They are the Polaroid snapshots of members of Chicago’s film and video community, captured at work and in repose, during the last decades of the 20th century. Some of the subjects are well-known—there’s Kartemquin founder Gordon Quinn in one photo with noted video editor Eve Saxon, smiling at some long-ago party. And there’s noted anchorman and documentarian Bill Kurtis in another, with companion Donna LaPietra, also mugging in a festive atmosphere. Other people are less prominent, like Diane Abt, a street reporter for WBBM during the 1960s and ’70s, seen with a script in hand, seated at a tape-to-tape video-editing console, working on an undetermined video project.
These images are documents of Independent Programming Associates, Inc., the legendary postproduction house located on Medill Avenue in Bucktown, which was open from 1982 to 2000. More than 2,600 of these Polaroids were taken at IPA, the place where documentaries like Hoop Dreams (1994) and Hollywood features like Soul Food were edited, along with countless other commercials and corporate videos. At one time they were part of the atmosphere of IPA.
“We’d post them on our kitchen wall, and when we finally closed in 2000, we took them all down and I put them on the floor of my closet, and that’s where they stayed for about 15 years,” says Scott Jacobs, a former Sun-Times reporter who founded IPA.
But now Jacobs has found a new purpose for these photographs. With the help of his friends he’s developed an app, featuring all of the images, called the Polaroid Wall. The 2,600-plus pictures are searchable by name, year, or theme. The app was first released during the Christmas season, and it’s now available for $1.99 at the Apple Store (or for free in a nonsearchable version at Gigapan.com).
The Polaroid Wall chronicles an important development in Chicago: the rise of independent film and video production in the city. “When no one had the tools, we were able to provide them,” Jacobs says. “The idea was to empower independent producers to make things, and there’s nothing more powerful than having your own editing equipment.”
Jacobs, who left the Sun-Times after Weinberg encouraged him to do more work in video, launched IPA with three other partners. They wanted to provide an inexpensive alternative to some of the downtown postproduction houses.
“We opened with three three-quarter-inch (videotape-editing) machines and we were in business,” Jacobs recalls. “Soon, [we] started making it available to everyone we could for pretty reasonable prices.”
One of Jacobs’s partners, Starr Sutherland, started taking Polaroids of the production house’s visitors. The practice became an IPA ritual; the staff even wrote snarky captions on the photos. For instance, a picture of Kartemquin editor Jerry Blumenthal talking on the phone is accompanied by the inscription “Jerry . . . Calling his Bookie.”
“Overall, you get a sense of that community, what the spirit was and the technical tools that they had, which were amazing at the time,” Jacobs says. “Chroma keys, DVEs, Avids, a Quantel Paintbox—all these things were brand-new, and people were trying to figure out how to use them.”
Another former partner, Tom Shea, digitized the photos for the Polaroid Wall, and IPA clients Scott Munn, Casey Stockdon, and David Zerlin provided the design and app programming.
Jacobs, along with other notables like Quinn, Saxon, Chicago Film Archives founder Nancy Watrous, and Media Burn Archives founder Tom Weinberg will stage what Jacobs calls a “soft launch” party for the Polaroid Wall on Thursday, June 1, at Wishbone in the West Loop. Weinberg, a veteran television producer who created the PBS programs Image Union and The 90s, points out that IPA was known almost as much for its parties as it was for its influence on Chicago’s media industry.
“One of the functions of IPA was to have parties for the community,” he says. “This is another party, just years after the last one. And some of these people haven’t seen each other in a really long time.”
Other people featured in the photos include Hollywood screenwriter-producer Denise DeClue, video artist Skip Blumberg, documentary producer Scott Craig, and former PBS show Wild Chicago producer-host Ben Hollis. There are also surprises, like a young Forrest Claypool, now the CEO of Chicago Public Schools, pictured when he was working as a political consultant, assisting on an undetermined commercial (his caption is “Backroom Politics”).
“[The app] is a little like reading a comic book,” Jacobs says. “If you get into following and searching different paths, it’s a little like a graphic novel. Every path gives you a different view.”
Jacobs also compares the Polaroid Wall to Middlemarch, George Eliot’s famous novel about life in a fictional British town in the early 19th century, told through the eyes of a number of characters. As Middlemarch depicts Britain at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the Polaroid Wall is a visual catalog of Chicago in the midst of another revolution, according to Jacobs.
“I believe we were there for a media revolution,” he says. “This was the start of the democratization of the media. Before, TV stations were closed shops, but [with IPA] independent producers were knocking at the door.”
It’s a period that doesn’t exist anymore. Many postproduction houses fell by the wayside in the early 21st century, due to the introduction of nonlinear programs like Adobe Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro, which gave producers easy access to sophisticated editing tools. However, Jacobs isn’t bitter about the changes.
“I believe there’s this growth of visual literacy,” he says. “And part of the reason is because we took television out of the stations and put it in the hands of these people who showed up at IPA.” v