Using a 20×24-inch Polaroid to Take Honest Portraits of Movie Stars

Chuck Close Polaroid-002

Print of Robert De Niro just out of the camera (screen capture from the video ‘Up Close and Personal’)

Created by Polaroid in 1976, the 20×24-inch instant camera is one of the most unusual and massive pieces of photographic history you can get your hands on (if you’re lucky enough… or have the dough). Fortunately for those of you who want to see the cam in action, photographer Chuck Close managed to do just that in a series of images for Vanity Fair’s 20th Hollywood issue.

First used by artists such as Andy Warhol and even Chuck Close himself, the process of getting your hands on this beast “the size of a Volkswagen” wasn’t as simple as grabbing some film from your nearest drugstore and winding it through your 35mm. Polaroid specifically granted artists access to the camera and film, for free, on the condition that the photographers share some of the images they captured with it.

Four years ago, New York City based 20×24 Studio purchased both the camera and the machines needed to produce the massive instant film, and now allows for it to be rented out on-location in their San Francisco studio, but it’s safe to say your pockets (or partnerships) are going to need to be deep.

For this series of images for Vanity Fair, Close went in with the mindset of creating honest, humanistic portraits of the actors and actresses. His decision to use analogue over digital played a vital roll in this, and he specifically mentions the “honesty” of film over digital images in the video above.

Close also made sure to keep the celebrities appearance and attitude as honest as the medium, telling them to leave the fancy wardrobe and stylists at home. Rather, he instructed them to bring along a single set of clothes and — if they’d like — a friend they’re comfortable having in the studio.

Taking up to three hours at a time, the process can be a grueling one. As Close explains, “You [have to] shove this baby right down their throat” and “bark orders at them” from the other side of the camera. But as inconvenient as it may have been at times, the resulting images show that every bit of effort was worth it.

Chuck Close Polaroid-004

Chuck Close (doing his best Walter White impression) and Bruce Willis (screen capture from the video ‘Up Close and Personal’)

In the end, close achieved exactly what he envisioned (not a first, we reckon): he captured very real, personable photographs of the individuals we so often see glamorized, hidden behind facades created by make-up artists, stylists and digital artists.

To take a look at the full series for yourself, head on over to Vanity Fair.

(via Vanity Fair via Imaging Resources)

P.S.: Here’s an incredible FAQ full of intriguing information about the Polaroid 20×24-inch camera; ranging from why Polaroid produced it, to what lenses were made for it.

  • whoopn

    Help me here, why? I understand that such a large photograph will result in a tremendous capability to blow these to building sized prints but again…why? What makes these “more life like” than other cameras?

    Why is this better than a hasselblad or leaf?

  • jan

    well because it’s instant film init?
    (with a leaf or hasselblad you would develop in a darkroom or process digitally, it’s not ‘better’ but different.

  • Mike

    Because we can.

  • bob cooley

    Agreed – I’m not seeing how this is any more honest than shooting with any other camera and not manipulating the image afterwards. The technique is what makes it honest, not the device.

    I would have taken the approach that these are all one-of-a-kind, original works of art / prints and stayed away from the ‘honesty’ angle…

  • David Liang

    This almost feels like one of those projects where the concept is oversold. How many times was “honest” used in describing the technique and intentions? If it’s so honest just execute and let the work stand. If you have to tell people you’re being honest, numerous times at that, it starts to feel disingenuous even if the honesty is true.

  • Gannon Burgett

    The honesty in it is due to the fact that these photographs are untouched once the shutter is released and the fact that at such a large print, every detail of the actor or actresses face shows, which is unusual for people we otherwise see covered up so often. You can’t “touch up” an instant photo, especially at this size.

  • bob cooley

    Right, but that’s just the technique, not the device – I can shoot with my D800 or Hasse, and make a huge print straight out of camera, and it’s just as honest if I’m not doing any post to it.

    The uniqueness in the project is that its an original, one of a kind; it’s no more honest than any non-processed work.

  • Stan B.

    Yes, this is “honest” portraiture at its best- especially when you
    “bark orders at them from the other side of the camera.” Honesty

    This is a prime example of BULL piled high to its very highest
    order, just to rationalize and excuse the use of a piece of technology
    NO ONE else is able to afford or use.

    So hypocritical, it’s laughable. THE WHOLE POINT is that they are
    being photographed (by a CELEBRITY) with technology NOT available to
    the common man.

    The 1% photographing the 1%- AS HONEST AS IT CAN POSSIBLY GET!!!

  • Stan B.

    More honest than a “regular” human sized Polaroid? How? In what possible way? Is honesty contingent on SIZE?

    Please, explain…

  • Stan B.

    “… but it’s safe to say your pockets (or partnerships) are going to need to be deep,”

    This must be, has to be, some kind of call us on the bull post- and if you don’t, you deserve it, and everything we punk you with from here on end.

    Yes, everything automatically becomes more sincere once made inaccessible…

  • Michal Rosa

    What is honest about using a wide angle lens from a short distance to distort the faces of your subjects?

  • Steve Vaughan

    I would LOVE to have one of these cameras! Soooo cool!

  • Andy Umbo

    Got this issue to look at the photo’s and have to say, I’m under-whelmed. As a long-time professional user of large format sheet film, I can say it’s exceedingly difficult to not let the limitations of the format in lighting, movement, and focus influence the outcome, and that problem is magnified going to a format this large! These are nothing more than 20X24 drivers license photos with marginal lighting meant to get as much light on the subject as possible, not the best light. In addition, the lens used is certainly not the best for flattering photos, but to make the camera easier to use at this level of enlargement. If you want to call that “honest”, okay, but I’m just calling it really large pictures with the creative level of grade school photos. BTW, I remember reading once in a fashion mag, Timothy Greenfield Sanders referred to as he New York Elite’s favorite drivers license photographer, for the same reasons.

  • jan

    there is no such thing as more honest, it’s either honest or it’s not. But it’s bigger, some people will be impressed if something is just bigger than most.

  • Brenda Reagan

    Ok, without sounding like the “a-hole beating up on a handicapped person”, I’m having a bit of trouble seeing this cat as being the “photographer” of these images. It seems his only role in any of this is “barking orders” and others are doing all of the work and the images are straight out of camera. One can dance around with comments of “capturing the moment” but the reality is these images are nothing special as far as composure or lighting. The only thing that potentially would qualify them as being “special” is the use of the one of a kind camera.

  • Kaouthia

    Except that you’re always doing post with a digital camera. Whether you’re shooting JPG and it’s done automatically in-camera or shooting RAW and you do it manually in-computer, it’s being done all the same.

    That being said, film (even Polaroid) was/is no different. You just make the choices before you take the shot (instead of afterwards) by determining specifically which type of film/polaroid you choose to put in the camera to give a different tone, colour response, etc.

    As you say, one is no more or less honest than the other. The camera has always lied. :)

  • Richard Horsfield


    …that’s all I have to say on this.

  • Roboto

    The comments on this article from arm chair pros are terrible: It’s Chuck Close. Yeah he has assistants, as would basically any other artist at his level (and you know being paralysed and all). It’s honest because the image can’t be manipulated, because the medium is “as is,” stop overthinking it. It’s also Chuck Close.

  • David

    Kaouthia, there are not too many film choices that can be made anymore with 20×24 polaroid film. It isn’t made anymore and only the film that has been stockpiled remains. I don’t think any of the B&W film is still available so i think it is pretty much down to a single choice.

  • David

    Well Steve, you would also need a factory that makes the film because it is not made anymore, ;-)

  • Andy Umbo

    I’m a ‘real’ pro, and not an arm chair pro, and BTW, a lot of us have never liked Chuck Close either. His work can be a “yawn”. Have enough faith in your education to know when the emperor has no clothes on…

  • David

    Whoopn, i don’t believe this type of polaroid film supplies a negative. These are each one of a kind images that will not be enlarged. Other than that, i agree. :-)

  • Brenda Reagan

    Touche’ Andy Umbo…

  • whoopn

    Makes sense, thanks Jan!

  • Kaouthia

    Not for these guys. It says in the article that they bought “the machines needed to produce the massive instant film” along with the camera.

    So, they can use whatever chemical combination they want to give themselves the film they want – even ones that were never commercially manufactured by Polaroid, if they wish.

  • Matthew Wagg

    I’d love to work with one of those cameras. Conjuring up images from that beastie would be awesome. The difficulty of working at such a large format and only getting a one shot at it, oh yes please. But the only large format work available is negatives now. Shame really. Digital has a lot to answer for.

  • Fed Up with weirdos like you

    this story has been recycled and kicked around for the last month or more….these images are not Art, they are not Professional Portraits. Don’t confuse the lack of skill or time put into these snapshots as some form of “realism”. Stories like this really disturb me. This ‘story’ was kicked around on Facebook last month and overwhelmingly was characterized as ‘sad’ and a ‘non-story’ by some very accomplished people..including myself…..

  • Fed Up with weirdos like you

    everytime they do one of these books they parade the “usual suspects’ in front of the camera…..someone please tell me ‘who cares’ anymore ? the hell with this stupid Polaroid camera…and this Geriatric Photographer with NO SKILL

  • Stan B.

    I challenge the “honesty” part, but you’re right about one thing- multimedia “artists” usually fail in their forays into photography. They don’t get the nuances, and usually come up with results that have been done before, and to a much higher aesthetic standard. Kinda like an MMA fighter trying his hand(s) as a boxer, and vice versa.

    Avedon also employed a myriad of assistants, but he came up with the goods.

  • Tom Kwas

    You said it Matt, when I look back on my photographic career, it’s nice to lay 8X10 and 4X5 transparencies out on the light table, they are stunning to look at. I’m at the end of my career and I’m sputtering out with marginal digital that’s not even in it’s maturation stage. Wish I could have gone the distance with film…

  • imajez

    I think the problem with those carping about the images is the fact that they have not actually seen the photos in the flesh. All they have seen is a small jpeg.
    Even images in magazines can pale besides the real print on a gallery wall.
    On numerous occasions I’ve seen photos online or in a magazine and then when I’ve seen the work for real, it’s completely different. The image is far more powerful, it works better and is how they were meant to be seen.

    I’m not saying that everyone will change their mind once seeing these shots for real, but they’ll have a better appreciation than before. Particularly if the work is large scale. There are several films I’ve seen numerous times on the big screen and enjoyed them each time. On TV however they simply fail to work for me as they’ve lost their scale and grandeur.

    Some of my favourite personal shots are not worth putting online as they lose the texture/detail that gives them something more than just the image content.

  • Steve Vaughan

    Well, that sucks…..even though I’d probably never be able to afford one of those cameras anyways :) Just saw the pics in Vanity Fair…amazing.

  • Jethro Q Walrustitty.

    They don’t look distorted to me. The plane of focus is adjusted via the bellows. You can see that in the video.

  • Jethro Q Walrustitty.

    Why can’t a Polaroid be manipulated? It has been done many times over. I’ve done it myself! Just on a smaller scale!

  • Jethro Q Walrustitty.

    Looking forward to seeing your stuff…..

  • Fed Up with weirdos like you

    Brenda…just say it….this ‘photographer’ is pathetic….he makes real photographers look bad…we feel sorry for him being handicapped and everything but these very poor images were not really taken by him. This ‘story’ is not worth printing into ‘toilet paper format’

  • Fed Up with weirdos like you

    these cameras are irrelevant…..focus on your skills..not on some dead technology….

  • Lance Waterman

    Chuck is far from ‘close’ on making anything I’d want on a wall.
    Except if I want to UP Chuck.

  • Lance Waterman

    It’s not, it hype for a disabled gay man.

  • Lance Waterman

    Up Chuck is not a ‘celebrity’, he rides them.

  • Lance Waterman


  • Lance Waterman

    Simply, HOW up chuck close was ever called a ‘celebrity’ is far far far beyond me.

  • James

    Think of it like this: That photo was there. It ‘saw’ the person being photographed. It has a physical link with the people involved. It is not a copy of the photo; it IS the photo. Shooting on 35 or medium format, you’re shooting a negative that has to be projected onto a new piece of photographic paper to reverse the negative. So you will only ever see copies of the original photograph (the negative of which will sit in someone’s drawer to possibly make more future copies). I don’t think it’s better; but why not play around? It’s art.