Past & Presence

Imagine a modern professional photographer involved in a photo project allowing only 25 exposures in an entire day—with film so rare, there’s no room for tests, mistakes or retries. This is the story of a meeting between a great photographer and a historic camera.

Among the world’s foremost beauty and fashion photographers, Douglas Dubler has always seen his career as a series of works in progress. From his early days studying fine arts (and being mentored by Ansel Adams and Noguchi), through his celebrity portraits in Hollywood, to his recent ballet projects, he has looked upon his work as an evolving progression. Always, his invented techniques and accumulated experience have led to newer and more artistically challenging projects. On the way, his photographs have appeared on the covers of virtually every fashion and fine-art photography magazine in the world, from Vogue to the issue you’re reading at this moment.

Dubler’s hallmark is intensive preparation, acute attention to detail and an approach to collecting and collaborating with a team (models, makeup artists, set designers, technicians) that reflects his vision in every element of the final product. No one is more sensitive than Dubler to the creative dynamics of artist, equipment, technique and subject, and he approaches every project as a creative director, closely involved with his team in every step of the process.

So it seems natural that Dubler would turn the opportunity to shoot with a historic camera into a major exploration of personality, style, context and form. With the Polaroid 20×24 camera, and ballerina Rachelle Di Stasio, Dubler found a model and a medium that meshed with his career-long exploration of motion, image, immediacy and tradition.

John Reuter, who owns the 20×24 camera in New York (along with the last film stocks), has been friends with Dubler for many years, and has encouraged him to do a project on the large-scale instrument. "He would invite me to use the camera," Dubler says. "But I didn’t have the project for it. Still, I wanted to use it before it disappears—this is a historical endeavor, as well as an artistic one."

Ballerina/model: Rachelle Di Stasio
Hair & Makeup: Sylvia Pichler for
Styling: Jersey Murray for
Producer: Steve Titus
Dancewear: Grishko NYC
Broncolor flash courtesy of FotoCare NYC
Backdrop: Broderson Backdrops
Studio: Go Studios NYC
Digital Scans: ColorBurst Studio142

Dubler has created some striking dance photography already, including the large-scale "Swan" images of Irina Dvorovenko (with the American Ballet Theatre in New York). "And I thought some of the dynamic tensions involved would work well with the large Polaroid camera," he adds. "I found a young ballerina, Rachelle Di Stasio, who seemed to me to be a good subject. My goal was to capture a young dancer’s persona within the context of the classical ballet. There’s a fascinating series of creative contraries at work: the stylized classicism of the form with the immediacy and evanescence of the movement; the rigid rules of ballet with the fluidity of the body; the hard discipline of dance and the spirit and energy of the young dancer."

Di Stasio studies ballet at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School at the American Ballet Theatre on a full scholarship. She’s presently working at the top student level and dreams of being a company member of ABT. "I met Rachelle through her mother, Diane, who has been involved in the New York dance world, and who told me her daughter was going to attend the JKO school on a scholarship," says Dubler. He had seen some photographs of the young Di Stasio, "and I thought, interesting, and filed that away in my mind."

With the general idea of working on the 20×24 camera, and his own experience photographing dancers, Dubler began to conceive of a project involving this ingénue ballerina.

"I had a meeting with Rachelle and her mother to discuss the concept. You know, I didn’t know if she could do this, I didn’t know how she’d work with the camera or with me, because I was looking for something a little different, not the standard dance photographs. But she had some experience being photographed, which was helpful. At any rate, she was fabulous in front of the camera."

The young dancer was excited about the opportunity to work on such an unusual project. "When I first heard the idea, I thought it would be amazing to be a part of history like this," she says, "but it was definitely a challenge."

Dubler recognized that any new artistic approach would be a gamble, especially working with the large camera, where prints would be unique and fixed—and expensive. With very little black-and-white film remaining, the artist has to put himself on a strict exposure budget. There was no question, once the project started, of reworking shots or doing anything over again. But Dubler knows his craft, and has the experience and vision required to move into new areas of expression. So this was a calculated gamble.

"And she’s a great dancer, a beautiful young girl, and I could tell at our meeting that she understood what I was after," says the photographer. "And once we shot a first Polaroid, I knew this was going to work out. I’ve been doing this long enough; I can tell if the model is engaged in the job, can tell how it’s going to work—and this ability to anticipate is especially crucial in working with this camera, where you don’t get ‘just another shot.’ When I saw her working on that first shot, I knew we had a good day ahead of us."

Dubler is quite explicit about the balance between technical preparation and the photographer’s art. He sees technique—and instrumentation, like lighting, backdrop and so forth—as a necessary feature he can develop to serve the principal purpose of his work.

"There was no testing, of course," says Di Stasio. "We only had five black-and-white frames available. So we would practice everything. Douglas would work with me on facial expressions, hand gestures. So we did a lot of processing before each picture was taken."

Dubler met with his team, the stylist and makeup artist, explaining his perspective and what sort of details he wanted for the shot. "I spoke with Sylvia Pichler, with whom I’ve worked for 20 years. She has invented airbrush techniques for putting designs right on the model’s skin. Sylvia created a small white stencil—a stylized filigree—to airbrush onto Rachelle’s cheek for a little different effect," he says. "I depend upon establishing long-term relationships with my team members," Dubler notes. "We carefully put all the pieces in place, so that each element will contribute to the whole."

Several weeks before the actual shoot, Dubler met with John Reuter at Lincoln Center, where Reuter was shooting, to check out and study the camera. Among the crucial parameters was lighting. The 20×24 Studio provides lighting and backdrop, but, as lighting is a crucial part of all of Dubler’s work, he wanted to set up his own lights in order to give his Polaroids a distinctive "deep" look. Meanwhile, he went to Charles Bro
derson for a hand-painted muslin backdrop, with an eye toward developing a look reminiscent of Degas’ ballerina paintings. Dubler directed each element in the project toward a synthesis of creative tensions, the culmination of histories of dance, art about dance, the classical impulses—all in creative synthesis with the immediacy and freshness of this young ballerina, and the instantaneous nature of the Polaroid process itself.

Dubler is quite explicit about the balance between technical preparation and the photographer’s art. He sees technique—and instrumentation, like lighting, backdrop and so forth—as a necessary feature he can develop to serve the principal purpose of his work. "The thing about preparation, knowing the technical side of the craft, having the ability to have it all set up, that frees you to concentrate on the art," he says. "When I’m shooting, I want all the technical details done, so I can work with getting the expressive interaction with the model, getting the images that show what I want them to show. So technical skill is crucial—not as an end in itself—but as a way to open up artistic possibilities when you’re in there shooting. The project isn’t about lighting and exposure and makeup and detail; the project is about psychology and emotion and personality and grace. So if I have the technical elements worked out, I don’t think about that side of things in the actual shoot. I’m free to concentrate on that personal immediacy, the interaction, the real subject of the picture."

A shoot with the Polaroid 20×24 camera isn’t like a contemporary photo shoot. "Everything slows down," Dubler says. "Instead of taking hundreds of pictures in a day, we might spend 15 or 20 minutes between individual shots." And, then, of course, there’s a 90-second wait to see the finished image. That moment when the sheet is pulled away to show the picture is fraught with suspense, anticipation, gratification—a kind of wonder as the actual photograph is revealed. "To see these prints come up," Dubler says, "is magical."

Di Stasio agrees. "Everyone would gather around to watch the cover being peeled off, to see the print emerge. It was very exciting."

Lighting is a significant element in the look of a Douglas Dubler image, and he didn’t want to sacrifice his own vision to the technical needs of the Polaroid project. Images from the Polaroid 20×24 camera tend to be lower in contrast and, because of the film speed and bellows extension, require excessive amounts of light. The challenge was to maintain his distinctive lighting style, while putting out the kind of power necessary.

"For me, it’s all about the light," Dubler says. "Light is a photographer’s medium, after all. We paint with light, and I want my signature to be on that. I wanted high contrast from the lighting because the Polaroid film is flat. So I had to build contrast into the lighting, knowing I would lose it in the film."

In a simple studio environment with a hand-painted muslin backdrop, much like classic Irving Penn, the minimal image design centers the attention on the natural grace and beauty of the young ballerina.

Dubler overlapped Broncolor Light Bars—three of them—to produce over 18,000 watt-seconds for the main light, and a total of over 32,000 watt-seconds with background light included. "I configured these in a shape that would give me the coverage I needed," he explains. "I had to consider both the quality and the quantity of my light, and I didn’t want one to compromise the other. The overlapping gave me more light coming out for Rachelle’s face, and the configuration gave me even coverage for both close shots and full length."

The power of Dubler’s lighting would provide a challenge for the ballerina. "It’s no small deal," he says. "When you fire the flash, it’s like opening an oven door. Not so much heat as a sudden detonation of brightness. So you can imagine the demands on a model. And she did a marvelous job."

"I was nervous," says Di Stasio. "With everything so concentrated and immediate, I was so afraid I’d blink because the flash was so bright. But it ended up turning out, every time."

This kind of photography demands meticulous attention to detail. The artist can’t look through the camera when the shoot is going on. Dubler stood in front of the lens, checking each detail before the shot, anticipating the outcome and making adjustments, all before taking any shot. Dubler says the process makes new demands on the photographer. "It requires a different sensibility, making you really use your eyes. You’ve got to look at a shot you haven’t taken yet, and you’ve got to make adjustments before you take the picture."

Dubler found that this process changed the energy and concentration on the set. "It slows you," he says. "It’s a different feeling, a whole new sensibility, to work like this, looking and checking, standing in for the camera before every shot, making sure that it’s right, anticipating the outcome." Everybody on Dubler’s team became involved in the intense attention necessary for photographing this way; there’s no doing it over again, so everybody tries to make certain that his or her contribution is perfect, finished.

The individual images are remarkably sharp: detail is clear and commanding. But what Dubler has most noticeably captured is a kind of "presence," where the moment of the photograph shows a dancer on the verge of incipient movement. There’s a sense of suspension, like a space between steps, between breaths.

Since these images are unique artifacts—more like paintings than our usual sense of photographic "prints"—they require particular care in reproduction. The goal is to produce very large digital prints that will look like supersized original Polaroids. Dubler turned to longtime colleague Larry Spevak at ColorBurst Studio142, where a specially adapted Cruse scanner yields 2 GB images, rendering the original sharpness and contrast. The images shown in this article were scanned in this manner.

"Ultimately, I’m foreseeing 60×80-inch final prints," Dubler says. And so you have the complete synthesis: the centuries-old classicism of ballet and the history of artistic representation of dance—Degas, Matisse—to ballet in photography—Eisenstaedt, and Cartier-Bresson, to Dubler himself. Meanwhile, the historic camera, that captures the immediacy of gesture and form with an unmatched clarity, while it slows down the process of capturing the image, challenges the eye of a master photographer like Dubler, demanding the utmost in meticulous preparation to capture the warmth, spirit and individual personality of 16-year-old Rachelle Di Stasio, poised on the brim of a spectacular dancing career.

See more of Douglas Dubler’s work at Learn more about 20×24 Studio and the Polaroid 20×24 camera at

The Camera

Before digital changed the whole meaning of "instant photography," there was the Polaroid Land camera. First marketed in 1948, the camera used a self-developing film in a negative/positive sandwich-style form drawn through rollers that spread a chemical reactant through the sandwich. The film would be peeled apart to display a finished image.

In 1976, Edwin Land created a prototype for the gi
ant-scale Polaroid 20×24 camera out of spare parts in his workshop. He designed the 235-pound colossus as a means of copying large, flat artwork and as a format for commercial and artistic work. Today, there are six of these cameras worldwide. The busiest of these belongs to John Reuter’s 20×24 Studio in New York. With an eye to preserving the camera as a working instrument, Reuter made a deal with Polaroid to purchase the remaining film before Polaroid ceased its operations in 2004.

"We knew they were winding down," says Reuter, who worked for Polaroid at the time, "and so we put together the finances to get the film. We still have quite a bit of color film remaining. But the black-and-white is disappearing as we speak."

Reuter is currently involved in a research project to create new film for the camera.

Nafis Azad, the 20×24 Studio’s Director of Photography, runs the camera, which is loaded with the negative/positive film and is focused from the back. Once an exposure is made, the film pack is pushed through rollers, which press the pods holding developing chemicals and spread these through the sandwich. The print is pulled out of the camera bottom and sliced off with a utility knife. Ninety seconds later, the negative/positive sandwich is peeled apart to reveal the final gigantic print. Images have a narrow depth of field and very sharp details.

Dubler’s project used an 800mm Rodenstock and a Sinar shutter. "We put the shutter in front of the lens," says Reuter, "and this was very workable."

Recently, Reuter closed down his 20×24 Studio. "Virtually all the projects were on location," he says. "The model of a full-time studio just wasn’t working."

There’s a space at Lincoln Center, but most of the time, the camera travels to shoots in a lift-gate truck. Reuter is quite aware of his role as a steward of the remaining film stock, only mixing chemicals as they’re needed, and keeping negatives in cold storage, positives in climate-controlled environments.

"Polaroid film was never meant to last very long," he says. "So we’re taking good care of what we have."

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