Instant Gratification on a Grand Scale: Polaroid's 20x24 Camera

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Polaroid was the first company to offer photographers instant gratification. While we mostly think about instant film prints that the company is famous for, the lesser known 20x24 Polaroid camera is something of a rare unknown beast of legend. I recently took a tour to view one right here in NYC at 20x24 Studios. For those of you not as familiar with the Polaroid line, the 20x24 studio camera is an old-school giant that shoots massive 20 inch by 24 inch exposures.


The camera is still in use today in the studio's day to day projects: which is usually advertising campaigns and artwork. When the studio is less busy, operator Jennifer Trausch sometimes uses the camera for personal art work. Some of her black and white Polaroid work that was done in the southern United States is on display at the studio. According to Jennifer, the sheer unusual nature of the camera usually helps to disarm people's hostilities about being photographed.

Instant film and film in general has been experiencing a revival of sorts recently. Subjects being photographed react very differently in front of a massive Polaroid camera vs. a DSLR. They seem almost excited because of the pure nostalgia that one gets when they see one of these cameras in use today. In the studio, a slab of plexiglass is placed in front of the lens for the subject to be able to look at themselves while they are being photographed. The studio claims that it doesn't degrade the image quality in any way.

When the cranks and knobs are manipulated by student interns, magnification and focusing can be controlled from the backside of the camera. These knobs move the bellows around to help achieve perfect focusing. The lenses are typically stopped down to anywhere between F/11 and F/90 because of just how large the format is. For those of you that do not know, the rule is that the larger the sensor/shooting format the shallower the depth of field will be at a specific aperture.

Like some old medium format and large format cameras, the user looks into the viewfinder and sees an upside down image. DSLR owners that complain about the size of their viewfinder should take a look at the one in the 20x24 Polaroid. The difference here is that the image is significantly larger than what most photographers have dealt with before. In fact, it's life size in my eyes!

Created in the 1970′s, the company wasn't sure what segment of the market they were going to target the camera towards which is why so few were made. Those that are still in existence each have their own customized touch (this one has Playboy bunnies on some of the screws.) Eventually, Polaroid started inviting artists to use it as long as the company was able to keep one piece of work that they shot with it. In order to solve travel issues associated with moving such a large object, the bellows can be compacted in and the camera can be lowered into its base. Because of how old and rare the 20x24 Polaroid camera is, exceptional care is taken when transporting the camera or using it on location—especially since it can only operate in certain temperatures.

New film hasn't been created in years because Polaroid shuttered their factories. However, the Impossible Project is working on creating new batches to keep these mammoth cameras from going the way of the dinosaur. Recently at Photokina, the Impossible Project demoed the new integral instant film instead of peel apart film. To do so, Impossible used the latest Impossible Silver and Color Shade chemistry.

Because of how rare the film is, images from the camera are quite expensive and renting it is also very costly. John Reuter, also from 20×24 LLC Holdings, purchased all the Polaroid film left for this camera before the company announced that they were going to shut down their factories. Purchasing prints created with this beast can cost upwards of $3,500 a photo. In June, an Andy Warhol photo shot with the camera sold for a $250,000.

 If this post brings back memories, please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Every time I see this camera or an image it takes I remember why I fell in love with photography in the first place. It's just magical.