Photographer Joe Gioia’s late 80s B&W NYC Polaroid instant street portraits captured the essence of a city on the cusp of change.
Joe Gioia and I met as co-workers. We were part of a staff of young, enthusiastic editors at Modern Photography during its glorious, experimental and transitional last years under the direction of editor Barry Tanenbaum. Our goal was to help redefine the magazine for a new generation, but alas, after 53 years as one of the world’s top photo magazines, it wasn’t to be. But we didn’t go out without some wonderful creativity. Here’s a project Joe did shortly after Modern folded. Long before Brandon Stanton started his Humans of New York series, Joe had a similar idea…
MR: In 1994, you roamed the streets of New York City with a 4×5 Wista field camera and a stack of Type 55 Polaroid film. In your web site, visiblerepublic.com, you describe revisiting the photos thusly: “The work was almost uniformly beautiful, and now has that warm ache added by passed time. That particular New York is gone, Type 55 film is gone; everything and everyone scattered to their appointed destinies.”
With the hindsight of over 20 years, what do you think you captured with these photos?
JG: There’s something about how people looked and presented themselves in New York back then, sort of at ease and proud at the same time. At least that’s how New Yorkers looked to me: very aware of where they were, and ready to represent themselves. I was carrying a big camera, and people respected that. Everyone in the pictures wanted their pictures taken, which you can’t say about a lot of street photography.
MR: You’ve described these images to me as “honest and complete”. What do you mean by that? Is that a technical or artistic statement–or both?
JG: I think the subjects related to the camera in an honest way. Complete in how the images look as a group of photographs. While the subject of street portraiture is very open-ended, and this project had an arbitrary beginning and ending, I think the photos tell a full story about a time and place. It is 22 years later and I don’t feel like anything’s missing; others may disagree.
MR: How did you decide on who to photograph for this project?
JG: They had to have interesting faces, and most of the people I asked said yes. Unfortunately, older women were most likely to decline. Usually I made two or three exposures of a single person, sometimes just one.
I also want to credit my late friend Keri Advocat, who assisted me with all these pictures. She put a lot of people at ease, and allowed me to pay more attention to them and spend less time on the camera. She was a terrific photographer, among the first to build a photo website to show her work. About two-and-a-half years after we took these pictures, she died with no warning from a chronic illness, just 23 years old. So, she’s in these pictures too.
MR: I remember Keri. It was so sad when she died. Are you still in touch with any of the people you photographed?
JG: I asked three friends to pose, and I’m still in regular touch with one. There are two other friends in the group who I just ran into when I was out with the camera (I mainly walked around SoHo, the Village, and Union Square).
MR: What advice would you give to a young photographer to help them identify a subject or photographic project?
JG: Well, you have to think something’s interesting, then make it part of your life.
MR: Let’s switch gears and talk about equipment and process.
How did you get interested in large-format photography?
JG: I’m from Rochester, NY, and when I was a teenager, spent a lot of time at the George Eastman House museum, where they had a lot of big cameras and large-format work on display. Needless to say, they have some pretty exquisite examples of both. I loved 35mm work, Robert Frank and Andre Kertesz, but, for me, large format always seemed like what photography was about, Dick Avedon and Berenice Abbott.
Much later, when we were editors at Modern Photography, I used a 4×5 for the first time, that great rail—was it a Sinar? (yes, it was—Ed)—in our tiny studio; which is also where I found boxes of T55 film.
Sorry to say I’ve never shot 8×10, the costs involved being fairly prohibitive.
MR: For the uninitiated, what is peel-apart film?
JG: The first couple of generations of Polaroid “film” used a composite paper negative that was pressed against, and processed in tandem with, the final print. The negative image was transferred to the positive paper through a chemical coating that was squished evenly between the two sheets when you pulled them both from the camera, in what looked like a flat envelope. You’d wait a minute, peel the envelope apart, and, voila, the photograph, with the paper negative, which got thrown away, facing it. It was pretty thrilling.
What made T55 film different is that it used a silver gelatin, not paper, negative, rated at 50 ISO, which you could then wash and dry and use to make enlargements. It was very fine-grained film and made great prints. The main drawback was that after you peeled the print and negative apart, the negative had to be soaked in a sodium sulfite bath to clear away the developer/fixing chemistry, which was tar-y and kind of toxic. Also, the paper prints needed to be coated in a gooey varnish from wet swabs that came with each box of film, otherwise they’d fade to white.
MR: What attracted you to peel-aparts, as opposed to standard black-and-white negatives?
JG: Well, you knew right away if you had a good shot or not (keep in mind this was when digital cameras mainly looked like SLRs attached to shoeboxes), which was great for portrait work. T55 was just beautiful material too, with deep and full tones, a lot nicer than Tri-X, which is fine 4×5 film.
Let me note too that when shooting the street portraits, I didn’t process the images immediately, but waited until I got back home. I’d expose ten-twelve sheets on a typical day.
MR: The Impossible Project is rumored to be currently in talks with Fujifilm about taking over its recently discontinued peel-apart color film. If there was a peel-apart black-and-white option available again, would you want to revisit this form of image capture?
JG: Oh, absolutely. Towards the end of Polaroid’s run, long after I stopped darkroom printing, I used its T53 4×5 print film, which had fantastic grey tones. I’d scan the image and make inkjet prints from that. They looked pretty nice.
Selections from Joe’s portfolio below. See the entire Peel-Apart portfolio at Joe Gioia’s web site, Visible Republic.