The ultimate box camera

Centuries ago, everyone from scientists to scalawags tried to peer out at the world through a pinhole. Sitting in a dark room with a small orifice in one wall through which light was admitted, they could see scenes outside the chamber projected upside down onto the opposite wall.

Star gazers used the camera obscura, as it was called, to watch solar eclipses without harming their eyes. Many artists -- Leonardo da Vinci among them -- toyed with the device, too. By placing a subject outside the room, the artist could trace its image cast on the back wall. More recently the camera obscura (Latin for "dar room") has crept into high school science classes in the form of a shoebox to help students unravel the origins of modern photography.

Take that antiquated system, add some space-age film and, click, you come up with a Picasso. Or a Rembrandt. Or a Monet.

At least that's what the Polaroid Corporation is doing. At a time when most cameras are shrinking in the palm of your hand, the Cambridge-based giant is also experimenting with a room-sized camera to capture works of art more accurately.

Now, after five years of tinkering in a musty backroom of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston the company has unveiled its boldest and most successful result yet: a nearly 13-foot-high print of Raphael's immortal "Transfiguration."

The 900-pound print (with frame and backing) underlines the enormous potential of such large-format photography to aid students and scholars of art, and could point a way to bring low-cost exhibitions to budget-strapped museums in the years ahead.

"It is the closest approximation that any reproduction has so far achieved of the aesthetic effect of an original work," says Harvard fine arts professor Sydney Freedberg.

It was taken with a three-story-high camera set up at the Vatican in Rome where the painting permanently rests. Sheets of black Mylar were draped over metal scaffolding, creating a camera body out of what looked like a giant polyester shopping bag. Then, using a lens the size of a three-pound coffee can , Polaroid technicians produced four prints, each 4 by 10 feet. The strips were matted together to make a picture 95 percent the size of the 9-by-13-foot original masterpiece.

The print is Polaroid's most dramatic addition to its large-format photo album. The unusual process produces "instant prints" the same size or nearly the same size as the original object. Thus, reproductions can be made without the need for enlargement, which is where distortion occurs. The result: unprecedented color and clarity.

Polaroid stepped into the photo-art arena rather innocently in 1976. The company's forward-looking founder, Edwin Land, wanted to shoot a Renoir painting belonging to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for use at a stockholders' meeting. Worried about security, then-acting museum director Jon Fontein suggested the camera be set up at the museum.

Thus was hatched "Jeroboam," a room-sized camera regally named after the first king of Israel. For the company the camera is a way to test new films and color reproductions. For the museum it is a way to display Monets and Renoirs it might otherwise not be able to.

"Together we are exploring all the ramifications of a new technology and how it applies to art," says John McCann, a Polaroid scientist.

A pint-sized forerunner of the one used in Rome, Jeroboam looks more likely a furnished garage than a camera. There are chairs, chests, a telephone, two ladders, and a clock -- all inside the 12-by-12-by-16-foot structure. It works like the ancient camera obscura, except the pinhole has been plugged with a lens and an image plate has been mounted near the back wall. An image is projected onto the plate, which is stretched with Polaroid's instant film. After a click of the shutter (done with an arm instead of a finger), a door-sized photo apears within minutes.

Armed with Jeroboam and a smaller, 20-by-24-inch camera, Polaroid and the Museum of Fine Arts as well as a few other museums have copied more than a hundred paintings in the past few years -- everything from Indian "miniatures" to Dwight Eisenhower landscapes. It was the print of a mediaval tapestry, "The Martyrdom of Saint Paul," that eventually prompted the Vatican to summon Polaroid technicians to Rome two years ago to sh oot the Raphael.The idea was to reproduce the Renaissance masterpiece, too fragile to be moved, for study and observation.

It was Raphael's last work. The young painter died in 1520 --tion" itself sprang out of a competition between Raphael and Venetian Sebastiano del Piombo, a protege of Michelangelo. Sebastiano finished his work, "The Raising of Lazarus," first in 1519. But his competitor's brush with history proved more profound.

Indeed, one of Raphael's contemporaries, art historian Giorgio Vasari, insisted that Raphael acieved "ultimate perfection" in the "Transfiguration."

"It is common judgment among artists," the Italian sage wrote, "that of all his [Raphael's] many works, this would be the most celebrated, the most beautiful, and the most divine."

In 1797 Napoleon had the work shipped by oxcart to the Louvre in Paris, where it reigned as a symbol of the Emperor's conquests. It was trundled back to the Vatican 18 years later and has remained there ever since. Marred by centuries of neglect and inadequate retoration, the painting was refurbished to near orginal condition by Vatican technicians in the 1970s.

It took Polaroid technicians several sittings to shoot the painting. First a group of actual-size reproductions of certain figures and details in the painting and then a group of direct magnifications of the figures were taken with the 20-by 24-inch camera. Later, to shoot the nearly life-size photo of the work, technicians erected "Camera Camera" (camera being Latin for room), the largest box camera the company has ever built.

Twenty-three feet deep, it was equipped with a lens and animage plate jostled into place by ropes, winches, and pulleys and anchored with sandbags. At least two dozen flood-lights were set up on twin towers. Yards of print paper were fed through the camera in trial runs.

"It was quite a feat, building the big camera and making it work," recalls Denise Dunn-Ryan, a Polaroid technician who worked on the project.

One of the most difficult aspects of a painting to convey is color. What the painter created with a palate full of hues and shades the camera has to do by combining only three dyes. The result, in some cases, is a slight variation in tone and what the critics call "surface vibration" between the original and print.

But the "Transfiguration" replica captures Raphael's handiwork in all its splendor. Certainly the exhibit underscores the vast potential the process holds for art students, most of whom have no access to original works and must hone their knowledge on small prints and overblown slides. In addition, the exact-size replicas and magnifications of originals can help scholars in their study of an artists work.

Already the Raphael close-ups have shed some light on the many theories surrounding the origin of the "Transfiguration." Study of the close-ups has hardened the belief among modern scholars that the painting came almost exclusively from Raphael's brush. Many early art historians thought much of the work was finished by Raphael's assistants after his death.

More broadly, the Polaroid process could be picture of what the future holds for many budget-strapped museums. Photographic prints could be used to fill out some exhibitions.

Yet the prospect of too many snapshots posing for the real thing will undoubtedly dig up an age-old artistic wrangle between painters and photographers. A photograph, some critics thunder, can never evoke the same feelings as the original painting -- nor should it. A real McCoy can only be a real McCoy.

Polaroid officials, to be sure, don't see the process as a substitute. It's just a supplement. Yet, ironically, in pushing the mechanics of reproduction another notch forward the company has moved close toward creating what some see as the ultimate monster: a perfect illusion.

The Polaroid, or Raphael, or whatever you might call it, will be on display at the National Gallery in Washington in March, and from there it travels to university museums at Cornell, Columbia, Yale, Chicago, and Berkeley.

Polaroid officials are not certain what will become of their "Transfiguration." Nor are company officials sure what project they will tackle next, although more and more requests for the use of Jeroboam or another camera are trickling in from museums and artists.

But at least one person, Prof. Sydney Freedberg of Harvard, has a suggestion for what the company ought to do: Shoot the ceiling of the Sistene Chapel.

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