Tag Archives: photography

Picture Perfect Focus on Polaroid

CBR_Logo2A Triumph of Genius:
Edwin Land, Polaroid,
and the Kodak Patent War
by Ronald K. Fierstein

In an era when selfies are ubiquitous and everyone is taking pictures on all manner of mobile devices and posting them instantaneously for the world to see, it might be difficult for readers of a certain age to identify with the wonder that was the Polaroid.

But it wasn’t so long ago that photos were developed on film, requiring a trip to the drug store and a matter of days before a batch of prints revealed what images the photographer captured. For Edwin Land, that wait was excruciatingly too long. One imagines that he would have loved digital cameras, smart phones, other mobile devices, and all the various apps that today function as photographers’ tools (even if, as it happened, the company he launched failed to keep up with changing technology). Alas, that technology would be years in the future, and so Land instead had to triumph of geniusfocus on the science and technology of his day and age in order to bring one-step photography to life.

The Polaroid camera, which to many today is a relic of anachronistic kitsch, was at the time of its invention a true wonder, an awe-inspiring invention that rocked the worlds of science, technology, photography, and business. Polaroid and Edwin Land were in the twentieth century what Apple and Steve Jobs became in the twenty-first.

Ronald Fierstein relates the amazing and captivating story of Land and Polaroid in A Triumph of Genius, which is a work of near genius in its own right. Tightly written and thoroughly researched, this wide-ranging book is a true page-turner, full of tension and emotion.

Fierstein, who as a young lawyer with the law firm of Fish & Neave worked on the “epic patent battle” between Polaroid and Eastman Kodak, provides keen insight into both companies, the people behind them, the inventions that catapulted them to success and fame, and the protracted legal fight that pitted the two companies—once collaborators—against each other.

A Triumph of Genius looks at Land’s tireless inventive spirit, which drove him to secure 535 patents during the course of his life, second at the time only to Thomas Edison and Elihu Thomson. It looks at the evolution of photography, an evolution in which Land, a brilliant, reclusive man, was instrumental. It looks at the roles science and technology played in that evolution. It also looks at the business of Polaroid and of Eastman Kodak, both of which were at the forefront of the science, technology, and business of photography. And, then, it looks at the connection between Polaroid and Kodak and the patent lawsuit that destroyed their relationship.

Much is at play in this riveting story, and Fierstein handles it all deftly and with panache. A skilled writer, he lays the foundation with a look at Land’s early life and career. He carefully explains in understandable terms the science and technology behind Land’s inventions and related patents. He provides a balanced view of the relationship between Polaroid and Kodak. And he clearly outlines the legal issues that resulted in a landmark patent case that still resonates today.

ronald fierstein

Author Ronald K. Fierstein

As an insider on Polaroid’s legal team during the battle that ultimately lasted well more than a decade (Polaroid first filed suit against Kodak in 1976; Kodak finally settled, for $925 million, in 1991), Fierstein could easily have focused solely on that company’s experience. Instead, A Triumph of Genius provides a balanced view, sharing insight and information from both sides of the legal battle. Fierstein could easily have portrayed Land as an amicable genius who, in trying to protect his intellectual property, was forced to go after big, bad Kodak. Instead, he shows Land not only as a genius but as someone who could be abrasive, thoughtless, and relentlessly determined. Although told mostly from Polaroid’s point of view, it is clear that Fierstein has done much to be as balanced and objective as possible. As a result, the material feels even-handed, even while engendering sympathy for Polaroid, which was clearly the underdog in this David-and-Goliath story.

Although a truly remarkable book, it is not without a few minor flaws. Some of the descriptions of the science and technology behind the various inventions and patents at issue can feel like dense minutiae and are skimmable without losing much meat. Too, some of the author’s attempts to add contemporary context to the story can feel a little clunky, as when he writes, “America was a troubled and distracted country in early 1971. Richard Nixon was starting the third year of his first term as president and continued to pursue the war in Vietnam rigorously. Protest grew …” and continues on for a lengthy paragraph before concluding with “It was in this environment that Edwin Land continued to work toward realizing his almost thirty-year quest to provide the world with the ultimate instant photography system.”

However, these are but minor quibbles in such an engaging story, especially for one with such a wide scope. A Triumph of Genius spans nearly a century and covers myriad topics. Readers with an interest in business, history, law, photography, science, or technology will find much of interest in these pages. This nuanced, absorbing book reveals a story with lasting implications and enduring lessons. It is as multifaceted as Edwin Land, the reclusive genius, was himself.

Four-Star Review

February 2015, Ankerwycke/ABA Publishing
$35, hardcover, 640 pages
ISBN: 978-1-62722-769-8

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen
(it should be noted that the reviewer once worked at ABA Publishing, although she does not know the author)

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All ‘Signs’ Point to Yes

CBR_Logo2Good Old Neon:
Signs You’re in Chicago
by Nick Freeman

In 1902, Georges Claude, a French engineer/chemist/inventor, created the first neon lamp by applying an electrical discharge to a tube sealed with neon. Two decades later, he brought his neon signs to America, selling two of them for $24,000 apiece to a Packard car dealership in Los Angeles. The rest, as they say, is history, as neon lighting rocketed across the country.

signs youre in chicagoNick Freeman, a fine artist from St. Charles, has captured 130 neon signs in Chicagoland in his delightfully charming book Good Old Neon: Signs You’re in Chicago. A colorful journey across Chicago and the suburbs and into neighboring states, this pretty little package of a book captures a fun collection of “gaudy, garish, and downright spectacular signs.” In doing so, Freeman has shared with his readers an adorable assemblage of images that provide a unique history of Chicago—bright lights in a big city.

Arranged in four parts, the book features signs in the areas of food, lodging, liquor, and “everything else.” This latter section includes signs on everything from bowling alleys to churches to dry cleaners to florists.

Readers who have spent any time in Chicago or the suburbs are sure to recognize at least some of these signs: The Berghoff, Superdawg, Seven Dwarfs Restaurant, Brer Rabbit Motel, the Biograph. The list goes on and on. Freeman has captured the icons as well as the unfamiliar. Some of the signs are long gone—Horwath’s, the Arrowhead Hotel, Grand Bowl Lounge—and we’re lucky that Freeman photographed them before they found their way into neon sign graveyards.

Freeman’s images, some shot in day, some in night in their neon splendor, are evocative, capturing the feel of a bygone era, a neighborhood, a business. Section introductions are well written with a clear admiration for the subject matter, pointing readers to a few specific images and providing a brief glimpse into the businesses they adorn. “Schnee’s,” Freeman writes, “located in one of the remotest corners of northern Illinois, is a glorious example of classic ’40s styling. Long shuttered along with its strip club neighbors, it boasts a largely intact façade of vitrolite panelwork very much in vogue in that era.”

The signs Freeman features in these pages bring a smile, a laugh, a sense of nostalgia. Good Old Neon is a charmer, the perfect stocking stuffer for a Chicagophile, a fun housewarming gift, a touching souvenir. It’s a short and sweet book, but one you’ll pick up again and again, revisiting the signs of the city.

Four-Star Review

October 2014, Lake Claremont Press
Photography/Local Interest
$17.95, paperback, 140 pages
ISBN: 978-1-893121-81-2

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

Learn more about the book.
Listen to the author discuss the book on WGN Radio.

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Chicago by Camera

by Larry Kanfer and Alaina Kanfer

Award-winning photographic artist Larry Kanfer’s colorful photographs glow in nearly three-dimensional relief in his new book, Chicagoscapes, a collection of images of our fair city.

Kanfer, who earned a degree in architecture from University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, has teamed up with Alaina Kanfer to assemble a fine collection here, images that capture slices of the city from north to south. Readers will find images of iconic Chicago attractions, from Navy Pier to North Avenue Beach, from the Art Institute of Chicago to the Field Museum, from The Berghoff to The Wiener’s Circle. (Unfortunately, many readers won’t know what they’re looking at because there is a dearth of caption information. A list of illustrations at the back of the book provides some details, but many of the descriptions are merely catchy phrases rather than helpful information.)

chicagoscapes 9780252034992More than a hundred photographs are in these pages, a slim volume fit for giftgiving or the coffee table. Some of the images show the expanse of the city in impactful two-page spreads, some encourage the reader to look more closely, diving in to an array of smaller images assembled on a single page.

Kanfer has captured the city in a unique way, focusing his lens on familiar sites but revealing them in a new light. Although the images are lovely, it’s the colors and post-production techniques in them that captivate. Kanfer often uses soft focus to draw the reader’s eye to particular details: a column of balconies on one of the city’s residential high-rises, a bunch of skaters on the ice at Millennium Park. Many of the images focus tightly on details, rendering a common site abstract. Bridges, “L” staircases, and the Marina City parking levels become a collection of color and light and shadow and lines and angles. As such, Chicagoscapes is atmospheric and moody—quiet somehow despite the fact that Kanfer has photographed one of the busiest cities in the world.

Indeed there’s something almost anathema about this collection when one contrasts this subtle quietness with the verve that is Chicago. In his short introduction to the book, “Our Chicago,” Kanfer writes about the “big city, with all its noise, hustle, and bustle,” and, yet, many of the images were clearly taken at odd hours, rendering Chicago something of a ghost town devoid of people and traffic. For instance, an image of Devon Avenue appears to have been taken very early in the morning: Only one car prowls the street—a street usually so packed with cars and pedestrians that it can take forever to drive just a few blocks in either direction. An “L” stop reveals no one waiting for a train. A lone little boy playing at the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park belies the fact that the area is usually jam-packed with children and adults all summer long. Plenty of images do, though, capture areas of the city full of people—beaches, parks, the lakefront trail. Even so, the Chicago in these pages feels quiet. Sleepy. Dreamy.

While some readers will find these images moody and magical, photography purists might well rankle at the post-production techniques used here. Some of the images are rendered in such a way as to appear as illustrations or paintings. One image in these pages has been pointillated à la Georges Seurat; it’s a beautiful, interesting look at the city, but it’s also a bit jarring as it is the only such doctored image in the collection.

Kanfer’s approach isn’t so much photojournalism as it is art photography. Most of the images here capture the beauty of the city, the pretty parts. Even a photograph of a graffiti-covered wall is colorful and artsy rather than gritty and edgy. A handful of black-and-white photographs grace these pages, but those that do are innocuous and safe. Readers will find no images here of the gritty South or West sides, no images of street upon street of foreclosed houses, no photographic insight into run-down CHA projects.

But that’s not what this book is about. Chicagoscapes is a love letter to what is magical and romantic about the Windy City. Kanfer has in these pages captured this beautiful city through atmospheric lighting, interesting angles, intriguing composition, and great timing. Although some readers might find some of the images a little snapshot-y or postcard-y, Chicagoscapes is full of great moments in a great city.

Three-Star Review

October 2014, University of Illinois Press
Photography/Local Interest
$34.95, hardcover, 128 pages
ISBN: 978-0-252-03499-2

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

Learn more about the photographer.
Read more about the book.

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