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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Moby C, Joe McNally & A Tribute to Heroes

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

The largest Polaroid camera on Earth is hidden behind an artfully graffiti'd garage door in lower Manhattan, on East 2nd, near Bleecker.

The camera, dubbed Moby C, can produce pictures that are 40 inches wide and up to 106 inches long, or, to put that into better perspective: it can make a full-color, incredibly detailed life-sized, head-to-toe image of virtually any human being on the planet.

And do it in a minute and a half.

The invention and, frankly, the pride and joy, of the late Edwin Land, Polaroid's legendary founder, the camera had for years lived in the basement of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where a bearded young photographer and technician Mark Sobczak saw to the monster machine's care and feeding. It had a more prosaic name back then. It was called simply the Museum Camera, and it was used (mostly by Sobczak) to make life-sized photographs of paintings.

Sobczak and his partner, Laurel Parker, an artist, bookbinder and now studio manager for Moby C, share an almost visceral bond with the camera – which, in actual fact, is little more than a darkened room with a film holder on one end, a lens on the other. To make photographs, you literally have to work inside the camera. Think of the movie "Fantastic Voyage" taking place inside your Nikon and you'll get what I mean.

"You need a front camera operator and a rear camera operator," Sobczak told me as my wife, Judy, and I toured not only the camera itself, but the huge studio space that he and Laurel share as they work in collaboration with the camera's new owner, Canadian photographer and filmmaker Gregory Colbert.

Truth to tell, Moby C, the Museum Camera, the "40x80" – whatever name you give the thing – had a limited usefulness to Polaroid. Dr. Land, the genius inventor who held more patents than any American save Thomas Edison, also was an inveterate showman. He came up with the idea for the world's largest Polaroid camera in the late '70s and the camera was first introduced to wow the audience at a stockholders' meeting in Cambridge, Mass., Polaroid's corporate headquarters. Eventually, the camera made its way to the Boston MFA, but, times growing tougher, (Polaroid recently declared bankruptcy) the company finally put the giant camera up for sale. Last year Colbert bought it, reportedly for a song: about $20,000.

Sobczak, arguably the only photographer competent enough (and, frankly, dedicated enough) to make the camera work, asked Colbert if he could continue his relationship with it. And so Mark and Laurel relocated to New York, where they have been working with Colbert on his own huge and beautiful prints. In addition, fine-art photographers began renting studio time with Moby C, at what sounds like a stiff $2,000 a day plus $300 per print, but which isn't really so bad given the fact that the fee includes not only the camera and all materials – but Mark to actually operate it.

Then September 11th happened and Moby C was put to a different use. Joe McNally, a former newspaper photographer who went on to become a terrific location shooter for magazines like National Geographic and Life, had had experience using the big Polaroid. Shortly before the terrorist attacks he had shot a still-unpublished NatGeo story describing the camera, using dancer Jenifer Ringer of the New York City Ballet to illustrate Moby C's incredible tonal range and detail.

In the wake of the tragedies, McNally saw that the monumental nature of the camera's images also could support a monumental portrait project documenting rescue workers, New York City officials, survivors and relatives of the victims of the World Trade Center horror. Within weeks, AOL-Time Warner put up $100,000.

The job was done virtually in real time, with rescue personnel, for example, showing up at the studio directly from Ground Zero at all hours of the day and night, the dust and grime of their sad job covering their uniforms and protective gear. It was an intense, exhausting – highly emotional – yet incredibly rewarding three-and-a-half-week marathon that produced a universe of 227 mammoth prints.

Looking at these gorgeous portraits, one cannot help but be moved by the intensity and depth of feeling that McNally and his team captured. Mostly they are single portraits; sometimes they are groups of two or three. The 227 portraits document 272 people, five dogs and one tortoise. The dogs included rescue sniffers and one seeing-eye dog, Salty. Salty, photographed with his master Omar Rivera, had led Rivera down 71 stories to safety. The tortoise was brought by an ASPCA worker to represent the pets she and her colleagues saved from the apartments near Ground Zero that had to be vacated immediately after the tragedy.

The very fact that this was anything but in-and-out picture taking helps give Joe's portraits their power. The process itself helped.

Subjects stood on a high platform against a simple white backdrop. The lighting setup, though intense (some 30,000 watt-seconds of flash power) was fairly direct and straightforward. As each subject stepped into place, Mark was in the belly of the camera, observing the vertical inverse image projected onto the focusing plane that ultimately would hold the Polaroid paper (held flat by vacuum suction from the rear). Joe would be outside, looking up at the subjects, placing them and getting them ready. Moby C really is little more than the ancient camera obscura, except with a film holder. No fancy controls, no shutter. To focus, Joe and Mark would have the subject move ever so slightly forward and back, until he or she appeared sharp on the focusing plane. In fact, though the lights in the studio were fairly bright, the projected image inside the camera was fairly dim, so that Mark, working in complete darkness inside the camera, had to focus on the tiny catch lights in each subject's eyes.

Once the subject was in focus, the lights throughout the studio would be cut and Mark would load the film holder.

"There was something about the pause in the darkness," Mark observed. It gave each subject "a few seconds of introspection about why they were there."

Then the huge pop of the strobes would illuminate everything for a fraction of a second and then all would be darkness once more. The short duration of the flash – a tiny but intense wash of light – performed the function of a shutter for Moby C's unblinking lens. The portrait was done. Inside the still-dark camera, Mark would muscle the exposed film through huge rollers that would spread chemistry between the throwaway negative and the positive. And in 90 seconds the negative would be peeled away and there on the studio floor would be a huge portrait, that, once dry, Laurel would cover with protective paper then help Mark and Joe to store on a huge drying screen that would be placed alongside scores of others on floor-to-ceiling racks.

A special edition of Life, as well as a forthcoming book, will include these images, as well as other pictures by other photographers. But for his singular work McNally hopes a much larger venue – possibly New York's Grand Central Station, a traveling museum show, and/or the memorial that will remember the tragedy – will give these huge pictures the audience they deserve.

In thinking of these photographs after visiting the studio, I recalled the Shroud of Turin, which the faithful believe to be the burial cloth of Christ. Markings on the shroud, especially when viewed as a negative, produce a striking image of a crucified man. Leaving aside its provenance or any religious significance, the shroud is powerful simply because it is life-sized and gives the viewer a one-to-one view of a fellow human being, and thereby helps us connect with him. So too do McNally's portraits of the heroes of September 11th, life-sized and powerful, help us connect with these ultimately ordinary yet very special people.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

©Frank Van Riper
Photographer Joe McNally (l.) and the Moby C team pose in the studio by a huge Polaroid shot of NY mayor Rudy Giuliani. With Joe are studio manager Laurel Parker (c.) and camera operator/technician Mark Sobczak.

©Joe McNally

©Joe McNally

©Joe McNally

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