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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Venice Through a Polaroid Iris

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

As you read this, my wife, Judy, and I are plodding our way through some 200 contact sheets from our two previous working trips to Venice, trying select a couple of hundred images for work prints.

This is the scut work that must be done when putting together a photography book – in our case a book depicting the beauty and mystery of Venice in winter. (And this is just the first cut. We return to Venice in November for two more weeks of shooting.)

We are looking at these pictures of Venezia in all its dank, chilly – yet also glorious – finery in a place as far removed as you might imagine: the tiny fishing village of Lubec, Maine, where deep blue skies dappled with puffy white clouds combine with cool breezes and low humidity. This is the haven where we have lived every July and August for the past decade.

But even in the best location, editing contact sheets is work. I am delighted with the stuff Judy and I got in Venice, but even the greatest photograph in the world is a comparatively tiny thing on a contact sheet and must be viewed through a magnifier. Multiply that 4,000 times (roughly how many images we have made so far, in 35mm and medium format) and you can get a sense of the job confronting us.

Among the pictures we are viewing are several score made on Polaroid's remarkable (and also remarkably delicate) 35mm PolaPan bxw slide film – one of the most interesting films I've ever played with. Three examples of what this film can do are on display here – two by me, one by Judy. I had used this film years ago, but had forgotten about it until I saw the spectacular recent work of New York photographer Sheila Metzner, who documented the brawny, beautiful buildings and bridges of her city. What appealed to me then was how the postage stamp-sized, black and white slides she made had been translated into spectacular and big platinum prints.

Could the same film also produce great Iris prints – the gorgeous, hyper-detailed inkjet giclee prints that have taken the art world by storm these past years? I wouldn't really know unless I produced some of these images myself.

So, in the weeks before Judy and I left for a month of photography in Venice last January – in some really dreadful, but oh-so-atmospheric weather – I asked Polaroid to ship me a bunch of PolaPan, that usually runs about $12 a roll. At the same time, I conferred with my friend and master Iris printer Chris Foley of Old Town Editions in Alexandria, Va., alerting him that I hoped to bring back some funky slides for him to work with. (Chris already had made a stunning Iris print of my picture of the Bridge of Sighs, a wall-size Iris translation on watercolor paper of one of my conventional 11x14 bxw silver prints.) I left for Venice hoping Judy and I could produce similar images on PolaPan that would lend themselves to equally breathtaking Irises.

All I can say is, "Wow!"

Remember: You are dealing here with an unreconstructed devotee of the wet darkroom. I actually like it there, getting my hands wet in developer, stop bath and fixer. But I have to admit in all honesty that these may be the finest renditions of my photography I ever have seen. The tantalizing combination of the PolaPan film's excellent image sharpness, a very wide black-to-white tonal range, and a noticeable, but not intrusive, grain pattern, produces simply gorgeous Iris prints, especially when made on comparatively smooth hot-press watercolor paper.

I admit the technical steps that produce these marvels are far removed from the average photo lab or basement darkroom.

First there's the film itself. It comes in standard 35mm film cassettes, but that's where the similarity to conventional black and white film ends. PolaPan comes in 36-exposure rolls [the more contrasty PolaGraph film in rolls of only 12]. Don't expect your camera to read any DX information about film speed on the cassette; there isn't any. PolaPan is a nominal 100 ISO, though I tend to overexpose it by a third of a stop.

This being a Polaroid film, you expect instant pictures. But this is not like the film in a Spectra or I-Zone Polaroid camera that develops images automatically, once they are spat out of the camera. Each roll of film comes with a plastic cube, or developing pod, that you must use in tandem with a Polaroid developing tank – an odd, bulky-looking black plastic thing that has a crank on the outside and a wordless pictographic display on its hinged cover, showing how to use it.

You feel a little like an organ grinder without the monkey, after you load your exposed film, aligning the film leader with the leader of the developing pod, close the cover, then crank away. But damned if the thing doesn't work every time. (Well, almost every time. You have to remember to press an important lever midway through the process. Once, in Venice, I forgot to do this and ruined my film.)

When you open the developing tank's cover, there is your cassette, its leader waiting to be pulled out. And this, my friends, is a magical moment: pulling out the leader and seeing a succession of positive black and white images where just minutes before there was only an exposed roll of film waiting to be developed.

Lest you be too taken by this magic, remember: Pull the film out gently – it scratches in a heartbeat. (Sheila Metzner, in a wonderfully apt description, calls the film "delicate as butterfly wings.")

In fact, it was the PolaPan's tendency to scratch that turned off my wife, Judy. She preferred working with our two other favorite bxw films, Kodak T400CN and Ilford Delta 3200 while we were in Venice. I kept using – and loving – the PolaPan, along with the other films, and hoped the occasional scratching could be remedied later. It was, equally magically, by photographer Barbara Southworth, who works with Chris Foley making the scans for the Iris printer. She was able to clean up my images in the electronic equivalent of a jiffy.

This story of a great film and even greater images should end happily, but it can't. Polaroid, the innovative American pioneer of instant photography, has been devastated economically by the digital revolution and now faces bankruptcy. A recent succession of layoffs included some of the company's most senior personnel and only further clouded the future of this once-great company.

I only can wish everyone at Polaroid well.

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
Piazza San Marco in nighttime winter fog. PolaPan film creates a beautiful umbra around the bright street lamp as figures trudge through the famed square, huddled against the cold in this atmospheric time exposure

© Judith Goodman
The Rialto Bridge at night. Judy worked on a tripod to capture beautiful detail in this unusual view of the most important bridge in Venice. Note light trail of passing vaporetto (water bus) during the seconds-long available-light exposure

© Frank Van Riper
A second view of Piazza San Marco, showing the intricate detail of the bottom of columns forming the fašade of the Doge's Palace. I made this time exposure with a Leica M6 on a lightweight Gitzo tripod.

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Frank Van Riper Archive:

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Pecking Order

Southern Exposure: Antarctica

Martin Dixon: Leica Biker

Dr. Burnett's Magic Box

Shooting Fireworks (Indoors)