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.
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