Historic Polaroid Collection Going to NYC Auction

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Greg Berg
    Polaroid Instant camera

    A striking black-and-white photograph of the majestic Bridalveil waterfall is among numerous that landscape photographer Ansel Adams took with Polaroid film — a technology many celebrated artists embraced to produce innovative and surprising works.

    The mural-sized iconic image, "Bridalveil Fall, Yosemite," is going on the auction block at a pre-sale estimate of $70,000 to $100,000.

    "It is the largest and best collection of works by Ansel Adams to ever come on the market, representing a broad spectrum of most of his career," said Sotheby's photography expert Denise Bethel.

    The image is among 1,000 Polaroid and gelatin silver prints by some of the biggest names in 20th-century photography being offered at Sotheby's on June 21-22 as part of a bankruptcy court-approved sale. The prints are being sold by PBE Corp., a previous owner of the Polaroid brand.

    The Polaroid camera was the invention of Edwin H. Land, whose revolutionary 1948 technology for instant photography was not matched until the arrival of the digital camera almost 40 years later.

    Land hired Adams as a consultant a year after the camera hit the market — a collaboration that lasted 35 years. The photographer produced some of the most sweeping and dramatic black-and-white photos of the American West, especially of the national park system.

    Soon after coming to Polaroid, Adams began building the company's collection, acquiring works by such lens masters as Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Edward Weston, Imogen Cunningham and William Garnett. He also selected works by emerging artists whose work he admired.

    The collection continued to grow under a company initiative started around 1960 known as the Artist Support Program, with images by such contemporary artists as Chuck Close, William Wegman, Lucas Samaras and David Levinthal.

    The images at Sotheby's constitute the cream of the storied collection of 16,000 photographs, many taken with a variety of Polaroid cameras and films — from the immense 40-by-80-inch camera that required three technicians to operate to several small instant cameras that were commercially popular for decades. The 1,000 images are estimated to bring $7.5 million to $11 million, representing about 90 percent of the total collection's value.

    The largest number of works belongs to Adams, about 400 Polaroid and non-Polaroid images.

    They also include such masterpieces as his mural-sized print of cedar trees in Yosemite National Park, taken with Type 55 Polaroid film and estimated to sell for $60,000 to $90,000; a version of his classic "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico," taken in 1941 with conventional film, estimated to fetch $300,000 to $500,000; plus a selection of rare color Polaroid images.

    The record auction price for an Adams photo is $609,600 for a gelatin silver print of "Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico," also from 1941, sold at Sotheby's in 2006. An Adams portfolio of 12 Polaroid film images sold for $157,000 at Christie's in 2008.

    Under the Artist Support Program, artists were given Polaroid cameras and film in exchange for their feedback and images, said Barbara Hitchcock, the collection's longtime curator and director.

    The company "realized it would be a great way to acquire an exciting, diversified collection of original instant images while they were also gathering information about the product itself," said Hitchcock, who oversees the remaining 15,000 images in the collection, which are stored in a climate-controlled facility in Somerville, Mass.

    The equipment also provided the artists with great latitude for experimentation and ways to personalize their work.

    Samaras started pushing dyes around on the Polaroid print, transforming the images, "making them otherworldly and crazy," Hitchcock said.

    Les Krims scrambled and drew on the film's emulsion while it was drying, producing "wonderful creations that are handwork as well as photography," Bethel said.

    Close said the Polaroid camera allowed artists to produce unique work.

    "There's really nothing else like it," he said, because "you are composing in the format that the print will ultimately be."

    He said he's disappointed the images are being sold. Polaroid promised participating artists that their works would stay together and eventually go to a museum, he said.

    "That was the deal. We're losing the best examples of the work that we did with Polaroid," Close said.

    PBE Corp., formerly Polaroid Corp., became a victim not only of a changing technology but also of a $3.7 billion Ponzi scheme by Minnesota businessman Tom Petters, whose Petters Group Worldwide bought it in 2005. He was convicted last year of fraud and money laundering. He is appealing while serving a 50-year prison sentence.

    PBE filed for bankruptcy, and last year a Minnesota bankruptcy court approved the partial sale of the collection to help pay off creditors.

    Petters' attorney, John Hopeman, declined comment.

    Another company, PLR IP Holdings, owns the brand name and is licensing new Polaroid products. It is not involved in the bankruptcy proceeding.

    John Stoebner, the Chapter 7 trustee for PBE, said efforts had been made to sell the 1,000 works to an institution but "no one has stepped forward."

    Attempts to find a buyer for the remaining art — generally works by lesser-known artists and educators — continues, Hitchcock said. Another 4,600 pieces are on loan to the Musee de l'Elysee in Switzerland.

    Sotheby's will exhibit the 1,000 photographs for six days before the sale, filling nearly six floors of gallery space.