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Polaroid Collection: Update 1

Dr. Edwin Land with SX-70, Life magazine cover, October 27, 1972

Dr. Edwin Land with SX-70, Life magazine cover, October 27, 1972

Courtesy of John Reuter, I can now provide you with the primary legal document relevant to the immediate future of the Polaroid Collection. This is a motion dated August 7, 2009 on the part of the current owners of the collection, PBE Corporation (formerly known as Polaroid Corporation), asking the U. S. Bankruptcy Court in the District of Minnesota for permission to sell the collection at auction through Sotheby’s in New York. It includes an itemized list of what someone has identified as the cream of the collection, plus a complete list of all the picture-makers represented. (Click here for the PDF file of this motion.)

Inarguably, it’s a unique and unduplicable archive of images with great historical significance, not just in terms of the individual works included but in regard to the aggregation as a whole. The lists read like a Who’s Who of contemporary photography and photo-based art: Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Ralph Gibson, Robert Heinecken, Jan Groover, Gyorgy Kepes, Les Krims, Dorothea Lange, David Levinthal, Robert Mapplethorpe, Mary Ellen Mark, Helmut Newton . . . it just goes on and on.

Polaroid 20x24 camera on location

Polaroid 20x24 camera on location

The story of how things got to this point has numerous twists and turns. For my previous post on this subject, and substantive comments thereon by readers of this blog, click here. (And click here for “A Brief Timeline of Polaroid” through 1992, courtesy of the Photographic Resource Center in Boston.) In brief, the Polaroid Corporation’s long-term financial problems, which led to a bankruptcy filing and reorganization, seemed to have resolved with its 2005 sale to Petters International for $426 million. However, it turned out that Tom Petters was a scam artist; he now faces a multi-count conviction for massive fraud, with trial set to begin in September 2009.

In April 2009, Petters sold the Polaroid Corporation for a mere $88 million, virtually a fire-sale markdown from its purchase price. The new owners specifically did not want the Polaroid Collections, which now legally belong to PBE Corporation — which, to put it bluntly, wants to unload them.

To summarize how things now stand:

  • The U.S. component of the Polaroid Collection(s), comprising some 16,000 images (of a total 22,000) made by hundreds of photographers and artists from the late 1940s on, now faces sale and dispersal as a result of the actions of Ponzi schemer Tom Petters of Petters International.
  • Another 6000 images from the collection have entered the holdings of two European museums, the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland and La Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, France. It appears that these components of the Polaroid collections will remain at these institutions permanently — though, if I read the motion correctly, a few of the images now in Lausanne might revert to the PBE holdings.
  • The lion’s share of this collection, based in the U.S., has changed location. Formerly stored in a state-of-the-art facility in Cambridge, MA, it has been re-housed in an unspecified Massachusetts location, since the original facility is being demolished and replaced with another structure.
  • Storage and maintenance of the collection costs approximately $200,000 per year.
  • The current owners of the collection, those left holding the bag upon the meltdown of Petters International, want to liquidate this asset, whose total value has informal estimates ranging between $7-12 million.
  • Said owners have sought to sell the collection as a whole, but despite several indications of interest no private or institutional buyer has come forward to make a substantial offer.
  • In the absence of a single purchaser, the debtors propose to dispose of the collection via one or more auctions held by Sotheby’s in New York.
  • Sotheby’s would auction off the major pieces, while seeking to find private buyers for unsold lots and the less auction-worthy pieces in the collection.
  • What would happen to unsold lots and those portions of the collection not considered valuable enough to put on the block remains unclear.
Tintype, n.d., photographer and subject unknown.

Tintype, n.d., photographer and subject unknown.

If wishes were horses then beggars would ride. If I had my druthers, someone would step in to purchase the entire collection, plus its accompanying documentation and other related materials, in order to set up a Museum of Instant Photography, keeping the entire collection intact and then building upon it by adding more Polaroid material (past, present, and future). They’d make me the curator.

I would expand on that core collection by adding images and technologies of some of the other variants on “instant” photography, starting with the tintype, the first form of photograph available to its makers and subjects within minutes of the exposure. The tintype had a roughly eight-decade life as a popular medium, from the mid-1850s well into the 1930s.

To build on that, I’d acquire images by the itinerant street photographers who used to offer on-the-spot prints during and after the tintype era. Some of them used homemade cameras with mini-darkrooms built into them — light-tight boxes with small trays of developer and fixer, and a black-cloth sleeve allowing them to make the prints within that cramped workspace. I’d want some examples of their equipment as well as their images.

Kodak EK6 Instant Camera

Kodak EK6 Instant Camera

In 1972 I had my own portrait made on Boston Commons by one such photographer, who claimed that Edwin Land had gotten the inspiration for the Polaroid process from him. (Given his age, this seemed entirely possible.) Certainly the germ of the instant-photo impulse resides in part in this variant of the medium. (See James B. Wyman’s Guest Post on this subject, elsewhere in this blog.)

From there I’d move to some of the subsequent formats, such as the Kodak Instant Camera that Polaroid eventually forced off the market for patent infringement and the Fuji Fotorama and Instax cameras.

I’d augment that with examples of the photo booth, the more familiar and omnipresent technology that provided “photos in a minute” long before Land devised the Polaroid. If we can credit any widespread form of camera with creating a consumer base for photographs you saw shortly after exposure, then the photo booth gets that laurel. Of course I’d also collect examples of the vernacular imagery made in photo booths, as well as the creative projects for which some artists and photographers used this system.

Magbooth™, 2009

Magbooth™, 2009

Since photography has entered the digital era, with all digital images literally “instant,” that would lead me, as curator, into considering digital photography, which has effectively killed the demand for “instant” analog prints — which actually took a minute or so to become legible — by providing a truly immediate visible image that can get printed later. So I’d likely conclude this museum’s survey with a progression of digital image-capture devices, including one of the new digital photo booths created by the Magnolia Photo Booth Co. of Louisville, KY. They call it the Magbooth™ — and, having seen it in operation and used it myself, I think it’s the next stage in the evolution of the photo booth as a social phenomenon in visual culture.

To encourage exploration of the ramifications of all this, I’d initiate some scholar-in-residence programs that would enable qualified researchers to investigate the “instant photography” impulse in lens culture and its evolution from the mid-19th century through the 20th century and into the 21st. Of course I’d do some work of my own — critical, historical, curatorial — on those issues.

Harold Feinstein, "GI in Photo Booth," 1950s

Harold Feinstein, "GI in Photo Booth," 1950s

This beggar likely won’t get to ride. Still, I can dream. And I can hope that, even if no one puts me in charge, some institution or consortium or even wealthy individual will recognize the importance of keeping this archive intact as part of our visual heritage.

Should the collection get dispersed via auction or other sales, then the potential for research into Polaroid photography diminishes immediately and dramatically. The collection as presently constituted has an obvious synergy on numerous levels: it embodies a history of creative use of a particular cluster of tools, materials, and processes over six decades; it shows how different picture-makers used the same medium and the same materials; it represents the tangible cumulative result of an unparalleled program of corporate support of the arts; and it reflects the curatorial and sponsorial decisions of a sequence of thoughtful figures empowered by Polaroid to subsidize production and gather the consequent output.

Break it up to sell it off and you pretty much eliminate the ability to follow any of those threads and weigh Polaroid’s impact on contemporary creative photography specifically and visual culture generally from 1950 onward. Perhaps that’s unavoidable, but it will constitute a loss, and a major one; let’s not pretend otherwise.

Memento, a film by Christopher Nolan, 2000

Memento, a film by Christopher Nolan, 2000

According to the motion requesting approval to go forward with the sale, “The Court will hold a hearing of this Motion before the Honorable Gregory F. Kishel, United States Bankruptcy Judge, at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, August 27, 2009, in Courtroom 2A, at the United States Courthouse, 316 N. Robert Street, St. Paul, Minnesota.” Even if it were possible to establish amicus curiae standing in the few days between now and that hearing, and to organize a petition from the photo community in favor of keeping the collection intact, I don’t think the court could use that as a basis for rejecting the motion, absent a serious offer from a buyer interested in the complete archive.

I’ll report here on the court’s decision as soon as I learn of it. Note: The outcome of the hearing on this motion for approval of the sale of this collection has no bearing on or connection to the upcoming trial of Tom Petters. That’s a separate legal matter that will have no effect on the future of either the Polaroid Corporation or the Polaroid Collection, as Petters no longer owns either of them. It will simply become a footnote in the history of the Polaroid Corporation and the Polaroid Collection.

For an index of links to all posts related to this story, click here.

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5 comments to Polaroid Collection: Update 1

  • A. D. Coleman

    Here’s the Wall Street Journal story on this situation: “Instant Art on the Auction Block” by Rachel Feintzeig, from the WSJ’s “Bankruptcy Beat” blog. She mistakenly states that the collection includes 60,000 images instead of 16,000.

  • Allan,
    Thank you for your persuasive argument for keeping this collection together. Not only is it an impressive collection because of who is in it but also a living document of a process that appealed to an incredible variety of artistic approaches.

  • A. D. Coleman

    As I just wrote in response to some comments on my Facebook page, I plan to stay on this story, so subscribe to the blog and you’ll find out what I’ve learned as fast as I can make it coherent, accurate, and publishable.

    I have a highly placed contact at Sotheby’s; if this does move forward to the auction block I’ll try for an interview, to find out what will happen to the unsold and unauctionable works — by far the majority, I’m sure. I seriously doubt those will end up in the trash, or offloaded to a scrap dealer. Sotheby’s has some very smart and responsible people handling photography. I’d expect the remaining works either get sold in bulk lots or donated to appropriate institutions. But I doubt that their makers will get a chance to buy them back, so don’t get your hopes up in that regard.

    More to come, obviously.

  • Is there any information about the image “Road after Rain” from Singular Images by Ansel Adams?

    • “Road after Rain” isn’t mentioned by that title in Schedule I (click here for that document). It may be there under another title, or may be among the 184 Adams works in the collection but not included in the auction.

      It may also be that this work was owned by Adams and now belongs to his trust, or has been placed elsewhere (possibly the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ).

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