The 20x24 Studio at Polaroid had its genesis at the height of Polaroid Corporation’s reputation as a cutting edge company creating exciting consumer and professional instant photographic products. Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid was still very active in the company’s research and development. Following the commercial success of the SX-70 product line, Land and his group turned their attention to the traditional peel apart film that professional photographers used. In the marketplace, 4x5 inches was the largest film sold but that was about to change. Polaroid embarked on a program to make the film available to professionals using 8x10 inch view cameras as well as some very specialized larger cameras that Polaroid itself would produce.
Producing instant negative and positive materials on this scale was not the issue, in fact most manufacturers produce a web of film that is coated on very large machines and slit down later to meet the needs of the various formats produced. In Polaroid’s case, its negative was coated on a web 60 inches wide and the positive 44 inches wide. The real trick was getting the materials to behave passing through larger roller sets when the original engineering was for rollers no wider than four inches. For 8x10, this was relatively easy. The spring pressure on the eight-inch roller was adjusted and the viscosity of the reagent solution was altered to pass through the larger rollers and still allow the diffusion transfer process to produce the same result as smaller formats.
In the effort to create the 8x10 instant processing system, Land directed his engineers to push further and called for the creation of a prototype format of 20x24 inches. Why 20x24? Is so happened that 20x24 was a common format used by process cameras in that era to create separation negatives for offset printing plates.
Smaller negatives were also made on these vacuum back cameras but 20x24 was the maximum on the camera that Polaroid had, a Robertson Log e. Early tests were done with an instant film back attached and this led to the creation of the first 20x24 prototype camera in 1976. Land called for creation of this camera to shoot a live portrait from the stage of the upcoming shareholder’s meeting, a venue that Land often used to present his newest creations. In addition to the 20x24 unit, the research group also produced a 40x80 inch camera, utilizing the entire 44 inch positive roll. Both cameras photographed paintings from the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, showing off the incredible detail and color capabilities of Polacolor film, all of which were exhibited at the 1976 shareholders meeting.
This successful reception of large format Polaroid film led to a project to create multiple 20x24 cameras in 1977 and 1978. This group, Vision Research, headed by John McCann, built five general purpose 20x24 cameras as well as several others designed for scientific and military use. Polaroid embarked on a program to bring this technology to photographers and artists, allowing access to Polaroid staffed studios in Cambridge and Boston, Massachusetts. In exchange for use of the cameras and film, these artists donated a portion of their production to the Polaroid Collection. These artists included Chuck Close, Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, Jim Dine, Marie Cosindas, William Wegman, Rosie Purcell, Olivia Parker and later David Levinthal, Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, and Joyce Tenneson.
For nearly 30 years the 20x24 project continued to operate somewhat under the radar of Polaroid Corporation’s evolving product lines. The main studio moved from Boston to New York in 1986 and continued to provide access to the technology through direct rentals and film purchase as well as through the support of the Polaroid Collection. Polaroid began to face financial difficulties in 2000, leading to the eventual Chapter 11 filing in 2001. Emerging from bankruptcy, Polaroid was sold twice, first to a group of investors called Bank One Equity Partners and later to the Petters Group, led by Tom Petters.
As the company was being sold to Petters a strategy was embarked upon in 2004 to exit the analog film business in several years. Company management decided to focus on a new digital printing technology and use analog sales to fund research, marketing and production of this "inkless" printing technology. The analog film lines would be milked until exhaustion.
This strategy accelerated in 2007 and specific plans were put in place to slowly eliminate analog film products. 35 mm instant transparency was first, followed by the venerable Time Zero Film. One by one, instant film products were targeted for elimination, based on revenue and the amount of material left in the product pipeline. The 20x24 program was fortunate, as the three film lines used by the studio included the popular peel apart films still widely sold to ID, documentary, and scientific and professional markets.
The 20x24 studio was also fortunate that company management (original Polaroid executives, not Petters management) was very encouraging to put together a package to allow the studio to assemble film and mix new reagent long after the last Polaroid factories had closed. Film stock was identified and set aside based on the average worldwide consumption rate and the useful life of the physical product itself. The plan was put in place by the end of 2007 and the transition would take place at the beginning of the second quarter of 2008. As 2008 progressed the planned transition to our new company 20x24 Holdings LLC was delayed due to complications resulting from the Petters Group financial relationships. This came to a head in the fall of 2008 when Petters was arrested and indicted for running a Ponzi scheme bilking investors of up to 3 billion dollars. Petters’ arrest led to a second filing for Chapter 11 protection by Polaroid in late 2008 to protect itself from the legal fallout of prosecution of his case. Petters was later found guilty of these charges and sentenced to prison.
By spring of 2009 the bankruptcy court in Minnesota allowed Polaroid’s assets to be sold to satisfy the creditors. Several weeks of bidding led to the acquisition of the Polaroid brand and intellectual property by Hilco and Gordon Brothers. With Polaroid’s status settled, the court subsequently ruled on the remaining deals and pending agreements, which included 20x24 Holdings. On May 7, which coincided with Edwin Land’s 100th birthday the court approved the agreement with Polaroid.
With the film inventory and production equipment finally transferred to the new company, arrangements had to be made quickly to move it out of Polaroid’s warehouse before they were to vacate it at the end of the month. The material required four tractor-trailer loads and was placed in another storage facility as work began on choosing a suitable production facility. Over the course of the summer, arrangements were made with Webco Chemical of Dudley, Massachusetts to store the chemicals and mixing equipment and to make the reagent on a contractual basis as it was needed. This greatly facilitated the process without a need to build a facility from scratch that meets the necessary environmental controls, instead relying on Webco's existing infrastructure.
The second step was to find a suitable space for the rolls of film, packaging materials, the film spooler and most importantly the "pod" machine, a 1960s handmade machine that inserts the developing reagent from holding tanks into the individual 20 inch long foil packets known as pods. Successful manufacturing of the pods is perhaps the most critical part of the process, aside from making the reagent itself. While the film can be stored for several years, the reagent in the pods can only last about six months to one year depending on the film type.
A space was found in the former mill town of Putnam, Connecticut in a former thread factory known as the Belding Mill complex. Walls had to be removed to bring in the 1000 pound spooler and one-ton pod machine. A darkroom was constructed around the film spooler, as it will spool the light sensitive negative material. A transformer was installed to convert the 240 v current to the rarer 208 v current required by both the pod machine and spooler. Nitrogen tanks and compressed air were installed to feed the pod machine.
Now that the production facilities are fully operational 20x24 Holdings has resumed supplying not only the New York City studio but 20x24 cameras scattered around the country and in Europe. The New York studio remains the cornerstone of the 20x24 program, accounting for 80% of all activity. Longtime clients such as Chuck Close, Mary Ellen Mark, and David Levinthal still frequent the studio. Contemporary photographers such as Julian Schnabel, Magda Campos, Elsa Dorfman, Anna Tomczak and Tim Mantoani are also current customers. The legend of 20x24 Polaroid instant imaging occupies an important place in late 20th-century photography. In order to continue into the 21st century, 20x24 Holdings contracted in late 2010 with Mammoth Camera of California to build two entirely new 20x24 cameras.
- New 20x24 Cameras http://www.i-newswire.com/new-20x24-instant-cameras/69143
- 20x24 Holdings LLC and Polaroid Sale of Assets http://www.i-newswire.com/new-20x24-instant-cameras/69143
- Forbes magazine "Land Grab" http://www.forbes.com/forbes/2010/0913/life-art-photography-cameras-polaroid-land-grab.html
- Art Info http://www.artinfo.com/news/story/28268/new-company-to-assume-production-of-polaroid-materials/
- Wall Street Journal, August 6, 2008 http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121797626872014909.html