My time at the Polaroid 20x24 camera
Or the tale of monster
Day 1 August 3
I couldn't sleep, I woke up early that morning excited about the prospect of using the polaroid 20x24 inch camera. You see I have known about the camera for years. My professors had used it, my favorite artists use it regularly, I have had the studio manager come to my classes to speak about his work and the camera and I had even taken a class to visit the camera before BUT I had never used it for my own work.
I left my apartment in the East village early to go my regular studio to get the props I use and backgrounds I had created specifically for this shoot. I was so excited I forgot my wallet. I had been thinking and working on getting ready by creating backgrounds and imaging new scenarios for my images...
I got to the Polaroid studio early. I was scheduled for a half day and I arrived before noon. All around the studio were images I knew and loved. There was a portrait of Lou Reed as you walk in, the famous cowboy lassoing a horse by Levinthal, A William Wegman of a weimeraner holding a baby, A couple of John Reuter's transfers that had been hand worked. They weren't ready for me yet but they were great about getting ready as soon as I arrived. I was surprised to find that there was the Director, A studio manager (who does most of the technical aspects of camera operation), and two interns to help me. I knew that there would be at least one person there to help with the unique technical aspects of the camera but I had a crew of help. I had also brought along an assistant so I had five people helping out. I usually work alone or maybe one other person as an assistant and found this somewhat disorienting at first but soon realized that this is a collaborative operation that takes a lot of people to make it work.
The camera itself is very interesting, much more rickety than I imagined or remembered. One of the handles is simply a ratchet set wrench that is permanently attached. The side supports are cannibalized from copy stands. The bellows racks out at least 10 feet. Since the bellows needs to be so long, the camera is not very stable. It shakes at the slightest jiggle in the room. The front standard looks like it came from a 8x10 camera and the rear standard is pure custom made. The worst thing I experienced about the camera is the "ground glass" where you compose the image. It is barely visible. The camera is so long that you can't really point it down very far off of horizontal and since I generally work looking down they had to set up a mirro rig on the front of the lens that was at a 45 degree angle so that it would look down. This made the whole rig even longer and more rickety. You normally have to think upside down adn backwards in any view camera, now I was looking through a mirror at the end of upside down and backwards...
We began shooting by 1:00 and I was very happy with the first image I got. It is amazing how unique the color and the softness of the film is. I was doing both straight 20"x24" Polaroids as well as Polaroid transfers from my images. We peeled the first image and my excitement continued to build. Then we tried a transfer. I had brought some paper that I thought was appropriate and the first transfer worked great as well. A few areas peeled off but that is the charm of Polaroid transfer, you have to "embrace the flaws". John Reuter, The director of the studio, suggested that Fabriano is the most effective paper for the transfers and since I had brought Rives, I sent Alizabeth out for some Fabriano.
I thought I was going to have a great and productive day. We moved on to a different set up and then reality set in. It was a "quick" portrait of my dog. After you set the camera up for a shot there is no way to see through the camera since the back of the camera is full of film. We got an interesting image of Duke the dog but he broke put of the frame in the upper quadrant and his ears were out of the image entirely. Live action is not what this camera was made for.
Next we rigged up the mirror and this took longer than I had hoped. I got a little cold and distracted by the rigging of the camera.
By the middle of the shoot I began to notice the chemical smell. I hadn't noticed it before, all of a sudden my head was swimming and I had a stutter. I have never stuttered before. I wasn't thinking very clearly. I felt like I had drank ten cups of coffee. Standing in front of these beautiful images was truly intoxicating. The chemical smell coming off of them was very strong. My throat was burning a little bit. My head was spinning.
Let me mention the Transfer process briefly. With a normal Polaroid you simply pull the negative material and the receiver paper through a set of metal rollers that spread the caustic developer jelly evenly and you wait the proscribed amount of time before peeling them apart. With the Polaroid transfer process you pull the print normally but instead of waiting before peeling you peel after a few second, discard the regular receiver paper and place the negative face down onto another substrate. In my case this was the Fabriano paper that John had suggested. It was like a ballet. The head technician pulled the print from the camera and passed it off to John. John then peeled the print and handed the receiver paper to one of the interns who pinned it up on the wall. John then stepped over to the wetted paper and laid the negative down quickly and smoothly onto the prepared paper. He then gave it a pass or two with a very large squeegee. He then handed the squeegee off to another intern who continued to squeegee the negative down onto the paper. This whole process took less than 20 seconds. After 3 to 5 minutes the print is ready to peel. John then pulls up one side and begins to very slowly peel the negative off of the Fabriano paper. As he peels it you can see the areas the transfer well and those that are peeling away. At this point there is very little you can do to control what sticks and what bubbles up. However they use either a knife or their fingers to pull some of the bubbles of the negative to try to get more to stick to the receiver. Since the paper is wet the print is luscious right after it is peeled apart also since there is a lot of the caustic jelly the chemical fumes are very strong. Finally, after the negative has been fully removed, they spray the image with White Vinegar to brighten up the highlights, adding more sensual aromas to the air.
Day #2 August 8
Again I didnt sleep very well due the excitement of using the camera. It was also one of those mid August days in New York that are so hot that you can fry eggs on the sidewalk.
I started with a really good image again and the transfer worked well also. I was back and I was ready to go. I had discussed lenses and film with John before I got ready to go and had decided to try a different lens. This was a shorter lens but it allowed me to get closer to the dolls. The side effect of a wide-angle lens of course is that it tends to distort the image some. I was working smaller and tighter, I had realized that I needed to be shooting more upwards to make the dolls seem larger than life instead of a little downward that tends to diminish them.
With my regular shooting method, I set up the dolls and sort of move around them with the camera. I shoot a lot of film and edit later before I scan the work. With the big camera you have to set up the camera and then move the dolls around so that you change the image. While this may not seem like a big difference, it really slows things down.
Also the camera takes a lot of light, much more than anything else I have worked with. This has a lot to do with my method of shooting things much larger than life. Each doll is at least 3 times its original size on the "ground glass" but sometimes even larger. This means that there is extensive "undue bellows extension" that must be compensated for. I tend to keep my lighting set ups simple, usually just a single light and a fill card.
The second day didnt seem as efficient, although it was almost as fruitful. On the first day I exposed 23 frames 20 of which were good. I got 6 straight images that were keepers and 6 transfers that were keepers. On the second day I only got 13 frames exposed, however I got 5 straight ones and 5 transfers that were keepers. The main reason for this was that I was spending more time futzing with the set-ups but also there were some serious technical difficulties with the camera. When "it goes wrong it goes really wrong" as John said. Unlike even professional Polaroid film, the film, the receiver paper and the "pods" that contain the caustic jelly developer are all separate on this camera. On about the fifth exposure, one of the pods sort of exploded inside the camera back. This sent the jelly all over everything inside the camera back. They had to take apart the whole camera and clean out all the rollers. Then replace it all with new film, paper and pods. Some film was damaged and I think some pods were damaged. I am sure this is expensive and is probably one of the reasons that each exposure costs so much.
Although I shot considerably less film, I think that the work I did get is much better. I had more of a vision for exactly what I wanted. I knew enough about the cameras idiosyncrasies to know what to expect. I had spent some of the weekend looking critically at the images I had created on the first day and figured out what I didnt like about them. I was able to "fix" these issues.
Day 3 August 10th
I finally slept well before getting to the camera. It was an unusually nice day, in the 80s but not humid at all and sunny. There was one less intern in the studio and it seemed much calmer in the space.
I had decided to use the original lens I started with. I also wanted to work horizontally and forget the mirror rig, I thought I could work more quickly and efficiently that way. I had an image in mind to start with, I had noticed that I was doing too many looking left and too many solo images. I was going to work with the newer dolls that are a little larger in scale and wouldnt need to get quite as close to the props. I was determined to kill the shadows that were appearing on the red backgrounds.
The first image was pretty good,, at least the doll appeared the way I wanted it. Unfortunately the extra light I used to kill the shadow showed some glare on the background.
By this time I had figured out what the camera can and cant do well. It definitely doesnt look up or down at all. It does make a beautiful image on the paper even though you cant see it very well on the so-called ground glass.
I had tested a variety of final finishes for the print to see what effect thay weould have on the image. I tried Cold Wax medium, Matte medium, gloss medium and varnish and Damar varnish. I settled on Damar even though it significantly darken s the image
The dolls are made of a material called "composition". It cracks and ages over time and gives the illusion of wrinkled skin. I had acquired one that was just plain rubber and had attempted to use both vinegar and even acid to age it.
John had told me a lot of great stories about different artists using the camera, He had met Edwin Land before he died and had worked with everybody who is anybody in the art world who had used the camera. People like Wegman, Levinthal, Rauschenberg,
I finished the day with an image of a sunflower. Certainly very different than anything else I had done. I was undeniably pretty. John even made the comment that if I made 100 of theses I could sell them all. Probably very true but somehow I am glad I didnt do that. I probably will never sell a thing I made there but I am very happy with everything I got and am very glad to have been one of a group of artists that use the camera for personal use instead of for commercial use.
I have a lot of work to do on the images yet. I am planning to make transfers of the positives that were used as negatives. They are very orange red and I am planning to transfer them onto copper ort gold leaf. I think the red and the metal well look great together.
I am planning on hand working the transfers using my standard oils and encaustics as well as raw pigments and rust I am still trying to resolve issues of how to display them without breaking my bank account.