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Instant Culture for Sale

Bankruptcy has meant an uncertain fate for the huge Polaroid collection of images capturing a nation and an art form in flux.

January 06, 2002|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS | Times Staff Writer

When curators of photography dream, what do they see? Maybe this: drawer after drawer of carefully preserved snapshots and outsized prints--Ansel Adams landscapes, David Hockney photo collages, Andy Warhol celebrity portraits, William Wegman Weimaraners--all in the hands of a company eager to sell off its assets.

Those images and more, by photographers from Walker Evans to Robert Mapplethorpe, are all part of the collection that waits in the various vaults of the Cambridge, Mass.-based Polaroid Corp., cash-strapped creator of the instant photograph. The company is still in operation, but it sought bankruptcy protection in October and has been selling itself off in parts ever since.

So far, its photo collection has been untouched in the corporate foraging through Polaroid's $1.8 billion in assets, and even insiders say it's almost impossible to predict when the pictures might be sold, or to whom, or for how much. Although many curators and collectors agree that the collection is worth millions, there's no estimated value on record, nor even a precise count of how many images Polaroid has--the interns who were doing an inventory have been let go to cut costs.

But ask a photo specialist about the Polaroid files, and the answers are quick and eager: The collection, amassed over six decades, is a window on American culture, an invaluable tool for anyone tracking the evolution of photography, and a medley of photography's biggest names.

"There's a lot of buzz about it," said Arthur Ollman, director of the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego. Ollman said he heard the Polaroid collection mentioned often at a November conference he hosted of photography curators from museums worldwide.

For any of those institutions, the Polaroid pictures "would be more than just an addition. It would be an avalanche of new and wonderful material. If you really want to look at the second half of the 20th century, a huge number of the greatest producers are represented." Ollman said.

"We think we have somewhere in the vicinity of 24,000 photos," said Barbara Hitchcock, director of cultural affairs for Polaroid in Waltham, Mass. "We don't have a complete handle on it, because we don't have everything in one database." In some cases, Hitchcock said, "we're physically walking through offices and looking" to verify which images are in storage and which are on loan to executives.

For anyone who has watched an insurance man fish an instant camera out of his claims-adjusting toolkit, or stood among the millions of drivers who are snapped annually in DMV offices via Polaroid's identity systems division, it may be a stretch to think of a Polaroid picture as fine art. But in museum corridors across the land, it's no stretch at all.

"I don't think there's another corporation collection [of photography] that even comes close," said Trudy Wilner Stack, curator of exhibits and collections at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson.

Polaroid's greatest selling point has always been instant gratification. Dr. Edwin Land, the Harvard dropout inventor who founded the company, said the idea for an instant-image camera came to him on a 1944 family trip to New Mexico, when his daughter asked why she couldn't see an immediate result after he snapped a photo.

Four years later, Land brought the first instant camera to market, relying on a process in which dye colors passed from a negative to a positive print, all inside the camera body, within about a minute. With the spontaneity and interaction that allowed, the relationship between photographers and their subjects was forever changed.

Through the decades, the company's researchers refined the process, devising cameras to deliver color images (which arrived in 1963), pictures in as little as 10 seconds, pictures from negatives as large as 20 by 24 inches. Until 60-minute photo processing and then the digital camera came along, the utility of Polaroid on-the-spot processing was unrivaled.

While Polaroid was earning a reputation in the marketplace as a producer of simple cameras for the masses, the company's leaders took pains to forge a connection with fine artists. For decades, Polaroid has sought out promising artists, then traded access to equipment for feedback and prints.

The first such bargain was struck between Land and Ansel Adams, who in 1948 began serving as a Polaroid consultant, testing new films and equipment.

In fact, some of the Polaroid collection's greatest attractions are filed under A: more than 500 Adams prints, along with more than 5,000 pages of letters and memos from Adams to the company's scientists and executives.

From Nov. 13, 1951: "Have you considered the tremendous effect your new high speed film may have on astronomical photography? Especially in rendering surface details of the planets.... And a whole new world opens up with the possibility of photographing, under low-light conditions, individuals, groups, meetings, theater, opera, etc."

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