Say “Cheese!”

09/01/2016 - 10:00am
I capture my memories in Polaroid pictures then tack the mementos onto my wall.

The writer with her beloved Polaroid camera. Photos courtesy Alexandra Freund

Editor’s Note: Alexandra Freund was a finalist in the 2016 Norman E. Alexander Award for Excellence in Jewish Student Writing. The national contest sought essays on a significant advancement in science, medicine or technology by a living or deceased Jewish-American. Writers were asked to explain how this innovation impacts lives and why it is meaningful to them. The contest was sponsored by the Jewish-American Hall of Fame and The Jewish Week Media Group.

My mother has always had an affinity for scrapbooks. A freelance photographer, she gets a natural high from holding her art in its physical form, rather than intangible snapshots constrained on an iPhone. Memories from my childhood — outings to the Will Rogers park, prancing in the backyard with our shaggy Newfoundland, playing dress-up with a feather boa — are dotted with images of my mother, half of her face concealed behind the camera, her eye focused on the viewfinder. The constant pop of the flash thrilled me, as did the immediate print of the photo. As a high school senior, I often find myself nostalgic about my past. When I crack the spine of a scrapbook, I feel grateful that my priceless childhood memories have been captured by the Polaroid camera, an invention of Edwin Land. (Photo: Alexandra's childhood is documented in her mother's scrapbooks.) Pages from her mother's scrapbook.

Land was born in Bridgeport, Conn. — 22 miles from my Dad’s home in Stamford — to parents of Eastern European Jewish descent. He invented the Polaroid J-sheet, the revolutionary first era of Polaroid film, in New York as a 19-year-old Harvard University student. This achievement did not come easily to Land and sneaking into Columbia University to use their lab became a nightly activity. This zealous motivation drove Land to develop the improved H-sheet 10 years later, a film composed of polyvinyl alcohol chains with attached iodine atoms that have been stretched in such a way that consumed light portrays an image.

Land’s achievements transcended physicality; he was also an emphatic patron of equality. Land hired women, not as secretaries, but for research and management positions, a feat unmatched by his contemporaries. While people of color were often turned away by big companies, Land welcomed minorities into his, creating a bond between Polaroid and affirmative action programs. Although Land’s investors were frustrated with his actions, he insisted on managing his business based on the ethics of science and the morals of humanity. As I am a member of a female empowerment club and an advocate for gender equality, Land’s liberal work ethic reassures me that there are progressive individuals that will welcome me into the workplace regardless of my gender.

Edwin Land has allowed for my memories to be saved for the rest of my life. When I asked my mom for my own Polaroid camera, her eyes lit up. I bring my Polaroid camera everywhere with me, from Barcelona to my backyard. I pin my various pictures on the wall next to my bed where I see them every morning as I wake up. In the words of Land himself, “the ways to tell young people what we know as we grow older — the permanent and wonderful things about life — will be one of the great functions of this system.” When my mother shows me Polaroids of my childhood, just as I will my own children, Edwin Land—innovator, activist, Jew—will cross my mind. And I will thank him.

author's bio: 
Alexandra Freund is a senior at Milken Community Schools in Los Angeles.