Chuck Close at work in the 20x24 studio. That's Gus Van Sant in front of the lens.

If you (like many Polaroid enthusiasts) know all about the magnificence that is the 20×24 camera, pardon this introduction to familiar territory. This will be the first of, I’m sure, many posts about it.

But if you don’t, prepare to be astonished. In 1976, Polaroid marked the introduction of its large-format (8-by-10-inch) peel-apart Polaroid film by going even bigger. To demonstrate the possibilities of the product, Edwin Land ordered the construction of a Polaroid camera that could shoot even bigger frames. The prints were to be 24 inches tall and 20 inches across, matching the size of those from a specialized copy camera already in use at Polaroid, and the whole thing was fabricated in the Polaroid shops over the course of about three days.

Bill Clinton, shot by Chuck Close on the 20x24 for New York magazine.

The pictures made by the 20×24 look like nothing else in the world. Because there is no enlargement of that immense negative, the resolution of the camera is unbelievable, particularly when it shoots a closeup of a face. You see not only hair in a subject’s beard, but the translucency of each individual hair, and the way its color varies slightly from root to tip, side to side. The unbelievably complex topography of human skin and the musculature beneath is laid bare. When the photos are shot on Polacolor film, the deeply saturated tones only add to the hyperrealism.

Close himself, in a 20x24 self-portrait.

You may recognize a lot of 20×24 photos without realizing you do. Andy Warhol used the camera; Chuck Close still does. Most of William Wegman’s most familiar photos of his Weimaraners were shot on the 20×24. Ditto Mary Ellen Mark’s jaw-dropping photos of twins. Aside from the scale, the distinctive drippy top edge to the print is its most recognizable feature, as is the upright orientation (you can’t exactly turn this camera on its side to shoot landscapes).

Ultimately, seven of these cameras were built, and five are still active, with a sixth brand-new one (implausibly, hearteningly) soon to join the bunch. They are immense: about the size of a refrigerator, albeit one on wheeled legs with a bellows that pulls out several feet. One of the five lives in New York, and gets the most work; the others are scattered around the world.

John Reuter is the minder of the camera that’s now in New York, and has been since 1980. He is a remarkable photographer (giant-Polaroid and otherwise), and a serious technician. When Polaroid shut down film production, he not only bought a multiyear stock of film; he also bought the machinery that makes the developer pods for that film, and eventually got it hauled off to a building in Connecticut, and then set about reinventing the formula for the reagant, which had to be reconstructed from several partial sources and the memories of some Polaroid retirees. He has succeeded magnificently in keeping this beast going, along with his assistant Jennifer Trausch—a true keeper of the instant-photography flame. The two of them even shot Lady Gaga last year.

As I say, there’ll be much more on this blog about 20×24 in the months to come.

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