3,000 Polaroids and Four Years Later, an Instant Photographer Looks Back

The photographer has taken over three thousand portraits in bars, parties, and art collectives.

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Jan 5 2017, 7:55pm

The Coney Island finish of the all-night Warriors Bicycle Fun Ride, 7/3/16. All images courtesy the artist

When he began to take group portraits using the revival Polaroid film made by The Impossible Project, New York-based photographer Nick McManus combined his interest in shooting his friends with a penchant for controlling large numbers of people. The challenge of using relatively untested reformulated films and of working under extreme lighting conditions with sometimes very inebriated strangers became an obsession. Over the last two years, he has taken over three thousand portraits, a selection of which will be on display at the Ace Hotel in New York in January for a show titled Where’s My Polaroid?

“Documentary work was my focus in film school,” McManus tells The Creators Project. “To be able to pursue it in a way that can be shared enjoyably and instantly makes taking these portraits really worthwhile.”

One-year anniversary of the Tender Trap in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, featuring owners Darryl Nau and Ryan Virag (first and second from bottom right), 4/2/16. 

In order to shoot as much as he does, McManus relies on skills gained from former gigs in bike messaging, movie driving, and documentary producing. He cites Halloween in 2015 as an example, which fell on a Saturday and was the end of daylight saving time, giving him an extra hour. “Using the live music and nightclub venue connections I'd accumulated over the years I was able to pre-arrange a steady shooting schedule that went till 11 AM the morning after. The total was 23 portraits in 21 locations in 19 hours.”

The unrelenting pace of the project allowed him to overcome the chemical and technological limitations of his medium. Early on, he worked around dim lighting at restaurants and bars “by composing folks as tight as possible and then having them stay still” while taking a long exposure. “Later on I started using [four] SLR flashes set to slave mode that I taped to a ping-pong paddle. “

The wedding of Camilo Salas and Callie Watts on their rooftop in Bed-Stuy, 8/5/16.

Eventually, switching to the Polaroid ProCam provided McManus with a wider angle and sharper exposure, but he still has to contend with the fickleness of the film. “After the photo ejects from the camera I slide it into a plastic envelope and shove it under my armpit on the inside of my shirt,” he explains. “Room temperature environments aren’t warm enough to fully develop during Impossible Project's half-hour development time.”

Square Design's Riverboat Casino-themed holiday party at their office in Gowanus, 12/17/16.

Many of his early portraits were taken at the Lower East Side's Con Artist Collective and Greenpoint's Tender Trap, where McManus had a standing invitation to visit and interact with diverse crowds that were friendly to his mission. He then cast a wider net, shooting at art openings, after-parties, charity, and corporate events and in public spaces.

Groups have numbered up to 300 subjects, including 130 at Square Design’s holiday party, which was also one of the largest interior shots McManus has done. He says he took the portrait “from a 10-step ladder that had to be moved twice for the three photos needed to complete the panorama. I had to quickly lay out an axis with my pocket change to keep my lens perspective correct as I worked my way from left to right.” In comparison, corralling a bunch of drunkards is easy. “Unruly crowds aren't a problem for me because I'm polite.”

The 2016 Cranksgiving Benefit Race and Fun Ride at Hudson Yards, 11/19/16.

McManus’ show at the Ace Hotel collects 720 of his portraits from 2016, including shots from former cultural landmarks such as Pearl River Mart, now closed Brooklyn venues, and even a shot of the VICE crew just kickin' it (below). The artist says, “There is other photographic work that I do but being a group portrait artist is something for me that will never end.”

Alex Chitty, Andy Capper, Mike and Bill Tucci of the band Unstoppable Death Machines, 
and Thomas Morton

 in front the Tender Trap in Greenpoint, 7/7/15.

Nick McManus’s show Where’s My Polaroid? will be on display at the Gallery at the Ace Hotel in New York from January 5 to 31, with an opening reception on January 21 at 8pm.

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