Polaroid collection faces auction split

William Wegman’s Weimaraner dog snapshot will be going under the hammer this June William Wegman/Polaroid Collection

Polaroids by Andy Warhol, Ansel Adams and 100 other artists are on show in Lausanne ahead of a controversial auction that could break up the historic collection.

This content was published on March 20, 2010 minutes

More than 1,200 prints from the Polaroid collection are due to go under the hammer in New York on June 21-22. But the director of Lausanne’s Musée de l’Elysée says the European part of the collection could still be rescued.

The Polaroid collection was started in the 1950s by Edwin Land, the inventor of the cult instant camera and co-founder of Polaroid.

Land and a group of creatives at the firm handed out free cameras and film to professional photographers, artists and students, on condition that in return they give him a few photos and ideas for developing their products.

Over time it built up into a unique, experimental collection of 16,000 images, of which 4,500 have been held in trust at Lausanne since 1990, and the rest stored at Boston in the United States.

A victim of the digital revolution, Polaroid stopped manufacturing instant cameras in February 2007, and a year later ceased production of instant film and filed for bankruptcy – for the second time – amid a fraud probe into its parent company, Petters Group Worldwide.

Because of this, the celebrity images in the collection are being auctioned off to pay creditors.

“No one ever imagined that Polaroid would go bankrupt,” William Ewing, director of Lausanne’s Musée de l’Elysée, told “It’s like imagining Apple [computers] not being with us in 2025.”

The museum has put together the “Polaroid in Peril!” exhibition, which runs until June 6, to give the public a chance to view 100 of the best images from the European Polaroid Collection before they are sold.

Experimental rawness

The exhibition over three rooms contains Polaroids mainly from the 1970s and 1980s in a variety of formats.

Warhol used Polaroids in the 1970s in the creation of his giant silk-screened portraits, but now they are seen as artworks in their own right. His frozen sneeze self-portrait with his distinctive glasses and platinum blonde hair instantly grabs your attention in the first room.

And you can’t mistake an Ansel Adams mountain or a Helmut Newton nude, even if they are in the classic SX-70 4 x 5 inch format.

The exhibition also contains icons such as Robert Mapplethorpe and Sarah Moon, but there are many images by unknown photographers that are much more interesting, Ewing explained.

“We don’t have 4,500 masterpieces; what we have are 4,500 experiments,” he said.

Whether it is landscapes, cityscapes, interiors, unconventional portraits, collages or abstract images, the show demonstrates the tremendous creative range of this flexible plastic medium.

“Artists never allowed themselves to be reined in,” he said. “Artists used to say, ‘What can it do for me? How can I use it to push my own work forward?’”

Because of its instant rawness and malleability, it bred an aesthetic of its own. The little envelopes of instant film that popped out of the clunky cameras could be manipulated, squeezed or scratched, the colours could be changed, and the resulting images drawn or painted on.

“It was something between painting and photography,” he added.

Swiss photographer Beatrice Helg, who has a Polaroid in the exhibition, was full of praise for the retro format.

“It was unique with a very special palette of colours,” she said. “It encouraged photographers to experiment, which was very important.”

Keeping it alive

Despite its artistic value, the collection’s long-term future is uncertain.

The investors who lost everything in the Polaroid bankruptcy now want the collection to be sold to recoup their funds.

“Last year we were informed by the judge that they were terminating the loan of the collection within six months,” Ewing said. “It was always clear the collection would be sold. We were sort of hoping that they would secretly forget about the European collection – but they didn’t.”

The reaction by the photographers is mixed. Some are unmoved by the planned sale, estimated to fetch $7.5 million-$11.5 million (SFr7.95 million-SFr12.2 million), while others do not wish to give up their rights and split up the collection.

A group led by former US magistrate judge Sam Joyner has reportedly launched an 11th-hour campaign to prevent the auction. They intend to file a motion for a rehearing at the Minnesota bankruptcy court that awarded sale rights to Sotheby’s last August.

Deluge of support

Ewing says he is hopeful that a group of Polaroid fans, photographers and collectors may yet help save the European collection.

“I’ve been deluged by calls and emails from people asking if they can do something to help to save the collection,” he said. “So, although six months ago when the writing was on the wall I thought we were going to lose the collection, now I’m beginning to think that maybe we can find enough people to save the part we have here.”

The trustee appointed by the 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.”

Among the interested parties, Ewing has been talking to people from the Impossible Project, whose aim is to see Polaroid live on. Launched in October 2008 by Florian Kaps, an Austrian entrepreneur, and André Bosman, former chief engineer of the Polaroid plant in Enschede in the Netherlands, the Impossible Project aims to reinvent Polaroid film and cameras for "a huge global niche market".

It sells refurbished old Polaroid cameras and the last remaining film stocks available on its website. But it plans to re-launch black-and-white Polaroid film on March 25, with colour coming later this summer. It has also put in a financial bid to help save the European collection.

“If all goes well and they can still make the material, there’s no reason why we can’t keep the collection alive and add to it every year,” said the Elysée director.

Simon Bradley in Lausanne,

Polaroid chronology

1947: The American Edwin H. Land, professional photographer and founder of the Polaroid Corporation, creates the Model 95, a camera which allows the instant development of an image without using a darkroom. Land was a passionate inventor and custodian of 533 patents, and it is said to have taken him three years to develop this process.

1948: Available to the general public for the first time at Jordan Marsh in Boston, the Model 95 quickly sells out.

1956: Less than ten years after the start of production, Polaroid sold more than one million units.

1963: To complete the monochrome process, the company creates the Polacolor film, the first colour Polaroid film.

1972: The marketing of the SX-70 camera introduces a new line of equipment: lighter and with more efficient technology. With a mirror system similar to an SLR camera, the SX-70 is designed for professionals and amateurs alike.

1991: Polaroid’s market starts to shrink. The advent of digital cameras causes the company to lose significant sales; it seeks to diversify with various electronic products.

2001: First bankruptcy of the Polaroid Corporation. A year later, it leads to the acquisition of shares by Equity One.

2008: After the purchase of shares by the multinational Petters and stopping production of instant film, Polaroid goes bankrupt for the second time.

2010: 1,200 images from the Polaroid collection will be auctioned by Sotheby’s in New York on June 21-22.

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The Polaroid in Peril! exhibition at the Elysée museum in Lausanne runs until June 6, 2010.

The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday, from 11am to 7pm (closed Mondays).

The exhibition, comprising 100 images from the 4,500 photos from the European collection, was put together by William Ewing, who is ending his term as Elysée director at the end of the year after 14 years’ service.

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