Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Six Degrees Of Separation

"Hello. My name is Mr. Peabody and this is my boy, Sherman. Sherman, set The Wayback Machine to July 1980."

"Where are we going, Mr. Peabody?"

"Why, we'll be visiting the East 29th Street studio of Bill Stettner, of course, Sherman."

"Who's Bill Stettner, Mr. Peabody?"

(I knew it when I wrote yesterday, if only in the far reaches of my imagination, that I wasn't finished blogging for the year. I knew it!)

In the summer of 1980 I found myself in the unlikely position of being Bill Stettner's First Assistant & Studio Manager. I'd sought that position previously but, being under 25 at the time, Bill wasn't inclined to hire me. However, in the strangest twist of fate for a photographer's assistant I was, in effect, traded by Klaus Lucka (I'd been his First Assistant since April) to Bill. That's a long story, a tale for another day, but the point is that I got dropped into the Polaroid Zone.

I'm sure you're wondering what I'm babbling about, and the key is a story in today's New York Times' Week In Review section, Imperfect, Yet Magical... about the pending demise, in bankruptcy, of Polaroid Corporation.

Bill Stettner had a deal with Polaroid. I don't recall, after all the intervening years, the particulars of the arrangement but I do recall an unlimited supply of Polaroid SX-70 film at Bill's studio. We were burning it up at breakneck speed. Case after case after case, the SX-70s were flying.

It was a really fun medium. Nearly instant, eminently malleable, incredibly versatile and... don't forget... in virtually limitless supply. I became addicted and my habit lasted well into the 1980s, until my camera broke.

It was fun working at Bill's. Not only did we have an unlimited supply of SX-70 film, but Bill Stettner was a very colorful guy with an unusually colorful, nurtured in The Bronx, equally unlimited vocabulary of expletives (nearly all of which need to be deleted in print).

And Bill gave good advice! I remember him arriving at the studio one Monday morning to my unshaven face and he asked, "What's up with that mug? Did you forget what a (expletive, deleted) razor looks like?"

I'm growing a beard, Bill.

"What kind of a (expletive, deleted), (expletive, deleted) schmuck grows a beard in the middle of the summer?"

It was years later that I met, here's where the six degrees of separation come into play, Alex Land. Alex Land was my ex-wife's, mother's aunt's, husband. The son of a successful businessman of the early 20th Century and first cousin of one Edwin Land.

Though it was many summers later, Alex and I met as I was... yet again... growing a beard. "My father always told me, 'Never do business with a man with a beard,'" Uncle Alex related. "Of course, my father made two egregious business mistakes." He went on to tell me how, when faced with a partner who wanted to expand their electric motor business when he didn't, his father bought-out his partner who took the money and founded a business that (according to legend) became General Electric. Don't know if that was an entirely accurate recounting but, according to Alex, that was the gist of it.

The other of Uncle Alex's father's 'mistakes' was not going into partnership with his nephew Edwin, who was seeking seed capital for a venture. According to Uncle Alex, "My father said, 'Edwin, just tell me what you need, you can have it, I don't want any more partners.'" Edwin went on to found Polaroid, no strings attached.

Well, Bill Stettner is long gone; Alex Land is gone, too. And Polaroid? Polaroid is going, going..... going to miss the magic of all three of them.

All above: Polaroid SX-70 Alpha, 116mm/f8.0 lens, Polaroid SX-70 Instant Film


Anonymous Anonymous said...


would like to hear some more story's about Bill. He was my father.


8:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey, worked with Bill through Pete Mathieu's Ad agency. You mentioned that Bill is long gone....not sure what that means? Susan

7:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey, I worked with Bill back in the early 70's through Pete Mathieu's ad agency. What's happened to Bill? Susan

7:45 PM  
Blogger Joe P. said...

If you worked with Bill it must have been quite a while ago, he passed away at least ten years ago.

7:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hi susan,

my name is luke, Bill was my father. Would love to hear some stories about my dad, particularly around the photo/ad business.



2:18 PM  
Anonymous newton said...

i worked with bill back in 1985...he shot todd rundgren, jan hammer and herbie hancock for a series of ads i designed for Fairlight Instruments. it was my first time in New York...bill was alot of fun and delivered a great job.

2:44 AM  
Blogger Joe P. said...

Bill was great to work for, too!

6:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, worked for Bill too and Joe you and I were friends then---its Dave Bevan. I have many, many stories about my time working for Bill from 12/78 to about the time you began working for him. If Luke is still reading this forum, give a shout. Would like to connect with you. I knew your mom Carol well too.

11:00 AM  
Blogger Joe P. said...

David Bevan... long time, no see. How are you??? Shoot me an e-mail or give me a call.

3:23 PM  

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