Last week, Sotheby’s issued the catalogue of the pending June 21-22 auction of works from the Polaroid Collection. I’ve yet to see a copy, but I’m told it’s a substantial, indeed hefty, publication ― which is only to be expected, given that auction house’s usual scholarly thoroughness in preparing such documentation for its sales.
Sight unseen, it occurs to me that Sotheby’s detailed account of each of the 1260 images its representatives selected from the 16,000 works in the collection constitutes a database of information about those works — and most probably exists in database form. I also assume that the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland, which has housed some 4600 works from the collection since the early 1990s, catalogued their Polaroid holdings in some database format.
The Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris had a deposit of 1500 works from the collection from circa 1990 through 2004, presumably also catalogued in a database. And while the original Polaroid Corporation and the various successive possessors of the Collection never did a thorough cataloguing thereof, there has been at least some partial cataloguing generated over the decades.
In short, it seems likely that approximately half the total collection, if not more, has been documented and catalogued in several scattered databases. Fortunately, this includes everything scheduled for the auction later this month, and thus subject to imminent dispersal.
I propose that the creation of a virtual version of the Polaroid Collection, in the form of a comprehensive annotated database of its contents placed online, should become a priority as we move inexorably toward some disposition of the collection that will certainly include sales of individual pieces (the auction), as well as sales or donations of chunks of the remainder to one or more institutions. This should start with the gathering together of existing databases and other annotated records cataloguing portions of the collection or its entirety.
From the standpoint of the collection’s significance to the history of photography and our understanding of visual culture in the second half of the twentieth century, the production and availability of such a resource would go along way to making up for the dispersal of its analog contents. The existence of such a database would at least make scholarly and critical reference to the collection’s contents possible, regardless of how the actual works get distributed.
Today (June 1) I was interviewed at my home by Anne Kathrin Thüringer, a cultural journalist with the German television station NDR Fernsehen, toward a forthcoming feature on the Polaroid Collection. At the end of the session, Anne Kathrin made several SX-70s of me on my terrace, so that they could make a video of the image of me emerging in one of them. They’ve done this with each of their interview subjects for this piece.
It’s been so long since anyone’s done that (or since I’ve done it) that I’d forgotten the pleasure of working with this technology, watching that image come up before your eyes. Still magic. For this Anne Kathrin used “original” SX-70 film that she’d acquired from someone’s dwindling supply, and left me with several variant portraits that they didn’t video. Probably the last SX-70s that’ll get made of me on that vintage material.
I have posted some newly received documents on the page of this blog where I gather such information. These include a Minnesota Bankruptcy Court order signed by Judge Gregory Kishel, approving the Trustee’s employment as of September 1, 2009 of Barbara Hitchcock to assist with the disposition of the collection. This means that, as of that date if not before, the Trustee had access to someone with two decades’ direct knowledge of the contractual terms on which the collection was constructed.
In the process of updating this page, I re-read segments of the 2001-02 bankruptcy proceedings in which “Old Polaroid” got dismantled. While doing so, I discovered that while the Polaroid Corporation provided the court with no inventory or estimate of value for the collection, it did break it down to broad groupings, as follows (see Schedule B):
- Library Collection: “Approximately 224 objects (primarily photographic prints).” (Note: These are the classic non-Polaroid gelatin-silver works by Strand, Lange, Bourke-White, Weston, et al.)
- Ansel Adams Collection: “Approximately 400 objects (primarily photographic prints).”
- Paul Caponigro Collection: “Approximately 525 objects (primarily photographic prints).”
- Ansel Adams Traveling Exhibition: “Approximately 84 objects (primarily photographic prints).”
- Innovation/Imagination Traveling Exhibition: “Approximately 82 objects (primarily photographic prints).”
- American Perspectives Traveling Exhibition: “Approximately 160 objects (primarily photographic prints).”
- Musee de l’Elysee Collection: “Approximately 7000 objects (primarily photographic prints).”
- Maison Europeenne de la Photographie Collection: “Approximately 1500 objects (primarily photographic prints).”
- Polaroid Collection: “Approximately 14,250 objects (primarily photographic prints).”
This yields a total of 23,225 works ― hence, presumably the figure 24,000 earlier in this document, the usual number given out by Polaroid in the ’90s. The accuracy of those estimates remains in question, of course, but it also remains difficult to reconcile this breakdown with the subsequent total of 16,000 works submitted to the Minnesota Bankruptcy Court in 2009.
In a March 17, 2010 article I’ve just discovered online, “Photographers Raise Concern Over Polaroids on Sotheby’s Auction Block,” Jessica Lum of PetaPixel summarizes the objections by such figures as Chuck Close to the forthcoming auction of selections from the Polaroid Collection. Lum quotes briefly from me, citing comments of mine that appeared in the March 11 issue of the British Journal of Photography (previously discussed in this space), in which I provided some background on the issues of copyright and subsidiary-rights licensing as they pertain to the imminent dismantling of the collection.
Retrieved this intriguing bit of info from a recently discovered news brief that appeared on August 14, 2009, in the online source Artinfo: In regard to the upcoming June 21-22 sale and the U.S. Bankruptcy Court’s authorization thereof, “under the deal’s terms Sotheby’s will take 10 percent on private sales but no commission from the auction.” First I’d heard of this, and haven’t yet had a chance to verify it. Given that the anonymous article is titled “Polaroid Asks Sotheby’s to Auction Off Famed Photo Collection,” I question the story’s accuracy, since the auction was sought by the court-appointed Trustee for the creditors of Petters Group Worldwide, not by “Polaroid.” Perhaps someone will check this out and report to me.
A lengthy story by Simon Bradley for SwissInfo.ch, “Polaroid collection faces auction split,” dated March 20, 2010, considers the pending auction from the perspective of the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, where roughly 25 percent of the Polaroid Collection has been housed since the early 1990s. On March 6 the Musée opened a show displaying a cross-section of its Polaroid holdings, which will close on June 6.
William Ewing, recently retired from from the directorship of the Musée, still held the helm in March. He curated that show as one of his last efforts at this notable photo museum, and apparently still held out hope for some solution that would allow that institution to retain the 4500 Polaroid prints that remain on deposit there.
Bradley writes, “The trustee [John R. Stoebner] appointed by the [bankruptcy] court to oversee the dissolution of Polaroid is also a ‘very sympathetic fellow,’ said Ewing. ‘He is very happy if the collection stays here, saying the ball is in our court, so if we can figure out how to get the money it’s easier for everyone if it stays here.'” He cites Ewing as discussing The Impossible Project ― the enterprise that has re-started the production of SX-70 film — as a potential donor , one which had already made a bid for the collection on behalf of the Musée.
To add, again, some variety to these otherwise solemn (or at least serious) comments, here’s yet another bit of Polaroid-related weirdness: Earlier this year, mortuary technicians in several New York City morgues were caught making macabre SX-70s of themselves fooling around with assorted cadavers and body parts (“parts is parts”) while on the job. As a result of which, several of them became jobless. The image shown here portrays one Kaihl Brassfield holding a severed head, in imitation of the classic Heisman trophy pose. Click here for Chuck Bennett and Ikimulisa Livingston’s “Mortuary technicians play with corpses,” from the February 15, 2010 issue of the New York Post. They write, “[Brassfield] says everyone working in the Staten Island and Brooklyn morgues, from cops to coroners, participated in the gory games.” Ah, that Polaroid fun — and some of right here on Staten Island, where I
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