Send us your Polaroids
Project will document the “magical” film’s contribution to art and science
By Charlotte Burns. News, Issue 235, May 2012
Published online: 10 May 2012
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 email@example.com
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