3.16.2012

A different approach to portraits.


These are 4x5 inch sheets of Polaroid Film.  They aren't the kind that buzz out of the slot in an SX-70 and automatically process in your hands, covered with a protective plastic layer.  These are the kind that each come in their own protective sandwich of opaque paper.  To do a portrait on Polaroid you definitely need a subject who hasn't seen to many "behind the scenes" videos where everyone is always moving and purring, "Pout for me baby and I'll make you a star."

These were done on a Linhof TechniKarden view camera outfitted with a 250mm f5.6 Zeiss Planar lens (designed for a 5x7 inch camera).  I shot them at 5.6 which, at this camera to subject distance meant that depth of field was measured in centimeters at best.

Here's the routine for shooting Polaroids in a large format camera.  Open shutter and compose.  Focus on your subject.  Get a loupe and a dark cloth and fine focus with a loupe at your taking aperture (lenses tend to focus shift as you stop down).  When everything is perfect ask your subject to stay in position.  Close the shutter and cock the lens.  Put a Polaroid film holder into the space between the ground glass focusing back and the film plane.  Pull the paper envelope surrounding the film into the "up" position. Get the expression you want from your subject. Press the cable release.  The shot has been taken.  Now push the paper envelope back down over the film until it locks in place.  Push the release button on the Polaroid back and slide the entire package out.  You'll feel some friction as you do so.  That's two polished rollers breaking the gel pods that hold the developer and spreading it across the Polaroid film.  This takes place within the film and paper envelope.  Figure out the temperature  and use the scale to gauge the time needed for proper development. Polaroid sheets were both time and temperature sensitive in development. When the time is reached (45 seconds for black and white, 90 seconds for color) pull apart the paper envelope and retrieve the wet print, which will smell like glacial acetic acid.  Allow the print surface to totally dry before handling or stacking.

Now you are ready to take your next frame.  Continue until you have the desired look and then switch to regular film for your final shots.

We always started with black and white because it was more exact in exposure correspondence with films and it was half the price of the color Polaroid.  It was also more consistent because it wasn't as temperature sensitive.  Once we got to the film stage we had a really good idea of how the finals would look.  At the end of a session we'd shoot one last black and white Polaroid to make sure nothing had changed during our project.

The slow pace of a four by five shoot can be a positive.  People slow down and relax over time.  The process is a slow and effective feedback loop for the photographer and his model.  And the image is the same size as the final piece of film.

There's something captivating about going through a whole box of Polaroid outtakes.

My favorite Polaroid story happened when I was shooting the Alexander Palace in Pushkin, Russia in 1995.  We were supposed to do a frontal elevation but the building had two T-72 Soviet battle tanks parked out front.  It was, after all, a secure location at the time.  I was standing knee deep in snow pleading, through my interpreter, for a solution that would allow me to shoot the front of the Palace without tanks.

Finally we had a break through in communications.  The commander had been watching us shoot Polaroids and loved them.  He told our interpreter that he would move the tanks but I would have to take Polaroids of each tank crew and a Polaroid of the commander in front of both tanks.  I agreed and we shot them quickly.  I stuck the Polaroids in my jacket to warm them up and develop them.  The tank commander and his men smiled as I handed out the three prints and, with incredible noise, fired up the tanks and backed them out of my frame.  Instant success.  Instantly.  Well, about 3 minutes......

Say what you will about the latest digital cameras but there's something about large format that's still magical.

23 comments:

yoda2 said...

Nice story about the palace. To bad you don't have any copies. I guess the back up was "closing the eyes and trying hard not to forget".

But that was humanity then, recalling and telling a story. Now we back-up and forget.

kirk tuck said...

Exactly.

Steve said...

My first camera was a wooden Seneca 5x7 field view camera. Camera, lens, shutter, and film holders for all of $75. And that was only 45 years ago.

Contact prints were magical, which was a good thing, as I had no access to an enlarger that would accept the negatives. Too bad there weren't any 5x7 polaroid holders for it.

Patrick Dodds said...

Part of the beauty of photography, even in my very limited experience, is that it gets you talking to Soviet tank commanders or whoever - you just never know.

Ed Lara said...

Kirk, nice story--I remember being in shoots where the photographer shot polaroids on a view camera but didn't realize how involved the process was. Did you happen to keep extra polaroids of the tank crews on their T72s? It would be great to see those if you have them.

Ed

Wally Brooks said...

The great thing about Polaroid and large format is the long set up time and the near instant results, then fine tune your exposure and re shoot the Polaroid, and when done get the "real" film in the camera to get the shot. It took practice because you were working with materials that brought you to using the final result. The practice forced you to develop a sense of what the final result would be and over time allows one to develop a vision. Everyone should spend some tine with manual processes to hone their craft

Frank Grygier said...

Back to the future:http://provideocoalition.com/index.php/atepper/story/why_an_ipad_is_like_a_4x5_view_camera_and_why_you8217ll_need_a_black_8220fo/

thequietphotographer said...

Sometimes slow is nice...but time flies...
robert

Tony's Vision said...

I loved the story about the Russian tanks and their commander. Reminded me of a trip about that time (1995) to deep Mexico in the Oaxacan outback. We'd brought along a little Polaroid to help with the cross-cultural thing, as if that were needed in such a hospitable culture. The portraits and family pictures were passed around with delight, and were still sitting in places of honor when we returned a few years later. But what i recall best was a grizzled farmer doing the "Polaroid wave" as an image developed - not so outback after all!

kirk tuck said...

Sadly, no. Too cold to stand around shooting extras for myself and, in a highly secure space I'm not sure they would have let me keep the Polaroid if I had taken it. Not like shooting in the U.S. for a commercial client. That's for sure.

kirk tuck said...

I couldn't agree more. Skin in the game (time and money) accelerates the acquisition of real skills.

geyes30 said...

Funny that you should talk about view cameras and Polaroid, because I just got myself an Omega View 45E and a 405 Polaroid back this past week. Shooting with it is definitely an involved process (and we're not even dealing with 'real' sheet film yet!!).

kirk tuck said...

I went and looked. I don't know if it was tongue-in-cheek funny or very, very sad...

kirk tuck said...

So, are you in a rush to get to the end?

Unknown said...

The View Camera Store, in Arizona, sells the BTZS Focus Hood http://www.viewcamerastore.com/servlet/the-198/BTZS-Focus-Hood%2C-Dark/Detail A focus hood that is a tube with elastic at the camera end and Velcro at the viewers end.

With an iPad and one of these the ├╝ber-geek could isolate him/herself from the real-world while still walking in the real-world. 8-0

thequietphotographer said...

Not really! I like the slowness which is why I call myself a quiet photographer...
robert

camerakungfu said...

I used to love Type 55. The one advantage it had over other Polaroid film was that you got to keep a B/W neg while giving away the print. I'm pretty sure Hard Ground by Michael O’Brien was shot this way.

Brian Fancher said...

That color shot is just lovely. As you note in your next blog entry, a good portrait starts with the eyes. This may just be a test shot, but there was a moment there, a moment of trust and honesty between you and her, that speaks volumes. A thousand more frames might not capture the same thing. Or maybe one would. It surely isn't about the lighting, camera, or the media...

Alex said...

Thank you for the story!
I may even take off the "training wheels" of digital and start shooting film soon.

atmtx said...

Love the story. It is a entirely a different kind of photography than I am used to. Maybe someday I will explore it.

kirk tuck said...

It was a whole different way of doing things. Not very practical now. Just indulged my desire to share the past.

CarstenW said...

Is it still possible to buy instant film for 4x5" cameras?

Paulo Rodrigues said...

@CarstenW you can still get Fuji instant film for 4x5 cameras.

Kirk if the New55 project had been around then, you might have been able to give them a positive print and still have a usable negative for yourself.

Bob Crowley of the New55 project has said they have managed to do what polaroid never managed and produce a film where both the positive an negative are properly exposed.

http://new55project.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/frequently-asked-questions-about-new55.html