Art law USA

More than a set of prints

It was a misfortune for the Polaroid Collection to fall into the hands of a crook. To sell it off would look like carelessness

I should start by revealing my connections with the Polaroid Corporation. I organised the first exhibition in the UK of Ansel Adams, who played a significant role as an advisor to Dr Edwin H. Land, founder of the Polaroid Corporation. It was held at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in 1976.

At Ansel’s suggestion, I asked Polaroid UK if they would provide the money to repaint the exhibition gallery. Terracotta walls, with a tonality of exactly 18.5% reflectance: this was Ansel’s idea of the perfect viewing conditions for fine black-and-white photographs. The company provided £4,000 and the exhibition looked magnificent. The reason for Polaroid’s largesse was that Ansel was their long-time consultant on technical and aesthetic matters—and who better? The exhibition contained exquisite prints made with Polaroid’s extremely fine-grained negatives. It was a way of demonstrating to photographers that there was more to Polaroid’s products than the gratification of the instant print.

In 1988 I was invited by Polaroid to choose an exhibition from the Polaroid Collection. The experience introduced me to many photographers whose work I had not come across before. It also showed me how the Polaroid aesthetic offered its users new possibilities, especially at the large scale of 20in x 24in. This was the size of the giant Polaroid cameras based in New York and in Offenbach, Germany. Artists were invited to use them in return for a number of prints kept by the corporation for potential exhibition and publication. The most celebrated users of the big camera in New York were Chuck Close and William Wegman and the photographer Lucas Samaras. Polaroid’s patronage was broad and international.

Emboldened by this, I asked Polaroid if the large camera based in Germany could be brought to the V&A in 1989 to help us celebrate the 150th anniversary of photography. The camera came, complete with an expert technician. We invited Helen Chadwick and other young artists to use it, with members of the public allowed to watch. The resulting images were shared between the artists, the corporation and the museum. I hung ours as an “instant exhibition” as soon as the prints could be mounted and framed. It seemed the most virtuous of circles, good for all parties, including the public.

Polaroid did things no other company did. The Polaroid Collection is more than its 16,000 prints—it includes correspondence with many of the artists in the collection. It has the intricate historical importance of an archive, documenting one of the great periods of photography’s efflorescence. It is not merely a group of more or less desirable trophies.

At the time of writing it appears that a group of 1,300 items has been cherry picked by Sotheby’s for auction. Sotheby’s is legally charged, because of the bankruptcy proceedings, with “maximising the value of the collection”. Here “value” refers solely to economic return. The true value of the Polaroid Collection is cultural. Paraphrasing the immortal Oscar: it was a misfortune for the Polaroid Collection to fall into the hands of a crook. To sell it off would look like carelessness.

The writer is visiting professor of photography at the University of the Arts London and an honorary research fellow at the V&A, London

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11 Mar 10
17:54 CET


Let's right will prevail.

11 Mar 10
17:17 CET


This collection should be acquired by a major museum and kept in tact. It is a priceless photographic display of artistry and skill bt the most renown photographers of our time. It is time for someone to step up.

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