Ethan Moses is no stranger to making cameras. Over the years he has created a series of 4 × 5 handheld cameras, medium format cameras and 35mm panoramic cameras, but for his latest creation he decided to think big, really big. . At the height of the pandemic, Moses set out to recreate Polaroid’s iconic 20 × 24 camera, capable of producing images 20 inches wide and 24 inches high.
“Polaroid built the original 20 × 24 Polaroid cameras for demonstrations and for advertising smaller products,” says Moses. But the camera was also popular with famous photographers and artists. The huge pieces of Polaroid films used by people like William Wegman, Andy Warhol, Chuck Close, Mary Ellen Mark, and Elsa Dorfman ceased to exist in 2017, the same year John Reuter announced he was shutting down the 20 × studio. 24 in Manhattan. But that did not deter Moses. His solution? To build a custom 20 × 24 camera that records positive impressions directly on a large piece of photo paper.
In use, Moses loads the photo paper, takes an exposure, and then pours the chemistry directly into the film holder, allowing him to do direct positive without the need for a darkroom. “I certainly didn’t invent huge cameras, but I think I was the first to invent a film holder that has a light deflector like a daylight developing tank so you can process straight into it. the support without darkroom. Then, in a relatively uncontrolled environment, you can simply remove the back of the camera, put it on a table, pour a quart of chemistry into it, and shake it.
Last month, Moses traveled from his home in Albuquerque, New Mexico to Brooklyn, New York, and partnered with Brooklyn Film Camera’s Kyle Depew to offer portrait sessions and workshops at Wyckoff Windows Studio. The first two weekends sold out immediately, followed by an additional third weekend.
“In Albuquerque, if I do that, I have seven people showing up in my backyard and I know them all,” says Moses. “But here it was really an amazing thing to see how many people showed up. People were from Seattle. A guy left his wife on bail for a day on his honeymoon to come to the workshop. Someone came from Minnesota.
Here Moses tells us about the camera making process and what it’s like to shoot.
Where did the idea to build this 20 × 24 camera come from?
About 20 years ago I was very fond of reading photo.net and the guy who ran it, Phillip Greenspun, his avatar was a 20 × 24 portrait done by Elsa Dorfman showing him with a big white dog. It was great. And it’s a great regret in my life that I never spent the money and had Elsa Dorfman do my portrait while she was still alive. I’ve always had that in my head.
On the Homemade Camera Podcast, we talked about this and the challenges of making self-developing cameras, like the Afghan Camera. So we set ourselves the challenge to start working on these self-developing cameras. And at one point, we had worked on enough of these projects, perfecting the process, that I thought maybe we could use the knowledge to replicate the 20 × 24 Polaroid experience. Filming with a 20 × camera. 24 is an interesting process, but who wants a 20 × 24 negative?
When did the construction process start?
It’s one of those cameras that I wanted to build because I wanted to use it and see what it could do. And it turns out that you need portraits real pleasant. Anyway, during the pandemic, stuck in my garage, I bought a car-sized laser cutter. All of a sudden I could cut parts for this thing. For five months I was just drawing, CAD, cutting, gluing and screwing. And I think this current version is pretty much the seventh iteration of the camera. Usually I build a bunch of cameras, starting with a prototype. I’ll see what doesn’t work, leave it on the table, and build a brand new one until I get it right.
But this thing, it’s just too big. I was building one and I was like, “Okay, I want to make this change”, but then that would mean taking the camera apart. For a while I didn’t have a working camera, I just didn’t have space.
What were some of the things you had to solve while building it?
Oh my God, everything. The camera contains a bunch of different systems. It has a rail system, focus system, standard front and rear, and a popup folding system which should be pretty stiff. The bellows each required troubleshooting. I have maybe 150 pages of hand drawings before all the CAD files showing how well the rails work.
The real terrible was the bellows, however. I have built hundreds of bellows for 4 × 5 cameras. You just build them flat on a table. But when you lay that thing flat, it’s 14 feet by 17 feet. My mate Joe and I tried to build this, and it was like trying to do push-ups with one hand and spray glue with the other hand. Neither of us are in good shape, it’s 100 degrees and we are lying in my driveway in Albuquerque. It became such a mess so quickly. I spent another week building this giant bellows-shaped obelisk. For six hours straight, I just glued fabric together and laser cut ribs, hundreds of them.
It was the first time the camera was taken out into the wild, how did people react during the portrait shoots?
The people were great in it. It was really wild. I am used to a life where no one is interested in what fascinates me enormously. But here I think people are more excited about the big camera than I am, and I built it. I devoted five months of my life to its construction. People love the magic trick, I think. This is new, for us and for everyone. What we found out is that every now and then it makes for some really beautiful photos with a really unique look. The obvious thing to do are portraits, even a photo booth. You can do a lot of them, they’re pretty fun. Everyone is different and beautiful in their own way. And it’s so well suited to portraits. It has a very shallow depth of field, so the subject should be really still. It’s really hard to operate in daylight, so strobe lights make it a lot easier.
What is your strobe setup with the camera?
I have these Speedotron heads and packs from the 90s. They were the most powerful from the movie era. This is what you would use to light up a basketball stadium. When I turn on a strobe, there’s a ton of light going through two heads. The exposure time is approximately 1/60 of a second. I haven’t built a shutter for any of these huge lenses yet. What I did was just plug the lens, dim the lights, then unlock the lens. I am holding a pack of filter gel over the lens just to compensate for the colors as you don’t have any middle steps like printing or scanning. And then I just turn on the strobe, and that’s basically the shutter rate.
What lenses are you using with the 20 × 24 camera?
The one I really like is a Lomo lens that I bought in Russia from eBay years ago in anticipation of building a camera like this someday. The other one I have is an APO Nikkor 600mm. When I signed up with Kyle, I immediately ordered another treatment lens from Japan that would cover us, just in case I dropped the Lomo lens. I didn’t want to have to wait another three months or search eBay for years for such a thing. They are rare and beautiful. They were designed for Xerox machines before there were scanners.
What’s next for you and the 20 × 24 camera?
People dig it. I’ll see where it goes. Maybe I’ll do more 20 × 24 workshops, but I need a month’s sleep. When I take pictures with it, there are three people working. If I did this in Albuquerque, I wouldn’t have room. But even if I had the space, I wouldn’t have anyone to take pictures with. I wouldn’t have anyone to shake my platters. I wouldn’t have anyone to load the film. I wouldn’t have anyone to greet my subjects. After New York, I first thought about going home and selling miniature versions of the camera. But shooting the large version is pretty fun, and many people would rather have their portraits photographed than buying camera parts or obscure cameras.
It’s a different process than a 20 × 24 Polaroid, but it’s a similar product, it’s great 2021 – it’s analog, but it’s also fast.
Ethan Moses is currently fundraising on Kickstarter to then bring his 20 × 24 camera to Los Angeles.