Visiting the legendary 20×24 Studio in New York City
Updated: Jul 26
Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to stop by the 20×24 Studio in New York to visit with John Reuter & Nafis Azad. As many of you might know, I’m a HUGE advocate of instant photography and promote its use as often as I can through the Instant Film Society. My wife and I were visiting New York for my birthday and besides visiting The Impossible Project gallery space, visiting the 20×24 Studio was something that I really was looking forward to.
Before my meeting on Friday with 20×24, I had swung by The Impossible Project to meet Dr. Florian Kaps that morning, who on the off chance just happened to be in town. While visiting TIP’s studio space the day before, Anne, the US marketing director, had mentioned that he was in NYC for a few days and told me if I swung back on Friday, I could meet him. I wasn’t going to pass up that chance. I’m grateful for the opportunity (thank you Anne) and it was really cool spending a few minutes with him talking about what I’ve been doing in Texas to promote instant film.
The meeting with John was scheduled for Friday afternoon. Synthia and I made our way over to Murray St. from the Flatiron District on a brisk New York winter’s day following a meet up we had with Rommel Pecson (incredible photographer and a hell of a nice guy). Upon our arrival, I called John, left him a message and we waited. A friendly gentleman poked his head out of the door “Are you waiting for someone?” “Yes. We’re just waiting for John. Is he here by chance?” He opened the door for us and smiled. “He’s not here at the moment, but you’re more than welcome to wait in the lobby. It’s warmer in here than it is out there.”
After a few minutes, John, the Executive Director at 20×24 since 1980, and Nafis, the Director of Photography at 20×24, came racing through the door, walked right past us and quickly made their way up a staircase that was adjacent to the lobby. Synthia looked at me and waved her hands towards the stairs in a go-after-them motion. I shook my head and whispered, “I’m just going to be patient. He’ll return my call soon enough.” I waited a few minutes and with a you-better-call-him-again-look, Synthia convinced me to call John back. After a couple of rings, he answered the phone “John, this is Justin .. “ He quickly replied “Oh no! Did we walk right past you downstairs? I’m so sorry!” I chuckled “It’s OK! It’s no biggie ..”
The elevator door opened a few seconds later and we made our way up to the third floor. When we opened the door to the studio, I stepped into a place that I was literally dreaming about the night before. The first thing I noticed was of course the legendary 20×24 Polaroid camera. I was completely stunned. I quickly gained my composure, walked over to Nafis, introduced ourselves and immediately thanked him for their time today. John, who was busy working on his laptop, stood up quickly and walked over to us to shake our hands. The phone rang. Nafis answered it and John was fast at work back on the phone booking a shoot. Nafis and I talked for a little while about photography and how each of us had begun on this life-long journey. I love this type of banter between professionals. You can quickly gauge what type of person you’re dealing with when you talk with one another about your own passion for photography. Some photographers puff their chests up and start bragging. Both Nafis & John really did none of that. They were very down to earth and had their feet planted firmly on the ground … I tip my hat to them.
We spent a good amount of time at the studio. I asked John a variety of questions concerning the history of the camera, what developments were in the works for new instant film and many other things. I recorded about 30 minutes of my conversation and I’ve culled it down to what I feel are the most important details of our visit.
Can you give me a brief history of the 20×24 Studio?
In the middle of the 1970’s, Polaroid was getting ready to produce color film for 8×10 cameras. They had only made 4×5 film up until then. The film was always made on a very large web. The negative was 60 inches and the positive was 44. It wasn’t like they had to manufacture the film for something like this to happen. Dr. Land, being the showman that he always was, wanted to do a big thing at an upcoming shareholder’s meeting. He was, sort of like the prototype of Steve Jobs, in terms of big splash demos. He told his research people, what if we could create a picture that was 20×24. The way they got to 20×24, was that there was a process camera in one of the labs and they actually rigged a Polaroid back to go onto it. The maximum size of that was 20×24. That’s were 20×24 came from. They could have easily done 24×30, a more traditional photographic size, but 20×24 it was. They also, at the same time, went ahead and built a 40×80 camera. For the shareholder’s meeting, they showcased copies of paintings that were done for the museum of fine arts, and had portrait demos; Andy Warhol did a portrait from the stage, Marie Cosindas photographed Candice Bergman. The camera was a big hit. Edwin Land decided that Polaroid would commission their own woodworking and metal shops to produce 5 of these cameras, which they did over 1977-78. They opened a studio first in Cambridge, on company property at Ames St. near MIT, and they started inviting artists and photographers to come in to use it. That began the artist core program based around 20×24. There had always been fairly active programs supporting the smaller formats. It started in the 60’s and was in its zenith in the late 1970’s. Eventually they hoped that it would start to pay for itself, because it’s a very expensive process even when it was just used for promotion. Polaroid started doing market research and brought the camera down to New York in 1980 for three months, reaching out to art directors & professional photographers at a temporary space off of Broadway and 29th St. After three months, Polaroid brought the camera back to Massachusetts. I was at the Museum School in Boston for 3 or 4 years, and we primarily had the artist program as the major part of it. Some commercial jobs started rolling in, and we started to come down to New York a lot more. A week here .. a week there. Finally in 1986, we decided to move down full-time, which we did at Broadway and Prince Street. Polaroid continued their artist program, slowly but surely, the studio became more and more commercial. In fact a lot of our supported artists became our customers, because they started to become successful with the work. They had museum shows or got editorial jobs. We actually did a surprising amount of advertising work in the 80’s and early 90’s. And then of course, Polaroid’s troubles started. We knew as early as 2004, that Polaroid was getting out of the film business, although we couldn’t tell anybody then cause they didn’t want the customers to know. They were worried that if they found out, they would stop buying the film. And what happened was just the opposite. When they finally did tell everybody that they were getting out of the film business, people rushed in to buy it. What they set aside, they projected out that it would last X number of years, it was taken in a quarter of the time. They had no ability at that point to make more. They had stopped the chemical process first. Because Polaroid was licensed and permitted for all these very hefty chemicals, they made a lot of their own chemicals. Once that stopped and they had canceled these things, there was no going back. You’d have to reapply for permits and who knows if they would have gotten them. They did terminal runs of film in 2006 of all the sheet positive for all of their films and sold them all in 2008. We moved here in the summer of 2008 and we’ve been here since.
How much film do you have?
We have about 27,000 meters of 22 inch rolls. That’s a lot. More than we can use in about 10 years and it’s not going to last 10 years so we have to do something. My hope is that getting smaller formats (8×10 and possibly 4×5) out into the marketplace will prompt us, if the demand is good, to be able to make new film. I think that pent up demand should be good.
Have you created a new reagent for your films?
We are going to create a new one for our black and white film. Some of the chemicals that are needed are harmful. This is what happened to Impossible. The European Union has stricter environmental laws than the US does. Some of the chemicals that were grandfathered in to the early Polaroid films are no longer legal. They can’t use some of those materials and that’s the case with a couple of things that we use. But the other problem is, that’s almost equally as bad, is that Polaroid used to sometimes make some of this stuff themselves or would buy from vendors who had a huge minimum buy. For instance, they’d have to buy $100,000 worth of one compound. It was never a problem for Polaroid, because they sold millions of dollars worth of film. It’s economically prohibitive to use certain things. But B&W is kind of simple. It’s just a more elaborate form of traditional black and white reagent.
How does the transfer process work between the negative & the positive after developer paste has been smeared in between?
When it’s exposed, if you make a comparison to conventional photography, you expose an image, let’s say that B&W portrait for instance (John pointed towards a newly shot B&W image tacked up on the wall), and you have the whites and you have the blacks. When you develop that up, in conventional and then you fix it, you reduce what was not used. So, the areas that would be black or dark gray, don’t develop out. They just sit there and when you fix it, they go away and the film becomes clear and it prints black. What happens with instant, is instead of being reduced by a fixer, it instead transfers over to the positive. Where you have no exposure, all your black will come over to the positive and give you black. Where you have exposure in the highlights, it will all stay on the negative and not go into the positive. Obviously various tones transfer over and it moves into the gray tones. Rather than being fixed out, reduced and run down the drain, it instead just moves over to another piece of material and you get two products from it, the positive print and the negative.
Who inspires you with the work you do?
I have a much more painterly bent. When I was younger, all my influences were painters. Surrealist painters; Max Ernst and Rene Magritte. Then later expressionists like Francis Bacon. In black & white, I was a big admirer of Jerry Uelsmann and Ralph Gibson. Although more often, influence from the painters really found their way into my work.
When I was visiting, I noticed a piece of art that John had created hanging on the wall. One of his collages, which at the time I thought was an analog collage. John explained to me how he created it …
This was a digital collage first done in Photoshop. Back in the 90’s, Polaroid not only had a film scanner, but they also had a film recorder that output RGB tones to film. Almost like a cathode ray tube for TV … it would write back to film. It was an 8000 line recorder (pretty hi-res). I’d get a 4×5 transparency of this collage I created in PS and then I would take that and use some of my Sinar components and turn my camera into an enlarger of sorts. I’d mount the transparency on a piece of milk plexiglass, have an enlarging lens on the standard and the front bellows just fed into the camera. I back lit the transparency with a strobe and set it literally like an enlarger. Then I would print to 20×24 film and then do an image transfer. The transfers I did, I always liked to have them distressed and a little messed up. I would do a huge amount of hand coloring. A lot of retouching dyes, pastel, dye pigment .. which is why they are still here. If they were just straight transfers they would be very light by now. The transfer process never was all that stable. Although, now when people do them, everyone scans them. You can scan a 4×5 transfer and easily blow it up to 11×14, 16×20. So we’ve moved over the years to sort of an analog capture to a digital output philosophy to best take advantage of the medium. I miss doing them. It was a lot of fun to work with the materials that way.
THE 20x24 CAMERA
When researching the 20×24 Studio online before my trip, I ran across many informative posts on their website. A couple of videos that might interest you; one shot by Inside Analog Photo shows the 20×24 camera in action and the other shows the developer pods being created.
20×24 Studio is currently having 2 additional cameras made for them by Mammoth Camera in California. If you’re interested in this format and would like to have one of your own, click here for future information.
What are the specifications of the camera?
The 20×24 camera is a traditional view camera, but has hybrid characteristics of a rail camera and field camera. It weighs 235 pounds and sits on a rectangular frame on wheels that supports a two-column studio stand. The bellows is driven by a telescoping nylon gear that allows bellows extension from 17’’ to 60”. The front standard has 24” of rise and fall, 6” of side to side shift and the ability to swing 4” forward and back. The rear standard of the camera is static and has no independent rise and fall separate from the camera itself. The camera can descend to 24” and rise to a height of 72”. The camera rear box contains a built in processor with 22″ titanium rollers. It is driven by a geared motor drive powered by a 110v AC motor. Transformers are used for 220 or 240v current.
What lenses are used on the 20×24 camera?
The New York Studio offers focal lengths of 1200mm, 800mm, 600mm, 360mm, 210mm, and 135mm. Only the 1200, 800, and 600 were designed for the 20×24 format. Translated into inches these are 48 inch, 31 inch, and 24 inch lenses. The bellows of the camera extends from 17 to 60 inches and each of these lenses will provide different levels of magnification at different bellows extension. The 24 inch lens (600) has the most range of magnification, allowing landscapes at infinity all the way up to 1.5 times lifesize. The shorter focal lengths, which are actually 8×10 and 4×5 lenses provide magnifications from 1.5 times life-size all the way up to 10x. As magnification increases, depth of field decreases and subject to lens distance decreases. At extreme magnification, it becomes more difficult to light the subject, because it is so close and the bellows extension factor can lose up to 8 or 9 stops of light.
How is the film put in the camera?
20×24 film is provided on rolls. The negative is supplied as a 150’ roll and sits on brackets at the top of the camera box. The positive is on a 50’ roll and sits on a similar bracket at the bottom of the processor. There are no sprockets in the film and it is moved into position with tab connected to string with adhesive tape. This simple solution was utilized early on and has never been improved on. Above the positive roll in the camera sits a tray that through a chain driven system moves the chemical reagent pods into position between the two rollers where the negative and positive meet.
20×24 Studio Rental in New York
If you’d like to use this camera and rent time at their studio space in New York, the day rate is $1750. The film is $200 a shot (color or B&W). For a limited time through the end of February 2013, their color film is being offered at a discounted price of $125 a shot. When visiting, I was told to budget for two test images. You might think that is incredibly expensive. For some, it probably is. However, if you think about it, you get exclusive access to the most unique analog camera available and you’ll be sharing in the opportunity to create one of kind works of art on a very special medium. After meeting these gentlemen and seeing this thing in person, it is now one my goals in life to one day use it. If you’re reading this are interested in having your portrait taken with this camera, please get in contact with me. I would love for you to be my first …
John Reuter and Nafis Azad are so talented and meeting them on that day was something I will remember for a lifetime.
Thanks again for your time and this opportunity gents. I look forward to the next time we’re in New York City. I will definitely be stopping by to say hello if you’re in town.