“Mr. Land [Edwin] invented this great camera called a Polaroid, and it just takes the face of the person. There is something about the camera that makes the person look just right. They usually come out great. I take at least 200 pictures and then I choose.” – Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol is one of the most influential and most famous artists of the 20th Century. His silk-screened portraits of celebrities, socialites and captains of industry now sell for over $100 million dollars each, but the secret to their creation was a plastic camera that was only made for slightly more than one year and cost $19.99. This camera was the Polaroid Big Shot.
The Big Shot became such an integral part of Warhol’s artwork that he called it his “pen and pencil.” While exhibitions about Warhol mention his use of Polaroids, they often neglect to discuss the camera he used to create them and the way that the camera’s design, construction, and specifications actually transformed his artistic output. This article is my attempt to give the Big Shot the credit it deserves.
[Our banner image of Warhol holding his Big Shot Polaroid was made by Michael Horowitz and is used here with permission courtesy Anzenberger Gallery]
Warhol, The Big Shot, and the Big Shots
Although Warhol is generally viewed as an artist, he thought of himself as a photographer, and photography was an integral part of both his artistic work and of his life in general. As a child he owned a Box Brownie, that quintessentially simple American camera owned by millions of families. He’d continue to use a variety of cameras throughout his life, many of which factored into his art. These included the Chinon 35F-MA, the Olympus AF-1, the Minox 35, and very famously his Polaroid SX-70. This last machine he used to document his life and his time in the art world. But it was the Polaroid Big Shot that revolutionized his artistic output from 1971 until his death in 1986.
The Big Shot camera perfectly synthesizes in a single object the two major defining features of Warhol as an artist; his obsession with celebrity, and the mass-production of art. It’s not widely acknowledged but much of Warhol’s art, whether it be drawings, prints or paintings, were based on photographs. While Warhol was a visionary artist, he never possessed the skill that other artists such as Picasso had. The Big Shot camera allowed him to create portraits almost as if they were being produced by an assembly line.
“I told them I didn’t believe in art, that I believed in photography.” – Andy Warhol
Above are two original Polaroids and Warhol’s completed silk-screened portrait of Farah Fawcett created in 1979 when Fawcett was at the height of her fame starring on Charlie’s Angels. Fawcett’s partner at the time Ryan O’Neal and his daughter Tatum (then aged sixteen) went along to the portrait session at Warhol’s New York studio, called The Factory in 1979. As he later described, Warhol had refined his process to an almost production line.
“There was no easel, no paint. There was just this strange dentist’s Polaroid camera. He just snapped her at different turns, maybe twenty-five shots. It took longer to do her hair.” – Ryan O’Neill
With the invention of the Big Shot, Warhol finally had the tool he needed to combine his two great loves, celebrity and mass-produced art, and turn them into a money-making machine. Once he developed his process of using the Polaroids to create silk-screened portraits, he immediately embarked on the creation of the artworks that he has become most famous for.
The aptly named Big Shot camera was the perfect instrument to capture the big shots of society. Film stars, celebrities, and high-society types beat a path the studio to have themselves immortalized on canvas. It’s estimated that from 1971 until his death, Warhol produced approximately one thousand silk-screened portraits, the majority of which were commissioned. Almost all of them are the same size, an intentional forty by forty inches. Warhol describes the importance of this uniformity, “They have to be the same size, so that they all fit together and make one big painting called Portraits of Society.”
I interviewed the photographer Mark Sink who was one of Warhol’s assistants, and asked him to describe how the portrait process worked.
“The shoots I helped with at 860 Broadway were often centered around a big lunch. A makeup artist would prepare the sitter. Often with aging women they would apply lots of white base foundation to help make clear smooth skin for the silkscreens.
A half dozen assistants would be running around. Rupert [Jasen Smith, a printer] and Vincent were generally in charge. Vincent was often working shooting videos of the sittings and Factory goings-on on “Andy Warhol TV,” an early precursor to reality TV. Fred and Bob would be around if it was someone of great fame.
Andy would have a table stacked with boxes of Polaroids and a couple Big Shot cameras. He would shoot and shoot, saying things like, “Oh! That looks so greeeeaaat.” An assistant would lay the images out on the table. Many dozens would be shot and they would pick one and send it to the screen maker. The sittings back then in the early 1980s were $25,000 each. They were backlogged with clients for months.” – Mark Sink
Warhol would often make more than one portrait from a silk screen. The clients were encouraged to buy multiple copies to give away as impressive gifts or to decorate multiple dwellings. Warhol charged $25,000 for the first painting, and $15,000 for additional copies, and most of the clients bought diptychs. He would make additional copies for himself as well, particularly if he liked the client.
In this ABC News Segment shot in 1979 you can watch the actual shoot taking place (at 2:45 minutes), and his process of preparing the canvas.
Andy Warhol’s Instagram
“A picture means I know where I was every minute. That’s why I take pictures. It’s a visual diary.” – Andy Warhol
It wasn’t just portraits that Warhol made with the Big Shot. He was obsessive about documenting every aspect of his life and would shoot images of nearly everyone who visited the Factory, the gay subculture, Drag Queens, and obscure things like bananas, and shoes. He also used it to create an important series of self-portraits, one of which “Fright Wig” shot in 1986 was used to create a silk-screened self-portrait just a year before he died. After a fashion, Warhol’s prodigious use of the Big Shot was the first Instagram; a daily record of the things which inspired, intrigued him, or a basis for artworks.
The Polaroids he shot during the creation of the silk-screen portraits were kept by Warhol, who treasured them, and no matter how much his clients begged he never allowed them to have copies. After a day in the Factory he would take them home, use a steel embossing stamp to mark them “© ANDY WARHOL” and catalogue them in sequence in individual Holson Polaroid albums.
When he died in February 1987, there were over 50,000 photographs left in his estate, the majority of them Polaroids. After his death there was a court case against the estate and Christie’s appraised their value at $1.05 each!
The Warhol Foundation gave many photos away to small museums in cities like Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Portland, Oregon. But in recent years the Polaroid Warhol shots have begun to be recognised for what they are, artworks unto themselves. Despite being created with a $19.99 camera intended to produce cheap and disposable family portraits, Warhol’s polaroids now fetch prices at auction of $10,000 to $15,000, and upwards.
Andy Warhol’s Pen & Pencil
Despite its association with Warhol, the Polaroid Big Shot camera is probably one of the least known and certainly one of the most under-appreciated Polaroid cameras ever made.
First released in 1971 and only in production until 1973, the Big Shot was designed purely for one purpose; to make portraits. As Warhol discovered, it does that perfectly because it was designed to work at a fixed focal length of forty-two inches. This combined with its simple components of a long plastic body, 220mm lens, single-speed mechanical shutter, and its fixed-focus rangefinder ensure that even amateur photographers get perfect shots every time. The light produced by flash cubes and the flash diffuser built into the body mean that light is almost identical for every shot, producing even, well lit portraits.
It’s a very basic looking camera, with almost no moving parts. Inside the retro 1970s plastic case there’s a simple shutter-release, film holder, and sixty second timer to measure the peel-apart film development time. And that’s about it. There’s not even an in-camera focusing method, instead it uses an ingenious fixed-focus rangefinder set to measure a distance of forty-two inches. This works by showing two images of what you are shooting, and to get the range right you have to literally move backward and forward until the two views in the finder become one. This technique of moving back and forth can appear quirky and was dubbed the “Big Shot Shuffle”. Despite this somewhat comical dance, in reality it’s a simple and foolproof method of achieving focus.
Once you have the subject in focus, the red shutter lever in the right-hand side is pinched, setting off the flash bulb, and rotating the bulb for the next shot. The peel-apart film is pulled out the back, the built-in timer set to sixty seconds, and once it’s done, voila, your shot is developed. I used to use my Big Shot just like Andy Warhol to document events and at nightclubs, and people were always amazed at the process, seeing a print in front of their eyes, and how good the shots looked.
Warhol usually travelled with a pair of cameras, in case one broke; the Big Shot is renowned for the fact that the little red shutter lever can be easily broken, leaving it inoperable. Much like the Instagram generation, Warhol was addicted to documenting his life and would often leave cameras at friend’s homes just in case he needed a camera.
By the time Polaroid stopped production of the Big Shot in 1973 Warhol had already recognised its significance and would visit all the camera stores in Union Square West near his studio hunting for Big Shots to buy. It’s nice that a statue of Warhol now stands there as testimony to him. When Polaroid discovered how important the Big Shot was to him they offered to maintain a stock of cameras set aside for him, and to repair them if they broke. Polaroid salesmen were even given the task of finding unsold stock and sending them to the factory for Warhol’s stockpile.
The invention of the Big Shot
The artwork I made based on the patents for the Big Shot camera show the camera was invented by Polaroid employees Bruce K. Johnson & Bill Shelton. Sadly, Bill Shelton died a few years ago, but I was fortunate to be able to track down Bruce K. Johnson. This is his first-hand account of how the camera was designed and built for the purpose of making head shots, which it fulfilled perfectly.
Modern Big Shot Shooters
Photographers still use the Big Shot camera to create portraits. Until Fuji ceased the production of the peel-apart film, I ran a successful events photography business using the Big Shot and other Polaroid cameras to shoot events. However, my efforts pale in comparison to my friend the photographer Lucas Michael who has used his Big Shot camera to document society events like the Grammy’s and the Golden Globes. The images above are the winners of the Golden Globes from 2014.
In 2017, Phillip Leeds, former tour manager of Kelis and N.E.R.D., published Big Shots!: Polaroids from the World of Hip-Hop and Fashion, a compilation of his personal shots taken with a Big Shot Polaroid documenting emerging rappers and designers, supermodels and producers, and some of the biggest names in hip-hop and fashion.
For those of us not making high art or a living off of photography, we can still buy working copies of the Polaroid Big Shot camera on eBay. Don’t be afraid, film is still available in the form of Fujifilm FP-100c and Magicubes (flash bulbs) are readily for sale on eBay as well. If you really want the Warhol look, you can buy Polaroid 669 film on eBay, which sometimes still yields good results despite its age.
The major problem with shooting this camera is the fact that the just-mentioned Fuji pack film has been discontinued, and as the dynamic of supply and demand becomes more and more skewed, prices continue to rise. Individual packs sell for quite a lot of money these days. But the future could be, if not bright, at least not totally dark for shooters of peel-apart film. Doc Kaps of Supersense, a man who was responsible for saving Polaroid integral film at The Impossible Project, is hard at work attempting to create a new and viable peel-apart film. More information on this can be seen at Save Pack Film, from Supersense.
If you really love the Polaroid Big Shot camera and want to help fund the Save Pack Film project I have donated copies of the blue print artwork for the Polaroid Big Shot.
Want to buy your own Big Shot?
Get one from eBay
Get one from our own shop at F Stop Cameras
This article has been created with help and personal communication from the following; Bruce K. Johnson, Former Polaroid Engineer and co-inventor of the Big Shot camera; Doc Kaps from Supersense and the Save Pack Film project; Mark Sink, photographer and former assistant to Andy Warhol; Lucas Michael, for providing his celebrity Polaroids shot at the 2014 Golden Globes.
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Thanks for this article on my favorite peel apart Polaroid camera. It was interesting to read that they could have made it smaller but didn’t. It would be awesome to fit a big shot in my camera bag, but there would still be the worry of breaking the fragile shutter release. There’s something about the presence of that big weird looking camera that brings out the best in your subjects. Especially when you tell them that’s its the same one Warhol used. And the diffuser for the flash is pure magic. Never harsh shadows on the subjects and very flattering fill flash every time. One thing the article didn’t mention is the rubber T handle on the back. It’s pretty rare to find one with the handle still intact and it is really not necessary to use to pull the Polaroid out properly. If you do find one be sure not to use it to pull the film out. The rubber is extremely fragile and very easy to just break. I was lucky enough to find a minty one with the handle still attached on eBay for $20 a few years back. Kinda cool to find that the price had not inflated in the past 50 years. At least for the camera, the film as we know is another story.