A Tale of Two Cameras
Why did Polaroid build cameras this big?
The 20 x 24 and the Museum Camera could be seen as fraternal twins: both were born in 1976, and sprang from abruptly announced desires of Polaroid co-founder Edwin Land ’30, S.D. ’57. The former was invented when Land decided that he wanted to juice up the 1976 shareholders’ meeting, upstaging one of the company’s hot new products—8-by-10-inch film for professional photographers—with an even bigger camera. The latter was made for a more specific, if no less whimsical, purpose: the boss wanted a life-size replica of a Pierre-Auguste Renoir painting held by the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston.
From its beginning, then, the uses of the Museum Camera were obvious: to produce life-size, high-fidelity copies of artworks, first for scholarly study (and the associated prestige), and then for profit. In 1980, the company made headlines—and The Guinness Book of Records—when it rigged a Vatican gallery with equipment to make the largest box camera ever constructed, a super-sized version of the Museum Camera, in order to photograph Raphael’s Transfiguration of Christ. And in 1989, it partnered with the Moscow Tertryakov Gallery to make a series of Polaroid reproductions for a touring show, “Treasures from Russia,” that showed works like Andrei Rublev’s Old Testament Trinity outside the Soviet Union for the first time. Eventually, the camera was monetized through the Polaroid Museum Replica Collection, which sold limited-edition, museum-authorized prints, starting at $395. Each came with a Polaroid certificate of authenticity.
Its smaller sibling, the 20 x 24, had a more uncertain status. Official Polaroid pamphlets would later assert that “it began as a research tool to accurately reproduce works of art”—and it’s true that, early on, the camera was employed to take detail shots of a medieval tapestry at the MFA that were then sent off to Harvard, Yale, Cornell, the University of Chicago, and UC, Berkeley. But as documented by papers in the Polaroid Corporation Records at Harvard Business School’s Baker Library (see Treasure, “The Polaroid Moment,” March-April, page 76), the corporate vision was hardly that clear. The 20 x 24 existed, and the company had to dream up its purpose after the fact. Today, it’s considered an artist’s tool. Back then, it was a product in search of a market.
A jotted-down, charmingly random list of planned 20 x 24 projects, from 1978, reflects this open-endedness: photos of Star Trek animation drawings, two paintings at Harvard’s Fogg Art Museum, blueprints of the Brooklyn Bridge, “Bill Lipscomb’s Nobel Laureate award,” and two nineteenth-century portraits belonging to the family of a Lawrence M. Barass. (His parents, Barass wrote to Polaroid, intended to deed the heirlooms to a museum to “reduce eventual death duties on their estate,” and wanted replicas to keep for themselves.)
That year, the company constructed four cameras, with plans for three more. But they cost about $50,000 apiece—before operating expenses. Polaroid determined that each camera should be attended by two full-time staff members: a “back man” who took care of the film supply, mechanics, and logistics, and a “front man” devoted, essentially, to promotion. He’d be “the synthesis of a sound businessman and an excellent photographer”—someone who “knows who the photographers of importance are…convinces them to try using a 20 x 24, and guides them to having a very successful first experience.” It was thought that Polaroid might even need to offer a “picture perfect guarantee” to coax early adopters into their new Cambridge studio.
According to plans outlined in a 1979 memo, the studio was intended to bring in revenue through rentals and per-exposure fees. But when executives analyzed the marketplace, they worried that commercial photographers—especially studio portraitists—would view the large-format instant camera as a threat to their already profitable sales of prints based on small or medium-sized negatives. Perhaps there would be more opportunity in the art-replica business, or for graphic arts. In one trade magazine, Polaroid even advertised the studio as a kind of Boston tourist attraction, akin to visiting Quincy Market or riding in a swan boat: come to Kendall Square and “You can feel like Arnold Newman or Ansel Adams.”
Polaroid also promoted the 20 x 24 within the company. Its prints could be thoughtful retirement gifts for employees in lieu of “rocking chairs and watches,” one announcement proposed; “truly remarkable portraits” could be made of important visitors, and presented as mementos. The images could even grace the walls of offices, conference rooms, cafeterias, and lobbies. “Decorating with photographic art is recognized by designers as a new art form,” the company insisted. “When properly mounted, framed, lighted, arranged and placed, these Polaroid very-large-format photographs can take the same position in any interior space that has long been reserved for more costly and hard-to-obtain art forms.”
As scholar Peter Buse points out in his book The Camera Does the Rest, for many years Polaroid’s public-relations materials promoted virtually every function of instant color photography—its commercial use in advertising; its industrial uses in business and science; its popular use among amateur consumers—except as an aesthetic object. The 20 x 24 marked a turning point in the company’s rhetoric, which began to emphasize color photography’s role in art-history research, and then in fine art.
In 1979, Polaroid organized an exhibition of 20 x 24 works featuring 18 artists, including Andy Warhol and Chuck Close. Photographer and critic Gary Metz contributed an essay to the catalog, in which he heralded the 20 x 24 as “a sort of reinvention of photography,” offering artists the same thrill, and sense of discovery, that their predecessors had felt with the first daguerreotypes. “In the rhetoric of their tremendous size, their iridescent color, their formidable optics, their promiscuous topographic completeness—in short, their utter physicality—the 20 x 24 pictures recover and extend the first moments of photography’s public history. It is as if we have the opportunity to start all over again,” Metz wrote. “This first work represents, in the best and fullest sense of the word, research.” He ended on a note almost of admonition: “It remains to be seen whether artists can be as sophisticated in their work as the apparatus itself.” In later promotional materials, Polaroid called the 20 x 24 nothing less than “a new medium” in itself.
Today, both cameras are held up as exemplary artifacts of the meeting of art and technology. Of course, neither aesthetic advancement nor business innovation proceeds with smooth, confident linearity. Instead, their histories are strung from fumbles, guesses, experimentation, false starts. The Museum Camera was eventually dismantled. Just down the street, though, at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, a 20 x 24 camera is still used by students, says studio manager Galen Palmer. Given the current film supply, “We have a few years left.”