The Love ( and Loss) of Polaroid
When digital photography was introduced – in the late 1990’s – some photographers immediately embraced an enticing new format. Others were reluctantly dragged into new technology as favorite film brands went out of production.
Now, years later, another cache of film stock is reaching the end of its life expectancy, 20 x 24 Polaroid. While not the first line of Polaroid film to be retired (along with the Polaroid company itself), the end of this film stock will trigger the end of 20 x 24 Studios which holds the remaining film stock for 20 x 24 Polaroid large format cameras.
The studio announced its scheduled close in 2017. The 20 x 24 Polaroid is the Grande Dame of the Polaroid line, there are only five of these large format cameras in existence. The camera produces the instant gratification of a Polaroid on a very large scale. But as with many grand things, there are obstacles that put it out of reach for the average photographer. First and foremost, Polaroid long ago shuttered its doors and 20 x 24 Polaroid film is no longer produced.
Now if you are a photography buff along the lines of Brad Pitt, and you have a favorite film – in his case Kodak Tech Pan - which also hasn’t been produced for many years, you simply buy up the remaining stock. (For a W magazine project, a film editor located 40 rolls of the film and had it hand-carried to Pitt in France. When Pitt wanted more, thirty more rolls were located and again couriered the same day.) 20 x 24 Studio Executive Director, John Reuter, also bought up the up the remaining 20 x 24 film stock in existence from Polaroid in 2009. He expected the remaining film would only last a few years. The studio’s fact sheet attributes care and proper storage of the film will allow it to remain viable for about year, establishing the closing date for the studio.
Reuter states, “The Polaroid 20×24 camera stands apart from all other large format experiences because it delivers an instant finished photograph. The artist is able to react to the subject matter in a manner unlike any other photographic experience. Digital technology may rival it in resolution and instant playback but it cannot match the experience of having the final complete artwork on the wall in ninety seconds for all to see.”
“Our hope now is that we can work on some great projects with many of our legacy clients as well as new artists who have yet to experience the ultimate in instant analog image making,” says Reuter.
Venerable artists have created series or images with the 20 x 24 Polaroid: Robert Rauschenberg, Ellen Carey, Anna Tomczak, Neil Slavin, Jeff Enlow, William Wegman and Chuck Close (who photographed Brad Pitt, as well as images from the Portrait of a President series).
The scarcity of remaining film has driven up the cost of 20 x 24 images. Reports of image costs of $3500 puts this product out of range of most photographers.
This camera does create unique and memorable images. I first became familiar with the 20 x 24 Polaroid Camera in Tampa, in conjunction with Diane Fenster’s Secrets of the Magdalen Laundries Photo Installation comprised of images created with the 20 x 24 Polaroid and printed on bedsheets. It was a compelling and haunting exhibition which I write more about in a profile of Diane Fenster. Tracy Storer, director of Mammoth Studio in San Francisco, which houses another of the 20 x 24 Polaroid cameras, worked with Fester on the Magdalen Laundries series. Storer brought the camera to Tampa – not an easy feat with the temperature restrictions and weight of the camera - and allowed students at HCC Ybor Campus Art Gallery to work with the camera. I wonder if the students knew what a treat they were getting.
The loss of more Polaroid film, particularly for this 20 x 24 unique format film, is another chapter in the history of photography. Unless Brad Pitt comes through.