One of my former interns asked me to write a few lines on why I feel analog instant is still powerful in our digital world. I thought I would share it with you.
Analog Instant in a Digital World
When the instant 20×24 format was created in 1976, it was a different world in photography. Fine art photography was still dominated by black and white, even though color was beginning to gain acceptance. Print sizes rarely exceeded 16×20 inches with 11×14 more the norm. Along comes this gargantuan machine containing its own processor that delivered 20×24 inch Polacolor images in 75 seconds. The quality was astounding, as the negative was the same size as the final print and there was no optical enlargement. There was lushness to the somewhat limited color palette and the diffusion transfer process rendered skin tones like Renaissance glaze painting. It was truly a remarkable process.
Fast forward thirty-five plus years and the photographic landscape has radically changed. Digital technologies grew in quality at a pace no one predicted and analog film lost favor first with the consumer market and eventually the professional market. The fine art market still holds on with established and even young artists embracing the attributes of analog. Contemporary professional DSLR cameras are capable of capturing a dynamic range that rivals medium and large format analog systems. Advances in the Camera Raw format and sophisticated image editors such as Lightroom and Aperture allow the photographer advantages in processing only the finest analog practitioners could achieve.
Still, the 20×24 instant format endures and is revered for all of its original attributes. It is also revered because it is not digital. All large format photography separates itself from digital in many ways; the size of the camera often means it is on a stationary tripod. Viewing the image is completely different, as one must view the image upside down on a ground glass and compose by shifting, rising, swinging and tilting the lens and film standards. As the composition is finalized, the lens is closed and a film holder inserted to take a singular image. A digital photographer could take a hundred different variations of the image while the large format photographer makes one. It is that discipline that separates these two photographic methodologies.
The 20×24 falls into its own category. Because of the size and complexity of the camera itself and the attending lighting system, it is run by a crew of at least two, with the photographer taking the role of director. It is a collaborative process, in some ways similar to film making but also to print making, as the final result will exit the camera in a matter of minutes. There is no post processing; all decisions of exposure, filtration, and processing time are decided on the spot. As the image is peeled and placed on the wall for viewing, everyone involved from the subject, photographer and crew is obviously aware of what has been achieved. While digital setups can show the image immediately on a large high-resolution monitor, it is not the same experience as experiencing the final print. The digital photographer will continue to shoot, perhaps long after they have achieved the best image, because it is simply easy to do so. With 20×24, because of its expense and deliberate approach, the photographer will recognize the best image, often with the input of their subject. While many photographers prefer this large format analog print as the end product, digital technology now allows for scanning to create stunning enlargements or editions from the analog original. This allows artists to expand their markets in ways that painters did in the 19th Century as printmaking became very popular.
Why not fake it, you might ask? A highly skilled digital artist could take a high-resolution digital capture from an 80mp digital back and try to simulate the optical characteristics of large format lenses, they could ramp back the color to simulate the more limited palette of color instant films, they could scan the unique edge marks that 20×24 cameras produce, they could hope to but never achieve the depth of a diffusion transfer print. They could do all these things, and perhaps fool a great many people. So can art forgers simulate a DaVinci or Picasso, and again one could fool a great many people and even experts for a time. Inevitably it comes down to authenticity and a 20×24 instant photograph is the epitome of authenticity.
It is especially so in 2012, thirty-six years after its invention.
The 20×24 camera has seen its share of Presidents, Vice Presidents and First Ladies. Jimmy Carter
was photographed by Ansel Adams in the White House in 1979. Chuck Close photographed Bill Clinton in the Oval Office in 1996 and later in New York in 2005
. Timothy Greenfield-Sanders photographed George H.W. Bush
after his presidency in Houston in 1997. First Lady Hillary Clinton, Al Gore
and Tipper Gore were also rendered in 20×24.
Chuck Close has wanted to photograph Barack Obama since he was a candidate in 2008. There were several chances to do that in New York these past few years but schedules seemed to change at the last minute. Finally the opportunity arose to photograph the President in Washington DC at the Jefferson Hotel. Complicating our lives was the fact that we were already booked to work with Bruce Weber
for the We Are Family Foundation
the night before in New York City. Normally you would want to have the camera in DC the day before, set up and test thoroughly to be ready for the few minutes we would likely have with the President. Instead, we loaded the truck up at 11:00 pm and our trusty driver Robert Pattison parked the truck in Tribeca and left for Washington at 4:00 am. We followed on the train with Chuck that next morning, arriving at the Jefferson at 11:30 a.m. Robert had already brought in the equipment at 10:00 a.m. for the Secret Service security sweep.
We got up into the room around noon and began to unpack our equipment in the 20×20 foot room provided us. A 20×20 foot space is about the bare minimum to pull off a 20×24 shoot. We need distance from the seamless and we also need additional room for Chuck’s motorized wheel chair to fit behind the camera. Fortunately, we also had another room across the hall where we could put any non-essential equipment out of the way. We set up and tested for two hours before we asked Chuck to come up for further testing. The President arrived exactly on time at 4:00 pm. He was gracious, friendly and quite curious about our large camera with the red bellows. He was a dream to work with, hitting his mark every time, never moving while we focused and generously gave us forty five minutes to get our images, six in color and three in black and white.
The end product here will be digital watercolors from the select color image and a large-scale tapestry from the black and white image. David Adamson of Adamson Editions
in Washington DC will print the watercolor editions and Donald Farnsworth of Magnolia Editions
in Oakland will create the tapestries. For a closer look at the tapestry process, click here.
The day after the shoot we brought the images to David Adamson to be scanned in preparation for the digital watercolors and tapestries. Lyle Ashton Harris
, a long time 20×24 artist was in residence at Adamson Editions preparing work for a new show.
- Still Life at New55 Lab
Here is the latest experiment with the instant 8×10 negative prototype. The development coverage, or lack there of is due to the roller gap and spread characteristics of the particular pod. Those issues are minor, but the important issue is the quality of image produced by this process. Read more at the New55 blog.
Nafis Azad with instant 8x10 negative prototype
On May 30, 2012 Nafis Azad, the new Director of Photography at the 20×24 Studio worked with Robert Crowley of New55 to experiment with a prototype 8×10 instant negative. Using reagent and sheet components from 20×24 film, Azad and Crowley were successful in creating a fully developed negative and positive. More experiments are to follow and it is the hope of 20×24 Studio to provide the incredible analog technology available now only in 20×24 format for users of 8×10 cameras. Response from potential customers will be key in guiding us through this process. Comments and suggestions are greatly appreciated.
Barbara Kasten began working with the 20×24 camera in 1981, when she was invited by Polaroid Corporation to come to the studio at 575 Technology Square in Cambridge, MA. Kasten had already been working with Polaroid’s 8×10 material and was well versed in the language of large format cameras. The work, at first minimal later evolved into mare complex shapes and colors with textures and rippled reflections replacing the crisp shapes
and sharp edges. Kasten continued her series when the camera moved to the School of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1983 and also the New York Studio in 1986. The images are unique to the camera, taking advantage of the deep space depth of field by shooting at an aperture of f64. the lighting was complex as well, with multiple point sources covered with colored gels. Each color required a different exposure, and due to the close down aperture, some colors needed to be fired up to twenty times. Each exposure was a symphony of multiple colors, each fired according to density. White light might require one exposure, yellow two, red four, green ten and deep blue the most, sometimes up to twenty. The instant feedback was critical here, one could never prejudge how strongly a color would render as it bounced off objects and through silk scrims. The end result was a dazzling combination of abstraction and lush color.
Here is an excerpt of a review of Barbara Kasten’s work from an exhibit at Kadel Willborn in June of 2011 posted on art news.org
A matter of perspective
15 May 2011 – 26 June 2011
Barbara Kastens photographs do not narrate and document stories, instead, they are a “print” of the abstract features of light and shadow. In the 1970s she began experimenting with photochemical reactions and photograms, which she painted over using synthetic colors from the cyanotype process.
The works in the current exhibition, A matter of perspective, belong to the “Construct Series” created in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Barbara Kasten built space-filling, abstract installations in her studio made of light as well as colour surfaces reflecting mirrors and metal elements, which she then photographed with 8 x 10 inch and 20 x 24 inch mid-format Polaroids. Each photograph is therefore unique. Barbara Kasten’s Construct photographs depict a kind of constructivist “stage” that changes from photo to photo, but remains abstract and non-narrative.Although Barbara Kasten’s art-historical significance has been confirmed by her being represented in important American collections such as those of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the J. Paul Getty Museum, as well as the inclusion of her works in anthologies on the history of photography, e.g., “Starburst: The History of Color Photography in the 1970’s” and “The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography”, her oeuvre has almost disappeared from present-day perception in the USA and particularly in Europe.Barbara Kasten’s working method proves to be highly relevant, both for current trends in the abstract/concrete photography of the younger generation, for example, Liz Deschenes, Eileen Quinlan, Walead Beshty, Peggy Franck or Wolfgang Tillmans, and due to its art-historical connections to early trends in abstract photography as can be found with Lázló Moholy-Nagy, Christian Schad or Man Ray.Moreover – and this is what makes Barbara Kasten’s position so exceptionally relevant – her abstract pictures are based on the real construction of expansive installations in front of the camera. Thus, in the early 1970s, she already crossed genre-specific borders between sculpture, painting and installation, something which strongly connects her work with the approach of a younger generation of artists.
special thanks to Olivier Renaud-Clément