Type 42: Fame Is the Name of the Game

IN THE SPRING OF 2012, artist Jason Brinkerhoff found a cache of some 950 Polaroids devoted to television images from the 1960s and early ’70s. The photos—the book’s title takes its name from a popular Polaroid film stock, Type 42—gathered in this sampling from that collection are mostly of actresses appearing on what is probably a modest-size black-and-white television. Each actress has been shot during a close-up, and her name (whether famous, or quite obscure) has been inked on the snapshot’s border. Although attempts to trace the archive back to its creator have proved fruitless, a few speculations might be made: The photographer was obsessed with Polaroid photography, famous women, and he or she very much liked to watch. The images themselves—dark-hued, grainy, out-of-focus—conjure the close quarters of an apartment lit only by the screen’s glow. The compulsion evidenced by the number of photos, their careful identification, and the fidelity to a single, palpably interior motif all suggest a lonely life whose most vital relationship may have been with the faces flickering on a vacuum tube.

From left: Unknown artist, Yvette Mimieux, ca. 1960–70, mixed media on Polaroid print, 3 1/4 × 4 1/4". Unknown artist, Elizabeth Taylor, ca. 1960–70, mixed media on Polaroid print, 3 1/4 × 4 1/4".

Dating from a pre-HD, pre-cable era, when broadcast signals depended on rabbit-ear antennae, and black-and-white portable sets could turn even sitcoms into film noir, these spectral portraits are imbued with sadness and longing. They cast a gloomy spell, even though their subjects (Ursula Andress, Doris Day, Catherine Deneuve, Anita Ekberg, Jane Fonda, Virna Lisi, Sophia Loren) are the epitome of klieg-lit glamour. Along with screen legends, the anonymous artist also favored second-tier ingenues like Yvette Mimieux (above left), who started in B pics (Monkeys, Go Home!; Where the Boys Are) and aged into made-for-TV movies. Owing to the lack of focus and overexposure, Mimieux’s blond mane incandesces against the surrounding blackness, and her facial features are nearly submerged in blurring light. Yet she remains recognizable (despite the haphazardness of the image and its uncertain context, she’s clearly—perhaps only to me—the shy, barefoot Eloi girl that Rod Taylor returns to the future for in The Time Machine); even minor fame leaves us with an indelible print. That Elizabeth Taylor’s iconic visage (above right) might emerge from the murk of Polaroid printing and bad reception is less surprising. In fact, the film and the scene are readily placed—an angry Liz confronting her alcoholic husband (played by Paul Newman) in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Taken at what seems to be a slight angle to the screen, the photo distorts Taylor’s face and shoulder, the slight elongation of both suggesting her resistance to being swallowed by night. Taylor’s not one to go gently—she holds the corner of the frame, teeth bared, eyes aflame. The subtitle of the volume, “Fame Is the Name of the Game,” is the title of a 1966 TV movie, and as such it’s penned on a print showing a somnolent Jill St. John, lost, it seems, in a soft-focus dream of beautiful, caressing light. A long time ago, in a room with shades drawn, someone discovered you could live in that radiance at the turn of a dial. If the ghostly faces in this realm were indeed as evanescent as Pound’s “petals on a wet, black bough,” they might still be saved on Type 42, a pocket-size mercy that postponed for a while the final fade out.