The Big Picture


I’ve been reading Peter Buse’s The Camera Does The Rest: How Polaroid Changed Photography. It’s the kind of pop history I like, full of nice crunchy little facts sprinkled into paragraphs about the cultural context and implications of making pictures easy. And then quotes from old Polaroid sales copy about how they should encourage customers to make friends at the beach by taking pictures of strangers and giving them the prints. I think that’s a fine idea sure to work right up to the point you get punched. But until then it’s going to do great. Granted most stuff works great if you omit the part where you get punched.

Buse also reveals to me that in the 70s Polaroid made a version of its self-developing film big enough to make prints 20 inches by 24 inches big. The camera weighed over 230 pounds. The film rolls were 150 feet long. And I’m a little sad I can’t talk about this without it sounding like a bit. I can imagine a comedy podcast having the inspiration of “really, really big Polaroid camera” and making five minutes of jokes about it. It’s almost certainly The Flop House. You couldn’t just wheel the camera around and take snapshots, you had to make an appointment to use it. See? Literal facts about it sound like some Bob Newhart thing. Ansel Adams took Jimmy Carter’s portrait in office using it. Again, it sounds like I am being all goofy.

So let me reassure you this isn’t a fun bit of whimsy by pointing out, thanks to a friend, the 20 x 24 Studio’s official web site. It’s got explanations of the camera system and why it’s there and what it’s like and also that it’s closing down in 2017 because it’s so hard to get really large Polaroid film stock anymore. And now I will receive your thanks for bringing to your attention this imagination-capturing whimsy alongside the news that it’s even more imminently doomed than most of us area.

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Personality: Can Something Be Done About This?


It’s a common longing. You run across a WordPress blog that’s thanking its 10,000th subscriber and its millionth page hit. The blog’s been around almost three months. You look at your own, soldiering on for years now and sometimes getting a comment besides your father saying “it’s great, I wish I understood a word”. I don’t want to sound like I’m complaining. I’ll explain.

I know why some blogs, some performers, some experience providers catch on. It’s personality. We pretend “personality” is something everybody has, but we’re fibbing. What we mean by “personality” is “stuff somebody does that other people wouldn’t choose to do themselves in that position”. It’s easy to form one. Just pick something other people wouldn’t do themselves, and do that. Then keep at it.

For instance, I like my mathematics blog. It’s comfortable writing and sometimes I do something I’m proud of. But I know it’s got this pleasant air of something safely ignorable all over it. If I wanted to change that I could. I’d use squirt mustard to write every equation on bread, and post photographs of that. The end of each post would be me eating this. Suddenly I’d have a blog people found interesting, if only to see when I eat enough mustard bread to regret my life. It would be a quarter of the way into explaining the Fredholm Alternative. I’d leave my readers in suspense about whether the Fredholm Alternative is a real mathematics thing or if I’m writing a 1970s political technothriller about fascist clones with space computo-germs. It’s both. INCLUSIVE OR! IT’S AN INCLUSIVE OR!

I won’t do that. Mustard photographs lousy and it’d be too much work to fix. And that’s part of why having a personality sucks. It’s a lot of effort to keep up. Edwin Land said, “do not do anything that anyone else can do readily”. While he was talking about making consumer cameras he’s right about making personalities too.

Even achieving personality isn’t an unvarnished good. When we say of someone, “he’s got quite the personality” we’re using all our available politeness. We’re trying to not continue, “that he’s using to bring the conversation back to common yet mistaken beliefs about the manufacture of float glass, again”. It’s fascinating, sure, but watching people do stuff we would rather not always is. It doesn’t matter whether it’s dressing in a bright green outfit so eye-catching you can be seen through walls — “all part of my Chroma-Key cosplay, my dears”, you absolutely purr — or grabbing live porcupines and zerberting their bellies before they can file a stiff letter of protest. It’s thrilling to be part of such exotic goings-on, by which I mean being the part that watches without affecting it.

We like this sort of thing when we’ve got a safe distance from it and can flee without social penalty. It’s why personality does so well on stage and TV and online and in other places that have comforting, safe borders. When they venture outside those borders we’re dazzled and then disappointed, even if we’re smiling in the selfie they let us take. Too much personality’s a hard thing to take. If you have to deal with it all the time it gets to be kind of a prison.

But it’s a prison having a personality too. Once people know you’re going to react to something a particular way you have to keep doing it. A normal person can hear that chemists have discovered a new kind of industrial-grade blue dye and think anything they want about that. Someone with personality has to fit this news into what everyone expects. Suppose you’re the guy who knows a Yes song for every occasion, including karaoke night and the debut of new Tron movies. You know exactly what everyone you meet will talk to you about, forever. What if you somehow don’t have a Yes song relevant to industrial-grade color dye technologies? You’re doomed, or have to guess maybe They Might Be Giants have something on point. They don’t.

There’s some good news, anyway. If you show personality long enough it sustains itself, without your involvement. I know at least two people with such renowned interests in squirrels that they get every bit of squirrel-related toy, news item, or movie or TV show forwarded to them. Their friends do all the squirrel-appreciation for them. They don’t ever have to think about squirrels the rest of their lives.

So that’s why I’m not complaining about other blogs being way more popular, way faster, than mine. I didn’t even say I felt that. I just said it’s commonly felt. I don’t want to contract personality for that sort of thing. Should I have a personality at all? I don’t know; I’m doing well enough as it is. But then look back to Edwin Land’s advice, and consider the fate of Polaroid. It’s universally beloved and doesn’t really exist. How many of us will ever achieve that much?

To sum up: the concept of “personality” is a good idea, but it needs considerable work before it will be practical.