Exhibitions USA

Send us your Polaroids

Project will document the “magical” film’s contribution to art and science

Pop hit: Andy Warhol, a Polaroid devotee, snaps Tessa Dahl at the Four Seasons, New York, 1973 (Photo: Tim Boxer/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

An ambitious collaboration to document the achievements of the now defunct Polaroid Corporation is being made possible thanks to an initial grant from the Land Fund. The Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography (FEP) and the scientific college Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) intend to develop a touring exhibition and a series of publications, produced in conjunction with Thames and Hudson.

“This is a call for submissions. It demands the best of the best material. This is not a community project, we want the stuff that can hold its own against the art of the period—and it was a long period, from 1950 to 1990,” says William Ewing, the former director of the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, which held a major portion of the Polaroid collection until its recent dispersal as a result of bankruptcy sales (see The Art Newspaper, March 2011, p59).

Together with the Polaroid expert Barbara Hitchcock, who worked for the corporation for decades and managed its multi-million dollar collection, Ewing will curate the art aspects of the project. “The best stuff is in private hands, but we also want people to dig deep and find the things they might have forgotten about. Some artists took beautiful photos because they were curious to experiment with the technology, but they probably didn’t think of the work as art at the time,” Ewing says.

He describes the enterprise, whose working title is The Polaroid Project, as “bi-polar— art on the one hand, science on the other”. The project will look at the artistic impact of instant photography as well as Polaroid’s lesser-known contributions to the medical, industrial and advertising fields.

As well as “visible examples” such as sunglasses, Ewing points to quinine, often used to combat tropical diseases, but employed by the Polaroid founder Edwin Land to inexpensively polarise light. “During the Second World War, when quinine stocks were running low in the fight against malaria, Land set up a team to produce artificial quinine,” Ewing says.

“The idea of instant film is magical,” says Deborah Douglas, who will work with her colleague Gary Van Zante on the scientific aspects. “There is an entire darkroom in a four-to-five inch square of paper, which is a fascinating story about optics and design.”

MIT will draw heavily on more than 10,000 objects from the 73-year-old Polaroid archive, which it manages, Douglas says. The museum currently has a small display of artefacts that “every single person stops to look at. You realise that this was a very unusual company whose brand identity has far outlasted the norm. I am interested in the connections that ordinary people feel with it. Today, we’re all so used to the idea of having everything instantly, but that really started with Polaroid—even if it’s now been eclipsed by digital.”

More money is needed; the exhibition should cost “between $40,000 and $100,000—which is expensive for a photography show but minuscule compared with painting”, Ewing says. The team plans to launch the exhibition at MIT in late 2015 or 2016, and hopes to partner with four or five international venues.

“At the moment it’s just a gleam in our eyes, a sketch of an idea,” Douglas says. “But we’re in love with the concept and hope it’s going to be a great project.”

To contact The Polaroid Project, email William Ewing at williamewing@bluewin.ch

More from The Art Newspaper


9 Aug 12
4:23 CET


I still work and still use and still have Polaroid 669 film. I was able, through donations, purchase several thousand sheets when they announced they were going out of business. I create BOTH dry polaroid transfers and multiple image polaroid emulsion lift off transfers.Is this call still open? As I emailed you a couple of weeks ago for information.

15 Jun 12
23:40 CET


My early experimentations started out at Media Study/Buffalo on analog systems before the birth of the personal computer. I thank Polaroid for championing my work and adding my early experimentations to their collection. Both process and materials are gone. However, the works are as new today as they were then. Laurence Gartel, Digital Media Pioneer www.gartelmuseum.weebly.com

4 Jun 12
15:52 CET


I have allot of Polaroids in my found / anonymous photos collection - some which are in the permanent collect of SFMOMA - I'm assuming scanned images will do until the real ones are needed for a show?

15 May 12
14:57 CET


I used Polaroid transfers as an initial step in a multi-stage process that produced large format prints that straddled the line between photography and painting. While most people were concerned with minimizing the uncontrollable, deleterious effects of the transfer process, I was more interested in maximizing them, which produced some powerful, albeit chaotic imagery.

15 May 12
14:56 CET


I used my Polarid 4x5 back on all my HABS - Library of Congress Historic Preservation Documentation Photography. Many times, the polaroids were far superior to the b/w film. Some of these historic images should be included in your collection.

14 May 12
21:46 CET


I used SX-70 and manipulated them. I have a couple of hundred. I have 5 galleries of some of my art work on a website. I loved using Polaroid, both for fun and testing when I was a working advertising assignment photographer.

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