Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Neat Little Find


I came across this surprisingly neat painting tag last week and thought I'd share the story with you.

A friend of mine was having an opening at the St. Botolph Club, which is an old social club in Boston with a focus on the arts, housed in a grand nineteenth-century brownstone mansion in the Back Bay.

In the entry vestibule, there is a full-sized reproduction of Sargent's radiant life-size portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner. The original hangs in her museum a few miles away, and sits in a curious gold frame in which the grain of the wood is prominently visible, and almost appears painted rather than gilded (I frankly never took a very careful look at the frame, though now I sure will next time I'm there).

I was at the club for a reason, so I didn't stop to look at it, beyond noticing out of the corner of my eye that the colors were all off but the frame was the same as the original.

On the way out, I was having a nice conversation with a slow-moving group of new friends, and when we got to the vestibule, we stopped and had a closer look at the reproduction. I realized that the thing I had casually disregarded earlier was actually something extraordinary.

It's an enormous Polaroid - probably 6 foot tall and 2.5 feet wide.

This is by far the biggest Polaroid I've ever seen. Elsa Dorfman is a Boston-based photographer well known for her Polaroid portraits , and she uses a 20x24 inch camera - one of only 6 created, and I was under the impression that those were the largest such cameras produced.

But... it seems a few even bigger ones were constructed, including a room-sized camera at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which was capable of taking 80x40 inch images. It's a fair bet that this was the camera used to make this Polaroid, since it's literally a block away from the Gardner Museum.

As I mentioned, the colors were all off from the original. Polaroids were never meant to be archival, and this photograph is probably decades old. It seemed like a dark vestibule when I walked through it, but it might also get some direct sun exposure at times of the day/year.

I wish I'd been able to get a picture of the whole thing, but it was big and the room was small, and there wasn't any way I could capture all of it. So, I took a shot of the tag, which is a delight in itself.

"Mrs. Jack" was Isabella Stewart Gardner's nickname. The club did not admit women as members until the 1980's, so she would not have been a member, despite being the unquestioned reigning queen of the art world in Boston (and beyond). "John S. Sargent" clearly was a member, and the original portrait was first displayed at the club in 1888. The "Edw. Land" who gifted this must be Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid camera and an extraordinary individual in his own right.

The original Polaroid Corporation is long gone. Other companies seem to have licensed the technology and are providing film for the small-format Polaroid cameras, but film is certainly no longer available for the large-format cameras. So, it would appear that this is an absolutely unique artifact.

Have you seen this photograph? Have you seen other large-scale Polaroids?

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