For this installment of Five Things, we asked Christopher Bonanos, author of Instant: The Story of Polaroid, to share with us what’s on his mind lately.
1. The Panorama of New York City
The Panorama is a scale model of New York’s five boroughs—with every single building represented individually, complete with painted windows—at the Queens Museum of Art. It was built for the 1964–65 World’s Fair, and, all at once, it’s a legitimate urban-planning tool, a giant and loopy piece of mid-century kitsch, and a completely compelling art installation. My colleague Jerry Saltz once called it the greatest artwork ever made about the insane city where he and I live, and I completely agree with him. I try to get there every year or so, to commune with this crazy thing, and I’m overdue for another visit. Most touching detail: because it was last updated in the 1990s, the Twin Towers remain in place. The curators have draped them, to mark the loss.
2. Little Wonder: The Reader’s Digest and How It Grew,
by John Bainbridge
Bainbridge was a first-class New Yorker writer of long reported stories, and he’s half-forgotten today. He shouldn’t be: his book-length profile of Texas, “The Super-Americans,” is a remarkable piece of immersion journalism, and this little book from 1946 is even better: a snappy, occasionally snide, incredibly funny profile of DeWitt Wallace and the utterly square, utterly American magazine he had built into a multinational empire. I’d be happy to ever write anything as good as this little book.
3. Edward Burtynsky
I am a sucker for industrial photographs of all kinds—Charles Sheeler, the Bechers, Lewis Hine—and I can’t get enough of Burtynsky’s. He takes landscapes that have been (depending on your viewpoint) either destroyed or completely reimagined by technological change, and renders them in ways that are both abstractly beautiful and concretely terrifying. If I had to choose, I’d say his photographs of mining from a few years ago are my favorites, especially those rivers that run tangerine or bottle green, and seem to come from not our own activity but some deep, deep underworld.
4. How It’s Made
From a formal standpoint, this Canadian series (carried in the U.S. by the Science Channel) is the worst show on television. It’s stocked with bad punny narration, atrocious canned music, and a weird indirect scriptwriting style that constantly refers to a mysterious, unexplained “they.” Yet this little series of mini-documentaries—which simply amounts to three factory tours per episode, showing us how “they” make cellos, or fiberglass kayaks, or haggis—is weirdly watchable, maybe because seeing familiar stuff come out of assembly lines in neat little rows, flowing into crates and trucks, is just ridiculously soothing. When I can’t sleep, the worst show on television is also the best.
5. Make It Bigger
A shout-out here to a fellow Princeton Architectural Press author, Paula Scher, with whom I did an onstage Q&A the other day. To prepare, I logged some serious time with her not-quite-a-memoir-not-quite-a-design-textbook, which PAPress published in 2006. I loved it, not just for its insights into the way people respond to type design but also for its canny view of the business of design: Scher’s war stories of dumb bosses, tiresome clients, and navigating pecking orders are useful in many fields besides hers.