From May of 2013 through December Chuck Close has been photographing the Hollywood elite for a special Vanity Fair issue. Chuck Close describes his working method with the Polaroid 20×24 Camera, which he has used since 1977.
In 2013 artist Jeff Enlow approached the 20×24 Studio with the idea to expand his project “Parallelograms” to the 20×24 format. Jeff had been working for some time in 4×5 format and dreamed of scaling it up to the pinnacle of the large format instant experience. After a half day test session to be sure it would work Jeff embarked on a Kickstarter campaign to fund further shooting sessions. This was the first Kickstarter we know of to underwrite a 20×24 project and the response was enthusiastic. With the Kickstarter proceeds Jeff was able to fund several more sessions, completing his vision for the Parallelograms series with a flourish.
Behind the scenes photos by Bryan Derballa.
Jeff writes of his experiences with the 20×24:
I first discovered the 20×24 as a young student flipping through an American Photo Magazine. There was a small feature on the camera at Sundance. I remember being amazed by the size and weight of the camera. I always loved instant film but this was something else all together. At that time in my life using the 20×24 camera was well beyond my means or skill level. I stored the idea in the back of my mind till I had a project that called for the camera.
When I first conceived of Parallelograms, central to the project was that the images had to feel physical. I wanted to make an image that felt more like making a painting. There is a certain draw to seeing an original one of a kind painting in a museum or gallery that I felt is lacking in photography. Shooting on instant film became the bridge between those two mediums.
Visually, Parallelograms is a study of the topography of the human body. Multiple exposures allow the eye to wander in and out of the intersecting and diverging hills and valleys of the human figure. The unexpected shapes that are revealed in the merging of the two exposures is a wholly new creation—a sacred third entity—that exists in no other plane but on that single instant film sheet.
I start with a general sketch of an image in my head and first shoot it on 4×5 Fuji pack film. I collaborate with the model and decide the basic structure and flow I am looking for. From there, there are lots of micro adjustments like “drop your chin down, pull this arm back, hide that piece of hair;” I shoot one exposure, then we reset and do it all again. I mark on the ground glass the outline of the first image; so that when we shoot the second image I can try and guide it to flow well. I can steer the image in the direction I want, but the final print has a gestalt that is beyond omniscience.
There is a bit of translation that happens between shooting on the 4×5 and the 20×24. Using a medium as big as the 20×24 I had to rethink my relationship with both the model and the camera. I couldn’t just show up and reshoot my existing 4×5 images. I have a greater level of flexibility in the smaller 4×5 camera. I can push the camera into different positions and angles that aren’t possible when you are working with a camera a 1000 times larger.
Despite having this massive impedance between the model and myself I was able to achieve an intimacy on the 20x24s that I hadn’t reached before. The intense detail captured transforms the photos into truly rich character studies. It takes a lot of bravery for a model to stand nude in front of the camera. There is little you can hide from a 20×24 Polaroid, every freckle, blemish, and hair is exposed and enlarged.
Using the 20×24 forced me to dramatically slow down. Because of the size and complexity of the camera, along with the rarity and cost of film I only shot 10 – 12 images in a day. This makes little room for error, but also makes for an interesting and nuanced edit of the images. Additional versions of the same image are presented next to one another to highlight the subtle shifts that happen while shooting.
Working with the 20×24 Polaroid creates a craftsmanship to each image that elevates the photo beyond just the culmination of pigments in emulsion. Like brushstrokes on a canvas, subtle details reveal the hidden history of each image. The temperature and humidity in the room, the age of the film and camera, the motion of how the emulsion is pulled—all these elements combine to make a final image that has a visual language and personality unique to itself.
In 1986 Neal Slavin published Britons, and extraordinary collection of 20×24 Polaroid photographs executed over an eight year period in the UK. Anyone who has ever seen a 20×24 Polaroid camera in action will marvel at the technical tour de force this body of work embodies. Add to that Slavin’s ability to orchestrate and inspire his subjects results in truly remarkable documents of a myriad of social constructs.
Foreword for The Britons
by Colin Ford, Keeper, National Museum of Photography, Film and Television
I have been an admirer of Neal Slavin since I first saw his book When Two Or More Are Gathered Together,
published in the USA in 1976. It consists of sixty or so multiple portraits which demonstrate colourfully,
revealingly and entertainingly that many human beings seem to feel the need to congregate in groups, at
work and at play. Do we feel safer that way? Do we believe our personalities and identities are more
recognisable? Or do we just enjoy being with like-minded people? Whatever the answer, the Americans in
Slavin’s photographs seemed so to blossom before his camera that I knew he should be asked to exercise
his considerable skills in Britain.
What were those skills? A scrutiny of his pictures revealed a mastery of composition and colour (it was
almost impossible to imagine them in black and white). But, more importantly, the photographer clearly
had a way of making each photographic sitting an occasion: his sitters were all giving performances — and
all having a wonderful time. He was, equally obviously, the possessor of a well-developed — and warm —
sense of humour. The pictures were funny: the laughter came, not from the silliness of the antics, but
from the participants’ overt pleasure in dramatizing themselves, and in acting out their quirkiness for the
It has taken eight years of voluble persuasion, intricate planning and costly expenditure to bring the
project to its triumphant conclusion. If I say that I believe Slavin’s Britons have fared even better than his
Americans, it is not jingoism, nor merely the pleasure of having been so personally involved, nor pride
that this magnificent assemblage is yet another feather in the cap of the National Museum of Photography,
Film & Television. It derives mainly, I think, from the inspired decision to use only the giant Polaroid
The Polaroid 20″ x 24″ Instant Land Camera is a formidable beast, calling for a team of handlers to
transport it, feed it, keep it in good temper and bed it down for the night. When you face the brute in
order to be photographed, however, you know without doubt that you are participating in an event larger
than life: everyone in the pictures stretches nerve and sinew to give of their best, and such superhuman
efforts are rewarded by the pure magic of that moment when the huge print is peeled off, seconds after
exposure. I have never seen anyone fail to be astonished — even moved — by the quality, the rich color,
and the sheer impact of the result. And the magic is even more powerful for those who are aware of the
weeks of organization, letter-writing, telephoning, map-reading and arm-twisting which have preceded
that moment of what is often supposed to be ‘instant’ photography.
On the walls of the Museum, and in the pages of this book, the magic is still there. Our sincerest
thanks to everyone who made it possible — and especially to Neal Slavin. It was well worth waiting eight
All images © Neal Slavin 2013
MARY-KAY LOMBINO is the Emily Hargroves Fisher ’57 and Richard B. Fisher Curator at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. She has curated several exhibitions including Off the Shelf: New Forms in Contemporary Artists’ Books and Utopian Mirage: Social Metaphors in Contemporary Photography.
See the review in the New York Times.