Danny Foley, FDNY firefighter, photographed by Joe McNally.

Danny Foley, FDNY firefighter, photographed by Joe McNally.

Someone recently asked me about the big Polaroid camera—not the 20×24, which is alive and well and well-tended, but its giant sibling, now retired.

One day in the mid-1970s, Edwin Land went to John McCann, one of his close deputies, with an idea. Land wanted to make a full-size reproduction of Renoir’s Bal à Bougival, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. “It’s 39 inches wide,” he told McCann, “and our film is slit at 40 inches. We can do it!” McCann, whose job often involved executing wonderful, near-impossible ideas that had alighted in Land’s fertile brain, soon had constructed a large camera, one the size of a room, a sophisticated cousin to the camerae obscurae  of the ancients. The lens of the Museum Camera, as it was called, weighed 50 pounds (custom-built, and not, as legend has it, pulled off a spy plane). The film actually measured 44 inches wide if you counted the margins, and could be shot in sheets about 80 inches high—in other words, this camera made instant photos wider and taller than a typical door.

Built to reproduce paintings—starting with that Renoir—it spent most of its life in the Museum of Fine Arts, and rigged-up versions were built at the Vatican and other places that allowed their artwork to be photographed this way. You could, up until the late eighties or so, buy one of these uncanny one-to-one reproductions, which were much richer than conventional four-color prints: Polaroid Museum Replicas, as they were called, required no reducing and re-enlarging, and thus showed no loss of detail, though their flatness and sheen did give an odd kitschy quality to the perfectly reproduced brushstrokes. The Cambridge Historical Society reproduced its rarer paintings, and to this day exhibits the copies, keeping the originals hidden away somewhere for safety. Here’s a post showing the camera at work.

A number of artists also tried their hand at making these giant prints. Chuck Close shot himself, and some megasized nudes; Marie Cosindas shot ballet dancers. It was maddening to use for moving subjects, because the depth of field was about an inch, and the camera had no focusing mechanism; those dancers stood in front of the lens, shuffling in and out till they were in focus. Then they had to stay put till the film was pulled down into place—it was held flat to the back wall of the camera with a rigged-up Black & Decker shop vacuum—and the picture was made, quickly, with huge banks of flashes.

Sometime in the 1990s, the camera was dismantled and sold, and then was reactivated in New York by a fellow named Gregory Colbert, who among other things made  experimental image transfers with the giant film, a process I’d certainly like to have seen. (He nicknamed the camera Moby C, in honor of that other New England whale.) In 2001, it had what turned out to be its last hurrah: a monumental project in which first responders to the 9/11 attacks were photographed by Joe McNally, as they came off shift. Firemen, cops, laborers, and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani—nearly every one looking haunted—all posed, and the results were published by Time magazine and exhibited in Grand Central Terminal. You can see a slideshow of them here, and read McNally’s account of making them here and here. If you were in New York during that unreal time, the photos hit you extra-hard. The ones showing the firemen, especially—a lot of these guys had just buried their brothers, and are covered in the gray-white ashy dust of the buildings.  It all became a book, which you can buy here.

Soon after, under circumstances I’ve never quite nailed down, the camera was dismantled for good, its film stock having run out. I don’t know whether the lens or the processing rig still exists. I hope so: Theoretically, if New55 gets where it needs to be, a run of 40-inch-wide film could be produced, and the camera reactivated, but the odds of that are vanishingly small. Maybe it’s fitting that it went out with such an epic project, though I sort of wish it had been a happier one.

5 Responses to Instant Artifact: The Museum Camera

  1. Bill Warriner says:

    Chris, at a date I don’t remember (1990s), I made a videotape for John McCann of the entire Museum Collection–a virtual catalog with zoom-outs on most of the paintings, complete with music track. It was very long. He may still have a copy.

  2. James Howard says:

    When Polaroid commercially rolled out its Museum Replica Collection in 1990, the impression was the reproductions were direct photographs of the original artwork. This was true of the developmental prints beginning in 1976. However, Polaroid on a paper label placed on the rear of framed Museum Replicas indicated the process was “a unique combination of large-format instant photography and state-of -the-art digital image processing.”

    I believe the original artwork (with calibration target) was first photographed on 8×10 transparency film. A drum scan was made of the transparency and the resulting digital file “pre-corrected” to compensate for known inaccuracies in Polaroid’s color palette. A second 8×10 transparency was made from the modified digital file. That transparency was placed on a light box and re-photographed on Polacolor ER print film (the camera allowing enlargement to final print size).

    A Polaroid press release stated: “Electronic imaging allows the picture to be precisely color-matched at over 90,000 points per square inch. Every texture, brush stroke, crack and paint chip in the original is replicated. And, multiple quantities are processed with the same level of precision and control for unprecedented color and image accuracy.”

    The hybrid process, while not as unique as a direct reproduction, had advantages:
    1. The camera for the initial 8×10 transparency was portable.
    2. Only one session was required with the original artwork.
    3. The intermediate color correction step allowed for more accurate reproduction.
    4. Prints could be made off-site.

    Original watercolors were framed under glass, oils without glass but lacquered for protection. Trademark for “The Polaroid Museum Replica Collection” was filed in 1983.

    With reference to the comment by Bill Warriner, I have a VHS tape from Polaroid
    which gives a gallery tour of the Museum Replica Collection for prospective buyers. It amused me the announcer read the order numbers as “one-oh-eight” rather than “one-zero-eight.”

  3. John Reuter says:

    The 40×80 actually continued well after the McNally project. Chuck Close, Julian Schnabel and several other artists did several shoots. Colbert abandoned Polaroid Transfers because that process was unstable. The 44 inch stock was partially slit to 22 inches, for 20×24 and the rest thrown away. Colbert no longer had any interest. When he purchased a half million dollars of P3 negative he neglected to match it with any positive or regent. He went directly to the factory in New Bedford, bypassing our marketing group which was responsible for selling all large format film. I warned him, but he did not listen that he had no match for his negative.

  4. Christine J. Erna says:

    I own six Polaroid Museum Replica Collection photographs, various artists – Two Renoir, Frederick Childe Hassam, Edmund Charles Tarbell – Do you know if there is a market to sell these?

    • admin says:

      The market in these is not active, sorry to say. They bob up on eBay occasionally, and generally don’t draw high prices if they sell at all. I think I saw one go for about $100 once.

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