Photographs from “the Polaroid Collection” @ Sotheby’s New York

Photographs from “the Polaroid Collection” @ Sotheby’s New York

On June 21 and June 22 Sotheby’s in New York auctioned off one thousand photographs that were once owned by Polaroid, which filed for bankruptcy in 2009. The photographs were originally part of a collection established by Ansel Adams called The “Artist Support Program”. Proceeds from the auction will go toward paying off creditors. The auction has stirred up some controversy in the art world

What were offered in this catalogue are masterworks from an era when Polaroid was king, and its cameras were, for many, the essence of modern photography.

In the past three decades, the Polaroid Corporation organized and traveled more than 56 exhibitions of photographs worldwide. It included exhibitions organized both by the Polaroid Corporation, such as It’s a Dog’s Life, and by other organizations, such as the Whitney Museum’s Polaroids: Mapplethorpe.

The collection of photographs raised nearly $US12.5 million (A$14.3 million). The auction was ordered by a bankruptcy court in northern Minnesota and proceeds from the sale will go to creditors of the failed company. Polaroid has filed for bankruptcy twice – in 2002 and 2009.

An Adams image – Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park – was sold for $US722,500, a record for the renowned US photographer.  Record prices were set for Andy Warhol as well with $US254,000 for his Self-Portrait (Eyes Closed) and $US146,500 for Self-Portrait (Grimace).

The history of the Polaroid camera is a history of both technology and aesthetics. The works presented in the Auction  catalogue, a portion of one of the largest corporate collections of photographs ever assembled, chart those histories in tandem paths.

The photographs from the Polaroid Collection offered in the sale comprised an astonishing range of photographic approaches and sensibilities. The Polaroid Corporation acquired traditional gelatin silver prints by Adams, Callahan, and a host of other 20th-century photographers at the same time it bartered film and cameras with artists in exchange for their Polaroid pictures.

Beginning in the 1960s, the Artists Support Program, as it came to be known, was an essential part of Polaroid’s mission. The company’s responsiveness to artists and their experiences with Polaroid cameras and film was a hallmark of Polaroid’s corporate culture. In turn, Polaroid technology inspired both love and devotion on the part of its practitioners.

here are some examples of the labels, stamps, and markings that are found on the reverse of the mounts or frames of photographs in the catalogue.

From the first Polaroid camera sold at Jordan Marsh in Boston in 1948, to the giant, room-sized camera in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1988, Polaroid forged a unique road for photographers to travel. What came in the intervening decades was a change not only in technology and aesthetics, but a change in expectations. To see a photograph moments after it is taken is an unchallenged right of our digital age. But in 1948, the hours it took to make prints from rolls or sheets of film were the tedious norm. The Polaroid camera, with its almost instant photographs, answered Edwin Land’s young daughter’s inspiring question  …. ‘Why can’t I see it now?’


Denise Bethel, the director of photographs at Sothebys auction house, discusses the controversy over the upcoming auction of the Polaroid Collection at the sale’s press preview. June 16, 2010

Popular Science magazine cover May 1947

April 1947

Dr. Edwin Land by Ansel Adams ( Lot 450 )

The types of Polaroid cameras developed over the decades were, for the public at large, the instant kind, used by amateurs and professionals alike. But, paradoxically, the company that brought you the Swinger, the Zip, and the Big Shot was also responsible for building two of the most labor-intensive cameras of the century: the 20-by-24-inch Polaroid camera that took two technicians to operate, and the 40-by-80-inch camera that took three.

The fantastic and beautiful direct-positive prints these cameras could produce attracted a whole new set of practitioners, and artists such as Chuck Close, David Levinthal, and William Wegman, among others, made some of their best known photographic works with these mammoth machines.

As of this writing, the new Polaroid Corporation is developing a range of cameras that combine instant printing with digital technology. And those who love the old Polaroid products have not yet abandoned hope. The Impossible Project is beginning to manufacture a selected number of films for the old Polaroid cameras, and certain photographer-artists will continue to use the original Polaroid formats as the mainstay of their oeuvres.

In existence for over 50 years, the Polaroid Corporation’s photography collection is the greatest collection of Polaroid images in the world.

Begun by Polaroid founder Edwin Land and photographer Ansel Adams, the collection now includes images by hundreds of photographers throughout the world and contains important pieces by artists such as David Hockney, Helmut Newton, Jeanloup Sieff, and Robert Rauschenberg.

The Polaroid Book, a survey of this remarkable collection, pays tribute to a medium that defies the digital age and remains a favorite among artists for its quirky look and instantly gratifying, one-of-kind images.


date 20th Mar, 2010

Polaroids by Andy Warhol, Ansel Adams and 100 other artists are on show in Lausanne ahead of a controversial auction that could break up the historic collection.

More than 1,200 prints from the Polaroid collection are due to go under the hammer in New York on June 21-22. But the director of Lausanne’s Musée de l’Elysée says the European part of the collection could still be rescued.

The Polaroid collection was started in the 1950s by Edwin Land, the inventor of the cult instant camera and co-founder of Polaroid.

Land and a group of creatives at the firm handed out free cameras and film to professional photographers, artists and students, on condition that in return they give him a few photos and ideas for developing their products.

Over time it built up into a unique, experimental collection of 16,000 images, of which 4,500 have been held in trust at Lausanne since 1990, and the rest stored at Boston in the United States.

A victim of the digital revolution, Polaroid stopped manufacturing instant cameras in February 2007, and a year later ceased production of instant film and filed for bankruptcy – for the second time – amid a fraud probe into its parent company, Petters Group Worldwide. (Ponzi scheme bankruptcy )

Because of this, the celebrity images in the collection are being auctioned off to pay creditors.

“No one ever imagined that Polaroid would go bankrupt,” William Ewing, director of Lausanne’s Musée de l’Elysée, told “It’s like imagining Apple [computers] not being with us in 2025.”

The museum has put together the “Polaroid in Peril!” exhibition, which runs until June 6, to give the public a chance to view 100 of the best images from the European Polaroid Collection before they are sold.

Experimental rawness

The exhibition over three rooms contains Polaroids mainly from the 1970s and 1980s in a variety of formats.

Warhol used Polaroids in the 1970s in the creation of his giant silk-screened portraits, but now they are seen as artworks in their own right. His frozen sneeze self-portrait with his distinctive glasses and platinum blonde hair instantly grabs your attention in the first room.

And you can’t mistake an Ansel Adams mountain or a Helmut Newton nude, even if they are in the classic SX-70 4 x 5 inch format.

The exhibition also contains icons such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Sarah Moon, but there are many images by unknown photographers that are much more interesting, Ewing explained.

“We don’t have 4,500 masterpieces; what we have are 4,500 experiments,” he said.

Whether it is landscapes, cityscapes, interiors, unconventional portraits, collages or abstract images, the show demonstrates the tremendous creative range of this flexible plastic medium.

“Artists never allowed themselves to be reined in,” he said. “Artists used to say, ‘What can it do for me? How can I use it to push my own work forward?’”

Because of its instant rawness and malleability, it bred an aesthetic of its own. The little envelopes of instant film that popped out of the clunky cameras could be manipulated, squeezed or scratched, the colours could be changed, and the resulting images drawn or painted on.

“It was something between painting and photography,” he added.

Swiss photographer Beatrice Helg, who has a Polaroid in the exhibition, was full of praise for the retro format.

“It was unique with a very special palette of colours,” she said. “It encouraged photographers to experiment, which was very important.”

Despite its artistic value, the collection’s long-term future is uncertain.

The investors who lost everything in the Polaroid bankruptcy now want the collection to be sold to recoup their funds.

“Last year we were informed by the judge that they were terminating the loan of the collection within six months,” Ewing said. “It was always clear the collection would be sold. We were sort of hoping that they would secretly forget about the European collection – but they didn’t.”

The reaction by the photographers is mixed. Some are unmoved by the planned sale, estimated to fetch $7.5 million-$11.5 million (SFr7.95 million-SFr12.2 million), while others do not wish to give up their rights and split up the collection.

A group led by former US magistrate judge Sam Joyner has reportedly launched an 11th-hour campaign to prevent the auction. They intend to file a motion for a rehearing at the Minnesota bankruptcy court that awarded sale rights to Sotheby’s last August.

Deluge of support

Ewing says he is hopeful that a group of Polaroid fans, photographers and collectors may yet help save the European collection.

“I’ve been deluged by calls and emails from people asking if they can do something to help to save the collection,” he said. “So, although six months ago when the writing was on the wall I thought we were going to lose the collection, now I’m beginning to think that maybe we can find enough people to save the part we have here.”

The trustee appointed by the court to oversee the dissolution of Polaroid is also a “very sympathetic fellow”, said Ewing.

“He is very happy if the collection stays here, saying the ball is in our court, so if we can figure out how to get the money it’s easier for everyone if it stays here.”

Among the interested parties, Ewing has been talking to people from the Impossible Project, whose aim is to see Polaroid live on. Launched in October 2008 by Florian Kaps, an Austrian entrepreneur, and André Bosman, former chief engineer of the Polaroid plant in Enschede in the Netherlands, the Impossible Project aims to reinvent Polaroid film and cameras for “a huge global niche market”.

It sells refurbished old Polaroid cameras and the last remaining film stocks available on its website. But it plans to re-launch black-and-white Polaroid film on March 25, with colour coming later this summer. It has also put in a financial bid to help save the European collection.

“If all goes well and they can still make the material, there’s no reason why we can’t keep the collection alive and add to it every year,” said the Elysée director.

Simon Bradley in Lausanne,


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