Archive for ‘Polaroid Land Camera’


“We’ll wait in stone circles, ’til the force comes through…”

For most of us, inspiration is a whisper, slight and private—so I love when eccentrics with outsized visions find huge ways to share their obsessions with us. A few weeks ago, I discovered one such site in Pennsylvania; it’s literally monumental.

Along an uphill webwork of winding roads, you’ll find a stone circle and dozens of other menhirs, dolmens, and megaliths strewn across 17 acres of groves and paths. The park is a refuge for pilgrims to rest, roam, ponder, and (in my case) take snapshots with antique Polaroids, most of them as murky as whatever moved the soul in a nearby house to haul these huge stones into place.

Celtic nostalgia is cousin to medievalism; a kindred impulse shaped them both. As far back as the English constitutional debates of the 17th and 18th centuries—was the Norman Conquest legit?—the druids were in play. Supporters of Parliament wanted to show continuity from the Germanic Saxons, who were seen as practicing a sort of primitive democracy temporarily kiboshed in 1066; monarchists wanted to override their claims with a more ancient political inheritance from pre-Germanic Celtic Britons. With the druids in mind, boosters of the British Empire also saw proof that savage people could be conquered, colonized, and redeemed—although the Welsh and the Cornish soon showed the power of druids as defiant patriotic symbols instead.

In the 1760s, the discovery of an epic cycle by the ancient bard Ossian famously beguiled readers on both sides of the Atlantic; it was a fake by a Scottish poet, but the Celts of romance conquered and thrived. Students of medieval lit still read Arthurian legend in the wake of 20th-century scholars like Roger Loomis, who never failed to discern minute echoes of Celtic ritual on every interminable page. Since the 1980s, the comically prolific John and Caitlin Matthews have cranked out piles of books that nourished a neo-druid British counterculture with growing political heft.

In the United States, popular Celticism has been domesticated; as with medievalism, less is at stake, so we make it our own. You’ll find it in neopagan spirituality and in the nostalgia of Scottish and Irish ancestral pride—and, it seems, in the shady groves of eastern Pennsylvania.

As I rested under a wooden awning, a golf cart came zipping down from the large modern house overlooking the stones. Behind the wheel was Bill, who founded the park in the 1970s. We talked about the inevitable breakdown of human institutions, the fleeting nature of the physical world, and the holy mischief of making places for future myth.

According to his book (for sale on the honor system in a nearby shed), Bill was a Presbyterian minister, but a series of dreams and mystical experiences on the Scottish island of Iona apparently turned him into a universalist. Since then, he’s busily created what is, at the very least, an ecumenical work of visionary landscape art. In addition to the main stone circle, his site includes a dolmen devoted to Thor, a path through a “faerie ring,” sacred male and female groves, a quirky bell tower inspired by an Ionian saint who was buried alive, stones for St. David and St. Brigid, and a lovely chapel to St. Columba, the Irishman who spread Christianity in Scotland.

[scanned, reversed Land Camera negative – the only good photo I got that day]

Although Bill welcomes the public from dawn to dusk and religious revelers on certain evenings, I’ve deliberately not used the name of the park to help preserve it just a little from search-engine omnipresence. “We had 600 people on the land over Memorial Day,” Bill told me—not ruefully, but with a glimmer of concern. With a huge, happy laugh, he said he sometimes tells his board that they ought to take down the entire website. He didn’t quite mean it, but I liked his reason. “People will still come,” he said, as if he’d known so since the dawn of time. “They’ll find it when they need it.”

“It’s not the way you have your hair, it’s not that certain style…”

After the artists at a major art center in Virginia asked me to do some writing for them, I was delighted when they kept me busy for nearly two years—and surprised when their work pushed me back toward the visual arts after a 20-year lapse. I’m now fumbling with media I saw others handle so masterfully, but the most challenging project by far has been prying (sometimes literally prying) interesting photographs from three mid-1960s Polaroid Land Cameras.

As I’ve written before, A Land Camera is not versatile. Although it has a focus bar and other manual controls, an electric eye presumes to do much of the squinting. There’s no zoom, development time depends on the air temperature, and the prints leave behind photographic placentas in strips of chemical-drenched litter.

I don’t aspire to be a photographer; I’m learning to use only this type of camera, with all its quirks and severe limitations and almost no reliance on Photoshop. Using a Land Camera is like writing a poem within strict formal constraints: Certain flourishes are simply impossible—but if we practice a little, what can we make it do?

It helps to have an obsessive theme—and so from time to time, I haul my cameras out into the world in the hope of framing glimpses of medievalism in snapshots. Over time, maybe, this project will find its focus.

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I love the little neon mujahed on this sign in Ocean City, Maryland. Four things helped me take this low-light photo: a tripod, a homemade Lego camera stand, electrical tape, and a beatifically indifferent night manager.

Although Ocean City is flashy and bright, I had to keep the shutter open for five seconds, which shows you just how light-hungry these old cameras can be.

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I spent the day before Columbus Day doing research at the Johns Hopkins library—but when I was done, I roamed the city looking for something medieval to photograph. There’s a statue of William “Braveheart” Wallace along the reservoir in Druid Hill Park, but the afternoon light fell far more serendipitously on this Christopher Columbus monument from 1892.

What hath Columbus to do with the Middle Ages? He loved the travel stories of Mandeville and Marco Polo, he was beguiled by medieval legends about marvelous islands to the west, and on his third journey, he was sure he’d located the Earthly Paradise. He hoped his Atlantic voyages would ultimately convert the Chinese emperor to Christianity and help fund a new crusade to reclaim Jerusalem. Quoth historian Luis Weckmann: “Columbus, the first link between the Old World and the New, stands in a clearer light, perhaps, if we envisage him not so much as the first of the modern explorers but as the last of the great medieval travelers.”

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No, gnomes aren’t medieval, but they are rooted in 19th-century European medievalism, and there’s certainly a medieval tradition of wee woodland beings making trouble for us humans. Some Anglo-Saxon charms even blame certain types of pain and disease on wicked little “elves.” (Plus, this gnome is made out of felt, the discovery of which is rather dubiously attributed to saints Clement and Christopher.)

At only four inches high, this fellow gave me a excuse to practice using the special Polaroid “close-up kit.” This picture doesn’t illuminate anything particular about the American penchant for medievalist fantasy, but it did teach me that when you’re on your belly in the grass at noon on a hot summer day photographing gnomes with an antique camera, the cops slow down to get a better look at you.

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This Gothicpalooza facade on the bagel shop at 36 East Main Street in Newark, Delaware, contrasts sharply with the quaint Colonial Revival campus of the University of Delaware campus just footsteps away. The facade’s two beasties have looked down on the drunk and the un-drunk alike since 1917, when the building was a pharmacy. As I wrote back in 2013, I’m convinced they were inspired by specific grotesques at Notre-Dame in Paris.

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“…but alle shalle be wele, and alle shalle be wele, and alle maner of thinge shall be wel.”

Sometimes you get lucky. In the crypt of the National Cathedral, there’s a stark little chapel lit only by indirect sun. On a frigid afternoon last January, I leaned on a pew and snapped a quick picture of this Good Shepherd statue. The resulting image startled me; with these old cameras, light and luck are always intertwined.

Last year, Fuji stopped making this fast black-and-white film, so I’m brooding, dragon-like, over a hoard of it. It’s possible that I’ve chosen the wrong tools for the task, and that lingering traces of the Middle Ages demand a sharper lens. We’ll see. For now, I’ll keep learning how to use old cameras that thrive on what shadow and sunlight demand.

“I give you my armour, I give you my glory…”

Back in December, when I picked up a mid-1960s Polaroid Land Camera at an antique shop in Savannah, I was eager to see if I could restore a neglected contraption to life—and of course, in keeping with the long-running theme of this blog, I wondered: Could it be used to find new angles on American medievalism?

A Land Camera is not versatile. There’s a manual focus bar, a two-option “lighting selector,” a wheel that makes pictures lighter and darker, and an electric eye that presumes to do the squinting for you. Development time depends on the air temperature, and each print leaves behind a photographic placenta in strips of chemical-drenched litter.

I don’t aspire to be a photographer; I’m learning how to use only this type of camera, with all its quirks and severe limitations. Quite a few people purport to post “Land Camera” photos online, but the artsiest shots are often produced by old cameras modified with newer professional lenses or attachments that let you use Polaroid instant film with sophisticated SLRs. That’s cheating. I want to coax good photos out of this clunker exactly as it is. Using a Land Camera is like writing a poem within strict formal constraints: Certain flourishes are simply impossible—but if we practice a little, what can we make it do?

With form in mind, but without further ado, here a few of my first decent attempts to capture day-to-day medievalism through the lens of an obsolete Polaroid. (Click on each photo to see a larger version.)

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Every Easter, the All Hallows Guild at Washington National Cathedral plants gorgeous rows of tulips along the northern border of the Bishop’s Garden. This year, I saw Easter Sunday as an opportunity to test the Land Camera’s eye for color.

This picture was taken just to the right of the cathedral’s charming and temperamental medlar tree. That’s a 15th-century granite bas relief in the background; in the foreground, a weather-worn 13th-century limestone capital from Cluny now does humble duty as a birdbath.

When Fuji decides to stop producing this last line of color film for old Polaroids, the camera that took this photo will immediately become less useful after only five decades than this capital remains after 800 years.

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Polaroid didn’t offer an extensive line of accessories for the Land Camera, but their add-ons did include a “close-up kit” consisting of a snap-on lens and viewfinder for subjects 9 to 15 inches away. Polaroid co-founder Edwin Land was an optics genius; the camera’s bulk and its imprecise focus lever make the macro kit hilariously difficult to use, but it’s remarkable that such a lens exists for this camera at all.

I know what you’re thinking: “But Jeff, everyone knows that gnomes aren’t medieval! They spread across 19th-century Europe, especially France and England, after becoming highly popular home and garden decorations in German-speaking lands during the 18th century!”

Yes, that’s true—but see those tiny purple flowers? This is actually a photo of a patch of alehoof, the mint-like weed the Anglo-Saxons used in place of hops to give their ale its bitterness. The gnome? Totally just wandered into the shot.

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This statue in front of the Embassy of Croatia is one of my favorite modern interpretations of a saint. It depicts a naked St. Jerome hunched over a large book and clearly in the midst of some unknowable fugue of frustration, perplexity, and fascination. That’s also the pained posture my grad-school friends and I assumed when we struggled our way through Jerome’s complex, sophisticated Latin.

At the mercy of the position of the sun and an old camera that over-emphasizes shadows, I’ve returned several times to try to re-do this shot. It’s not quite right, but I like the angle, and the suggestion, at first glance, of a larger story.

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 “…but alle shalle be wele, and alle shalle be wele, and alle maner of thinge shall be wel.”

Sometimes you get lucky. In the crypt of the National Cathedral, there’s a stark little chapel lit only by indirect sun. On a frigid January afternoon, on one of my first Polaroid outings, I leaned on a pew and impulsively took a picture of a statue of the Good Shepherd. The resulting image stunned me; I couldn’t do it again if I tried.

Earlier this year, Fuji stopped making this fast black-and-white film, and I’ll deplete my own hoard of the stuff by early next year. Until then, I’ll expand my repertoire of tricks, try to reframe medieval-ish subjects when I see them, and keep learning how to use this camera based on what shadow and sunlight demand.

“…laughing as they glance across the great divide.”

When the windows glaze over with ice and snow and every spare word goes straight into projects that pay, this blog gets quiet—but in recent days, I’ve been thawing out drafts of old work while testing the view through my latest willfully outmoded lens.

 

Behold: a Polaroid Land Camera 230. After toying with someone else’s before Christmas, I found this one at an antique shop in Savannah and decided to make it my own. Fuji still makes film for it, but if you’re fond of the total control that digital photography gives you, then you won’t enjoy lugging this clunker around.

The Land Camera, you see, needs warm temperatures, its light and aperture settings are limited, it doesn’t zoom, it spits out chemical-drenched litter, the photos take hours to dry, and you need to time the development down to the second—and that’s after you clean the rollers, modernize the battery chamber, scrub away corrosion, and master the art of yanking the paper tabs without stranding the photos inside. “And besides,” a neighbor chided me, “the pictures from those things were never really great.”

True, the photos I’ve taken so far are not impressive, but the first round of peel-and-reveal was a thrill, and there’s plenty of online evidence that under good conditions, with the right light and a fitting subject, even a 50-year-old camera can work the occasional wonder. You just have to accept its many constraints and embrace their necessity. I’m ready; it’s a lesson that poetry already offers.

“I really did struggle writing dreadful free verse for a long time,” poet and classicist A.E. Stallings told an interviewer a few years back. Stallings began publishing her work only after she saw possibilities in traditional forms, having discovered the value (and fun) of using old tools to your advantage:

Form opens up all kinds of possibilities. Rhyme often leads you to write things that surprise you. A meter may help you tap into a forgotten emotion. With form, certain decisions have already been, arbitrarily, made for you—a certain number of lines, a designated meter with a particular pattern of rhymes. That frees you up to think about other, more interesting choices in the poem.

Billy Collins, an erstwhile Poet Laureate who’s hardly known as a formalist, has praised formal poetry as a teaching tool:

I started to appreciate the bravura aspect of still-life painting, where you have a chandelier reflected in a mirror. You start to see that Vermeer is essentially bragging. So I try to encourage students to look at the challenge of formal poetry, to see, for example, that the fewer the end rhyme sounds the more difficult the poem is. Frost has a poem called “The Rose Family,” I think it’s twelve or fourteen lines, it has just one rhyme: rose, goes, suppose, knows. He’s bragging: I can write a fourteen-line poem with A-A-A-A-A-A. Can you?

Others have noted that art often springs from a challenge. Recalling a classroom exercise in sonnet-writing, religion professor Debra Dean Murphy saw form give rise to unforeseen complexity:

In the end, writing a sonnet wasn’t easy but it was surprisingly freeing.  The constraints of the form were not, after all, limitations to creativity but their necessary precondition. Once the boundaries were acknowledged not as confinements but as “inducements to elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning”  . . .  it was possible even to strive for and discover beauty: in choosing this word and not that one, in making the rhyme scheme work, in finding a fitting image or metaphor.

Of course, a Land Camera isn’t so adaptable; it’s a machine cleverly devised to meet certain needs within the limitations of its time. In that sense, it’s more like a poem than a form—an archaic sonnet whose vocative O!s and hammy Ah!s threaten to obscure its virtuosity.

Like A.E. Stallings, I once filled pages with dreadful free verse—until I translated 75 difficult 13-line rhyming, alliterative Middle Scots stanzas into modern English and chased that project with 53 gargoyle poems in dozens of forms, from Japanese tanka to the Old Norse dróttkvaett. Poetry need not (and generally does not) have practical value, but writing in difficult forms teaches lesssons—discipline, patience, honing your tools, acquiring terms of art—that carry over to other parts of your life.

Technology turns obsolete in ways that poetic forms can’t, but learning to make the most of this Land Camera feels like that first foray into form. Flip up the viewfinder, extend the bellows, set the shutter, slide the focus bar back and forth—and celebrate if even one shot in a stack of wan images surprises you with something more.