Nancy McCrary: John, thank you for allowing us this opportunity to learn more about you and the Polaroid 20×24 camera. Could you start us off with some of your background, the history of the camera, and what brought you two together?
John Reuter: I studied photography throughout my collegiate career in the 1970s (SUNY Geneseo and the University of Iowa) receiving B.A., M.A. and M.F.A. degrees in Photography. It was always my intent to teach on the university level but circumstances led me to work for Polaroid Corp. beginning in 1978. I had been supported as an artist during my graduate career and had visited Polaroid in 1977 before moving there. My first position was in a research studio but I later joined the 20×24 Studio in 1980.
The 20×24 camera was first built in 1976 and an active program established in 1978. Throughout the 1980s the 20×24 was the cornerstone of the Artist Support program inviting artists such as Chuck Close, William Wegman, Joyce Tenneson, David Levinthal, Robert Rauschenberg and many others. The 20×24 Studio moved from Boston to NYC in 1986 and has remained there ever since. In 2008, when Polaroid exited the film business, I formed a company with an investor to purchase the remaining 20×24 film stock and we have operated out of Lincoln Center since 2012, actively documenting the New York Film Festivals while continuing to offer the camera to clients.
NM: How many portraits have you made with the 20×24? Are there any stories you’d like to share? Any favorites, and why?
JR: While I have made over a thousand portraits on the 20×24, they are ones you will never see. They have been at events or benefits and are taken away by the sitters at the event. I have been the camera operator or producer on many of the celebrity portraits you have probably seen in magazines or on the internet. Perhaps my favorite was when we photographed President Obama in Washington DC with Chuck Close in 2012. The logistics and pressure of organizing and executing this kind of shoot is unlike any other. The anxiety and nervousness before the shoot is only matched by the exhilaration and satisfaction of a successful session when it is over. The President was great, very funny and engaging and of course every Chuck Close shoot is pretty special.
NM: The Wegman video (https://vimeo.com/115127856) is a story about the early days of the camera. Other than the obvious size, what sets the 20×24 apart from other images?
JR: When the 20×24 camera first arrived on the scene in the late 70s, the scale of an image 20×24 inches was a phenomenon. Most fine art photographers rarely made prints larger than 11×14 and almost all were black-and-white.
In addition the camera was primarily a studio camera requiring powerful strobe lighting and the help of studio staff. The experience was more like a film set than a photo shoot. Above all else it was the fact that the image was delivered instantly, available for the artist and everyone else involved to see the results in 90 seconds. Unlike the instant viewing of digital cameras, this is a full-scale finished color photograph, not an image on a screen. To this day I have not experienced a superior creative working method.
NM: Your documentary about the Polaroid 20×24, Camera Ready, has been an ongoing project for a few years. When might we look forward to seeing that?
JR: I began working on Camera Ready in the summer of 2014 and William Wegman was my first interview. At that time I anticipated that I would complete it at the end of 2016. I have fifteen interviews so far and quite a bit of historical video and still photos. What I did not anticipate was how much time continuing to run the studio would at times overwhelm that process. Once I reached a decision to run out the studio by the end of 2017, it has allowed for more clarity but even more time is now necessary to bring the project to an end in a responsible way. I think about the film every day and the longer time frame is allowing me to conceptualize the story in a more coherent way. In the beginning I did not want my role to be part of the story and I now realize that it is a huge part of the story and will make a better film to have my personal perspective interwoven into the historical narrative.
NM: And what’s next for you, when this chapter closes? How do you follow such sweet success.?
JR: I would love to move into filmmaking full time but realize that business is just as difficult if not more than the photo business. I still love teaching and that will always be a part of my life. I have done workshops for thirty years in Polaroid process, Photoshop, Encaustic Painting and now video. Nothing of course can replicate the experience of the 20×24 years. It is not unlike being in a successful rock band and then going solo. While many may still only want to hear your greatest hits, I am hoping there will be those who want to hear the new songs.
John and the 20×24 Polaroid camera will be at Hathaway Contemporary in Atlanta on October 27th, 28th, and 29th. To make a reservation for a portrait session with John or Sheila Pree Bright, please click here. Hope to see you there!
To visit the 20×24 Studio site please click here.