JIM DODSON: Of Polaroids and Sunday Lunch
I am sad to learn of a friend's passing.
Late last week, Massachusetts-based Polaroid Corporation announced it is shutting down factories in the U.S. and abroad effectively immediately, abandoning the technology that made the instant photograph possible.
By this time next year, the company will even cease production of Polaroid film. A colorful part of my childhood, and possibly yours, will instantly be no more.
"The artsy Polaroid images," mourned a fellow child of the '70s in The Washington Post, "reeking of processing chemicals, have finally been done in by endless Flickr Web pages full of digital images, flawlessly produced by cameras that do not require film, emulsion or anything bigger than a shirt pocket to carry around."
One weekend shortly before the holiday season of 1966, my dad brought home a Polaroid "Swinger" camera from the office. He worked for an advertising agency and borrowed the hip-sounding, state-of-the-art camera from one of the agency's photographers.
Though the Polaroid was invented by physicist Edwin Land in 1948, and used for almost two decades by professional photographers to check lighting and establish shots before committing them to conventional film, Polaroid cameras hadn't gained broad consumer attention until not long before the time my dad brought one home from the office.
His plan was to surprise a number of relatives who were coming for Sunday lunch.
My mom prided herself on her Sunday lunches. She cooked everything from scratch, beginning the night before and was often still frying her famous buttermilk chicken in her Sunday best outfit only moments before shedding her apron and bolting for church.
On this particular Sunday, several aunts and uncles and cousins from rural Orange County came to lunch. So did my crazy Great Aunt Lily. Aunt Lily lived alone in a gloomy Victorian row house in Roanoke and claimed to communicate with Dean Martin and several Roman emperors though the huge aqua salon hair dryer that stood in her living room.
Somewhere back around the Spanish-American War, she'd been a stage actress and singer in Washington, scandalizing the Baptist wing of the family. I'd seen the old-fashioned pictures of her, wrapped coyly in ostrich feathers, vamping like a country-fried Isadora Duncan.
I sort of liked Crazy Aunt Lily because she always gave me cherry Life Savers and fake candy cigarettes on the sly and referred to herself as the "black sheep of the family." I also liked "The Dean Martin Show."
Moments before grace was said that Sunday, my dad whipped out his Swinger and cried, "Say cheese, everybody!" -- snapping an instant photograph almost before any of us around the table knew what was happening. I think Aunt Lily was busy blowing her nose at the time.
Then, with all the lan of a Vaudeville magician, he waved the ejected print through the air and invited the assembled clan to "count out to 60 outloud." After which, he painstakingly peeled back the print from its pungent emulsified backing and smiled triumphantly at the resulting family portrait.
At this point, unable to restrain ourselves, several of us kids dived across the dining room table to get a good look at the magical photograph, toppling several full glasses of milk and sweet tea into various casseroles and serving dishes, flooding the table.
But who could really blame us? Moments before, after all, we'd just been politely sitting there bored out of our skulls when suddenly -- voila! -- there we were instantly looking at ourselves in a photograph that materialized right out of thin air!
A few weeks later, a Swinger wound up under our family Christmas tree. I think it set Santa back about $29.95.
A year later, Dad came home with an even fancier version. I believe it was the SX-70 model. Whatever its name, it had lovely faux leather trim and an elegant fake chrome housing. By then, my dad had become a true believer in the future of instant photography, a regular Polaroid paparazzo, documenting everything -- and everyone -- that moved.
Not long ago, I pulled out several of the family photograph albums and realized something funny: Virtually every photograph between about 1968 and 1980 was a Polaroid snapshot.
Family birthdays, wedding anniversaries, neighborhood Christmas parties, an assortment of girlfriends and family dogs and cats, backyard cookouts, graduation ceremonies, family vacations and what appear to be dozens of Sunday afternoon lunches -- they're all there, one family's slightly out-of-focus history of the 1970s, instant snapshots of our mostly happy and thoroughly ordinary trek through a period of time that journalist Tom Wolfe later called the "Me Decade."
If you stop and think about it, the Polaroid camera -- that marvel of instant gratification -- was the perfect consumer product for a society where Sixties activism and idealism came to a skidding halt, only to be replaced by Arab oil embargoes and plane hijackings, gas rationing and the rise of Japanese imports.
Thanks to the gestalt of Watergate and loss of faith in government that collectively infected suburbia, Americans turned inward to avocado kitchens and "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" for deeper spiritual meaning. The Age of Aquarius was marked by self-absorbed fads and "crazes": Mood rings, pet rocks, bell-bottom jeans, the leisure suit, jogging, disco, the Sony Betamax.
The Last Sunday Brunch
The first Polaroid in our family scrapbook shows Yours Truly at Wrightsville Beach the summer before I turned 16 and got my driver's license. That was 1968.
I'm wearing my Camp Wenasa Boy Scout T-shirt and proudly holding up the large flounder I've gigged in the shallows of a grassy lagoon within sight of the Crest Movie theater -- where my dog, Hoss (so named for my favorite TV hero from "Bonanza") and I just sat through two consecutive showings of "Woodstock" in an entirely empty movie theater in the middle of a broiling summer day, happily sharing popcorn and Milk Duds.
The last Polaroid photo in the book, tellingly, is also of me (this was, after all, still the Me Decade) circa 1979, dressed in a plaid sports jacket with a lapel at least a foot wide and a paisley necktie as big as a longshoreman's rope, sitting in my usual chair at Sunday lunch.
Dad took this photograph an hour or so after church. I was passing through Greensboro on my way from Atlanta -- "Hotlanta! Singles City! The Swingingest Town in America!" -- to Washington, D.C., to interview the president of the United States, Jimmy Carter, who wasn't having a very good time of late. The Iranian hostage situation had taken a visible toll on him, and a movie actor named Reagan wanted his job.
Much to the silent dismay of my mom, I was sharing a house with an anchorwoman in Atlanta. We had no firm plans to get married, and I suspect even Crazy Aunt Lily would have been scandalized by how the times had changed and our lives progressed.
"Say cheese," said Dad, aiming his trusty Polaroid at us.
That's the last Sunday lunch my Dad ever photographed with his beloved instant camera.
It's also the last family Sunday lunch I can remember.
On to Video
By then, even dad was moving further along the emerging technological highway.
Within a year, he'd gotten his hands on his first "personal video camera," which he joyfully used to film everything from my mom making breakfast coffee to a neighbor hauling his trash out to the curb on Wednesday morning.
Dad, the neighborhood philosopher, typically asked his video subjects the same question, a gambit designed to get them talking on film: "So, Frank, how do you think your life is progressing up till now?"
Truthfully, Frank looked a little stumped by this question.
He was the first "single" guy ever to move into the old neighborhood and rarely said much at cookouts. My mom said this was because Frank was from New Jersey, poor thing, and worked for the IRS. I think he might have actually been in the federal Witness Protection Program.
Then again, nobody knew what to say to Dad's famous video interrogatives, as if the last thing they were prepared to do at a Christmas open house or christening of a grandchild was to have some goofball video guerrilla shove a camera in their face and ask how their life was going up till now.
Dad sure loved his video camera, though -- the first of several he owned, each one slightly more technologically advanced than the last.
Problem was, unlike his Polaroid cameras, he never quite mastered all the operational functions -- particularly how to shut them off. As a result, we have country miles of footage taken in the back seat of his Buick Electra -- of the back seat of his Buick Electra -- because he forgot to switch off the camera.
Three years ago, I took a new digital camera with me on a research trip to Southern Africa. The camera was about the size of a credit card. With it, I took more than 400 brilliantly clear digital photographs of the remote South African highlands and the Great Karoo Desert. In less than three weeks, I took more great photographs than my dad took on his trusty Polaroids over an entire decade.
Talk about instant gratification. It's one great little camera.
A Little Sad
And yet, oh how nostalgic and a little sad it made me feel to learn the mighty Polaroid will be no more.
My college-girl daughter gets a real kick out of looking at those milky Polaroids from the faraway, me-obsessed 1970s. She laughs at her old man's choice of pastel clothes and garish teenage tastes, the way he wore his silly Prince Valiant hair. She knows the word "Polaroid" mostly from a song by the hip-hop group Outkast.
Oddly enough, I don't think that poor child has ever sat down to a real Sunday lunch after church. Does anyone have them anymore? For better or worse, that may also be a measure of how far our lives have progressed. Or not.
As for the old Crest Movie theater at Wrightsville Beach, I recently learned it vanished beneath a wave of commercial development more than 20 years ago.
That stands to reason, I suppose. Call me crazy as Aunt Lily, but I wish it was still around so I could take my dog Mulligan to the movies. She likes popcorn and Milk Duds almost as much as I do.
Bestselling author Jim Dodson, The Pilot's writer-in-residence, can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
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