film as I shot and processed the film, they could see what I was doing with the instant film. Although I would not meet them again, they could see the image the instant I peeled it.
In 2007, when I was invited to teach at the Penland School of Crafts, I asked Barbara Hitchcock if I could use a type of film I had not tried yet to teach wet darkroom in the field. My students could make negatives with the P/N film in the field, storing the delicate negatives in sodium sulfite in plastic buckets made into sections to hold six sheets of film. After returning their film buckets to the darkroom they ran the images through fixer, washed them and hung them to dry like any 4x5 film. They soon learned that a print that too light would yield a good negative and vice versa. The film was not capable of making an excellent print and a negative with sufficient shadow areas to make a full tonal print. Afterwards I sent her ten images. She said she was having trouble selecting just one. She had been so generous with me through the years I asked her which ones she wanted and gave her all five. Over the years Polaroid accessioned about thirty images into their Collection and published my images in each of their books.
Polaroid helped me learn to see with my view camera. We used it throughout Minor White’s class as a learning tool to see immediate results. Each film was different. I was able through the generosity of Polaroid to have one of my images published on the back of Aperture Magazine as an advertisement for Polaroid selected by Ansel Adams.
When the largest Polaroid Camera made (six in the world) visited Raleigh for a fundraiser, several photographers from Durham rented the camera for the next day. I shot several groups of people and prepared them for the shoot as I would not be able to give them the two hours I often devoted to a portrait. It was like renting a jet. One hour renting the 16x20 Deardorff was $2,000. The camera came with cameraman, John Reuter, who ran the New York Studio, two women who set the lights and pulled the film image from the backing, a process that none of us had ever experienced. My assistant took each image, hung it to dry and warmed it with a hair dryer as the studio we were using was formerly a gas station and not well insulated. I had three Deardorffs and was very familiar with looking at images upside-down and backwards, so I acted as director, let John run the camera. This efficiency allowed me to shoot a drag queen, my parents, two neighbors dressed in hippie band outfits, two gay doctors and a nude body builder making sixteen prints in one hour. During the span of my relationship with Polaroid I shot SX-70, type 55, type 52, Polacolor and used the largest camera made for Polaroid to make 16x20 original prints.
I was invited to exhibit at St. Mary's University Gallery in Nova Scotia, Canada. Subsequently, Orest Ulan invited me to a radio interview in 1975 after seeing my work. What follows is the ten minute interview. To start the interview click on the triangle to play.
I have always been fascinated by fire. The movement of the flames, slow, spreading or in staccato rhythm remind me of two opposing forces of nature. I have also always been in love with waterfalls and have come close to falling many times to get closer to my subject on icy rocks. In 2015 on my way to Home Depot, I noticed several fire trucks on the road above me and drove up to explore. Two dilapidated houses on bare land were surrounded by trucks and firefighters. I went up to the Captain and asked to be present when they burned the houses. I promised to wear protective clothing and follow any command he gave me. He looked me over. I told him I had been photographing for fifty years. including places that had acid boiling water, encounters with buffalo, steep waterfalls and could handle myself without endangering anyone. He said I woud have to stay back from the fire. I nodded. Then he said meet us here at 7am in the morning. It was winter. At 7am it was 15 degrees F so I showed up in a down jacket covered by a GORE-TEX jacket, insulted boots, rain hat, protective sleeves for my digital Nikon 35mm digital camera and through out the day I peeled off my down clothing as when we finished at noon it was 80 degrees F. The Captain showed me the line I was not to cross. My camera had an 18-200 zoom lens so I could bring the fire close to me without moving towards the boundary.
I took so many photographs of the one subject that I had enough to make my first Apple book and imovie (6 minutes long) with Aperture software. I called it FIRE DRILL ! and took the first copy to the Captain and asked him to see if I had made any mistakes in the text. He told me we no longer called people firemen, it was firefighters because women were on the team. This was a time of rolling brown-outs, municipal funding had been cut so that only one firehouse at a time could be open. To become a firefighter, after all the strength, endurance and written tests you had to participate in a live burn. Fireflighters had driven up from cities across North Carolina. After the book had been corrected in the second edition, I gave a copy to the Captain for his generosity but also gave him four disks containing 104 images which made this i-movie. I wanted him to be able to show the class what a live burn looked like before they had to participate in one. Two copies of the book were given to the Gregg Museum with other books I made.