Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Past & Presence

Douglas Dubler created a historical and artistic project that was ideally suited to the unique qualities of the legendary Polaroid 20x24 camera

This Article Features Photo Zoom
"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 20x24 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 Broderson 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 20x24 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 20x24 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."


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