20 x 24” Polaroid


A giant Polaroid camera that makes 20 x 24-inch instant photographs has been a favorite tool of major photographers for nearly 30 years. bwphotopro pays a visit to the NYC 20 x 24” studio in SoHo.


A Really BIG

Instant Camera

by Eric Rudolph

New York City: A seductive form of instant gratification beckons well-heeled photographers to Polaroid's 20 x 24 studio in New York's SoHo district.

There, a gigantic view camera produces arresting, startlingly detailed 20 x 24-inch instant black-and-white and color contact prints.

Photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders describes the towering 20 x 24 Polaroid as a "cross between an armoire and a Volkswagen,” the studio’s manager says.

World-class photographers of all stripes, including black-and-white specialist Mary Ellen Mark as well as William Wegman, Joyce Tenneson, David Levinthal, Chuck Close and Greenfield-Sanders have all clamored to book the five-foot tall, 235 pound 20 x 24 Polaroid for advertising, personal, editorial and exhibition work.

Photographers quickly grasped the rather stupendous image making potential of the original 20 x 24, which was created for the relatively mundane task of copying large, flat artwork.

And when the studio setting is too limiting, surprisingly, the enormous camera actually travels rather well. John Reuter, who has run the New York 20 x 24 studio since 1980, has traveled extensively with the big camera, including several visits to the White House and to Park City, Utah (with Greenfield-Sanders, for the Sundance Film Festival. Filmmakers and stars such as Alec Baldwin and Glenn Close posed for a spread in In Style and other magazines.)

Recent trips include high school proms with the much-honored veteran portraitist and photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark. Mark is currently the studio’s biggest user of black-and-white, having produced her recent book Twins with the 20 x 24. Her current project is the black-and-white prom pictures; they were featured in Aperture magazine in summer 2007. More prom photography is planned for coming months, Reuter says.

Reuter’s studio manager Jennifer Trausch recently broke the camera’s studio lighting mold by using the 20 x 24 for black-and-white available light work in the south. “She used it the same way you would use a 6x6,” Reuter said proudly. (We will feature Trausch’s 20 x 24 work soon, here at bwphotopro.com.)

And 20 x 24 stalwart William Wegman has often had the camera sent uptown to his Picture Ray studio in Chelsea, for a week's worth of intensive Weimaraner work at a time.

The last day of one of these weeks, during the Clinton administration, was scuttled when the New York Times Magazine suddenly asked if the big camera could go to Washington so Chuck Close could photograph then First Lady Hillary Clinton.

"Bill (William Wegman) kindly gave up his last day, and we had a chance to appreciate a lovely D.C. spring afternoon standing in front of the White House as security spread our gear out on the sidewalk for inspection," Reuter quips. (That was the camera's third White House visit; Chuck Close photographed President Clinton in 1996 and dog specialist Wegman shot First Lady Barbara Bush with First Pooch Millie and puppies for a Life magazine cover.)

Polaroid film comes in 50 and 150-foot separate rolls of negative and positive material for the camera, for which a 800mm lens is considered normal (the lens used most often is a 600mm f11 Apochromatic Fujinon in a Copal 3 shutter).

After an exposure is made, a motor pushes the negative-positive sandwich through huge, high-tech rollers to spread the developer, and the print is sliced from the camera with a common box cutter. After 90 to 100 seconds the film positive is carefully pulled apart from the negative, just like the early Polaroid consumer cameras, and the finished print is ready.

One of the more riveting aspects of a 20 x 24 session is the spectacle of the huge completed prints, with their trademark (and very cool looking) chemical smear borders hanging proudly along a wall.

The black-and-white film is a 400 ISO long-scale product; coating is not required for permanence, as it was with the original consumer Polaroid B&W films.

A hybrid process dubbed Chocolate has matched the color negative material to the black-and-white positive. "It's kind of a sepia look with suppressed highlights. It resembles a 19th century Albumen print,” Reuter notes. Joyce Tenneson experimented extensively with the approach.

A popular color stock is ASA 100 Polacolor Pro, which is a "brighter and more vivid version of the earlier Polacolor ER film," Reuter explains.

Due to the slow films and lenses, the studio uses enormous light banks, kicking out 10,000 watt-seconds of light.

Photographers often have the prints scanned and use them as "giant digital negatives," Reuter says. Chuck Close does this, outputting 5 x 6-foot images with "little or no loss of detail," Reuter explains.

Six 20 x 24 cameras exist as of late 2007; aside from New York, one is leased to Boston-area portraitist Elsa Dorfman (a Q&A with Dorfman is coming soon to bwphotopro); another does long residencies at various art schools; one is a San Francisco studio, another is based in Prague and the sixth camera is a museum piece, at Harvard.

However, New York's camera is by far the busiest, especially as it closes in on its third decade as a rental facility.

"Advertising and editorial work comes to us mainly because the photographers want to use the camera, and then the art directors' get enthusiastic about it," Reuter notes.

David Levinthal, known for his images featuring dolls and figurines, has done many major commercial 20 x 24 projects. One was for IBM, in which various computer peripherals were suspended in an outer space scenario. The other project was an art book published by the H. Stern jewelry company (similar to a project by Albert Watson) and distributed by Rizzoli. Levinthal spent at least 10 days shooting each project.

Levinthal says he does almost 100% of his work with the 20 x 24 Polaroid and is drawn to it because of the "interactivity of the process. Being able to see my final artwork instantly is wonderful, especially working with small objects as I do, where a slight change can dramatically affect the image." (Indeed, especially considering the lenses are in the 600mm to 800mm range and that Levinthal works at extremely close distances to his tiny subjects.)

Reuter and studio manager Jennifer Trausch work closely with photographers, providing as much or as little help as they want.

The easy-going Reuter was (initially) interviewed in the middle of one of Wegman's weeks of work at Picture Ray, as Reuter's young daughter posed for a Wegman photo with a seriously professional Weimaraner; both dog and child were wearing wigs.

The New York 20 x 24 Polaroid studio rents for $1,500 a day, with half-day rates also available. Each exposure costs $75. The studio is located at 588 Broadway in the heart of SoHo.

Don’t put off using the facility, if doing so appeals to you, especially if you want to work in black-and-white; the future availability of film stock is far from certain. Polaroid went bankrupt in 2001 and the new owners are focused on consumer electronics and licensing the venerable name. Their commitment to film-based instant products of all kinds is unclear, at best. Reuter says he has enough color stock to last several years but only enough black-and-white to get through 2008.

And to work in black-and-white, remember, the formidable Mary Ellen Mark is already well ahead of you in line.

Polaroid 20 x 24 Studio, New York City: 212-925-1403. http://www.polaroid.com/studio/20x24/





BIG NEWS! The Big Polaroid may not run out of film!

An agreement in principle has been reached so that film for the 20x24” cameras can continue to be made, following Polaroid’s exit from the film business (as announced earlier this year). See this 8/6/08 article in the Wall Street Journal: