An intimate gathering of guests enjoyed a private dinner with Weber and Rodgers that was followed by a black and white portrait sitting with Weber using one of only five 20×24 large format Polaroid© Land cameras in existence and one of the last remaining rolls of large format Polaroid© film – all owned by 20×24 Studio. Each image is a one-of-a-kind – there are no negatives. Weber carefully crafted every image and brilliantly told a story with each one. One of the many highlights of the evening was Valerie Simpson (Ashford & Simpson) and her two daughters, Asia and Nicole, singing “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” as Weber shot their portrait. This was the first time the family has been photographed together since Nick Ashford’s passing last year. As guests were waiting to have their portraits taken Rodgers performed a one-man show sharing stories about his life, music and the New York underground during the 70s and 80s – as depicted in his critically acclaimed best-selling autobiography, “Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny”.
Proceeds from Night of Originals benefitted the We Are Family Foundation and its signature Three Dot Dash Global Teen Leader program that identifies and mentors teen leaders who are actively promoting peace through their work addressing basic human needs worldwide.
Bruce Weber, born in rural Greensburg, Pennsylvania in 1946, became the preeminent photographer of the fashion industry in the 1980s and continues to be one of the world’s most popular and influential photographers. Weber initially pursued theater at Denison University in Ohio, then turned to filmmaking at New York University. Thanks to Diane Arhus, he was introduced to and studied with Lisette Model at The New School for Social Research in the 1960s. He participated in his first group show at The Floating Foundation of
Photography in 1973 and had his first solo exhibition at Razor Gallery in New York City a year later. In the late 1970s, Weber began photographing ads and commercials for Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. His photographs have since appeared in Va n i t y Fair, American Vogue, Interview, Italian Vogue, and GQ, among many others. More than 15 books of Weber’s work have been published. His photographs are in the permanent collections of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. Weber has exhibited at venues including the 1987 Whitney Biennial in New York City, Musee de l’Elysee in Lausanne, Switzerland, Palazzo Fortuny in Venice, the Florence Biennale, the National Portrait Gallery in London, the Parco Exposure Gallery in Tokyo, Fahey/Klein in Los Angeles, Galeria Corso Como in Milan, and the Russell Senate Building in Washington, DC.
Bruce is a dedicated film shooter so it was extra special to have him work on the 20×24 camera. Analog film cameras were in abundant supply as Buuce and Nan, Dan and Nanna Stern and Bruces’s assistants Mike Murphy and Chris Domurat posed with cameras.
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.
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.