Monique Jacot (CH), Zebras at the Knie Circus, 1988 © Polaroid collection

“Polaroid in peril” is an exhibition to alert public opinion to the possible dismantling of a major Polaroid photo art collection, part of which is housed at the Lausanne Elysée museum. It coincides with efforts by diehards to save a technology imperilled by digital photography and cut-throat investors. The Polaroids on show at the Elysée are a reminder of the naked power and beauty of images that digital adjustments cannot touch.

Seeking protection from a second bankruptcy in December 2008, Polaroid was bought by auction in April 2009 by PLR IP Holdings that is said to be long on marketing and short on loyalty to the original brand.

A collection of 16,000 photographs taken over 30 years by world-famous photographers, of which 4,500  have been on loan since 1991 to the Elysée Museum in Lausanne, are part of an inventory that PLR is looking partially to divest.

On 21 and 22 June 2010, Sotheby’s in New York will auction off more than 1,200 works from the collection, including photographs by David Hockney, Robert Mapplethorpe, Robert Frank, Andy Warhol and Chuck Close.

The sale, that is expected to raise between 7.5 million and 11.5 million US dollars, is considered highly controversial since many of the photographers who entrusted their photographs to Polaroid had been led to believe that the collection would remain together for public viewing and study.

K. Edward Mitchell (USA) Filtering Light, 1983 © Polaroid collection

When the genial inventor of Polaroid and Harvard drop-out, Edwin Land, produced the first instant camera with self-developing film in 1948, he sought the collaboration of photographers to help refine his product and test “the unique aesthetic potential” of his invention.

In exchange for the use of Polaroid cameras and film, including a large mobile “dark room” for larger formats, photographers were asked to contribute pictures to the budding collection.

The largest contributor was the legendary landscape photographer Ansel Adams who over 35 years was to produce more than 400 Polaroids for the collection, many of which are to be auctioned off by Sotheby’s.


Ansel Adams’ “Aspens, Northern New Mexico” Sothby’s New York “Photographs from the Polaroid Collection

According to the photography critic and historian, A. D. Coleman “These were never sales, they were exchanges. This was permanent custodianship for Polaroid, with visitation rights for the photographers.”

A bankruptcy court in Minnesota is however, allowing Polaroid to sell a portion of its collection to claw back equity. The company had been bought in 2005 by the rogue investor Tom Petters when it first filed for protection against bankruptcy. Petters has been found guilty of a 3.65 billion US dollars Ponzi scheme, not unlike the one set up by Bernard Madoff, and is presently in jail.

In response to the threat on the collection, William Ewing, director of the Elysée Museum, has organized an exhibition that is delightfully teasing and colourful, with tight line-ups of small formats surrounded by more expansive pictures.


Anne Mealhie (France) 1982 © Polaroid collection

William Ewing anticipates that Sotheby’s will be extracting around 100 pictures from the collection in Lausanne and if they happen to be ones that are already on display, he intends to plaster a “For sale” protest banner if they are removed before the end of the show.

In the meantime, the Elysée is negotiating with Polaroid enthusiasts to secure sufficient funds to keep the rest of collection together. “The situation is still very fluid,” according to Ewing.

“Estimated prices are not outrageous because of the experimental nature of many photographs,” he says “and besides, prices would collapse if the entire collection were put on the market at the same time, which would defeat the purpose of the bankruptcy court.”

When Tom Petters took over Polaroid in 2005, he sounded the death knell of traditional analogue instant photography when he started developing digital products. Polaroid gradually depleted the stockpiled chemicals that it uses to make the film cassettes and started closing its factories.

And yet there are a billion Polaroid cameras in the world, the company claims.

Enter The Impossible Project led by a young Austrian artist and businessman, Florian Kaps, who is attempting to salvage the goods.

He has bought the rights to the Polaroid technology and intends to re-launch the production of the film from a re-activated Polaroid factory in Enschede, Holland.

This means completely reinventing the chemical procedures to obtain the required sophisticated chemicals and gels. An official announcement will be made on March 22, 2010.

Florian Kap
Florian Kap, Executive Director Marketing & Business Development, The Impossible Project

PLR is not making things any easier for The Impossible Project by putting Polaroid back in the limelight. It is “bringing its own brand of instant together with digital” explains president Scott W. Hardy and has appointed Lady Gaga as creative director for a specialty line of imaging products.

Lady Gaga is the wildly eccentric singer-cum-fashion-diva that has taken the pop world by storm. Watch this rollicking interview where she says that she wants to “reinspire the product and bring it into the future” and admits that her father is happy that she has a “proper” job at last.

The resulting market confusion has jolted ‘The Impossible Project’ into issuing a statement that says:

“The Impossible Project is the one and ONLY institution in the whole Milky Way that will be capable of producing analogue instant film for Polaroid cameras.”

Whatever the outcome, specialists concur to say that the contribution of Polaroid to the history of imaging is priceless and not quantifiable in market terms.

The invention of Polaroid cameras was to modify our perception to time by allowing the instant reproduction of reality 15 years before the technology of video instant replay was first used by television in 1963.

The exhibition at the Elysée until June 6 is a cool reminder of the magic of instant pictures and how some artists have used Polaroid to create new realities. It runs in parallel to the Sally Mann show.

Michèle Laird, née Haffner, was an international arts administrator (visual arts and theatre), successively in Paris, New York and London, before moving to Switzerland and becoming an arts journalist.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: