Friday, February 12, 2010

Sotheby's New York, "Photographs from the Polaroid Collection"

In the 1960s about half of all American households owned a Polaroid camera, according to the company’s own estimates. And while the instant thrill of having a tangible record of first birthdays, prom nights, vacations and Christmas dinners was the driving force behind the company’s success, its revolutionary product also changed forever the way many artists worked. Ansel Adams captured some fabled images of Yosemite National Park using a Polaroid; Andy Warhol and Chuck Close took Polaroid portraits — of themselves, friends and celebrities — and William Wegman used a Polaroid to shoot his beloved Weimaraners.

Now some of those works, as well as conventional prints that Polaroid’s founder, Edwin H. Land, brought together in one of the most storied collections in photography — a visual diary of 20th-century culture — are going on the auction block.

The sale is the result of a different history, that of Polaroid. The company that Mr. Land started in 1937 became a victim of the digital age, going bust first in 2001 and again in 2008. The second time, after it was bought by Petters Group Worldwide, Polaroid was caught up in a $3.65 billion Ponzi scheme run by the company’s founder, a Minnesota businessman named Tom Petters, who was convicted in December of fraud and money laundering, among other charges.

To pay off creditors, a bankruptcy court in Minnesota is forcing Polaroid to sell a portion of its collection at Sotheby’s in New York on June 21 and 22. On offer will be 400 photographs by Ansel Adams alone, along with prints by Mr. Close, Mr. Wegman, Robert Rauschenberg, David Hockney, Robert Frank, Robert Mapplethorpe, Warhol and Lucas Samaras. Together the 1,200 objects are expected to fetch $7.5 million to $11.5 million.

“It’s an amazing body of work,” Mr. Close said in a telephone interview. “There’s really nothing like it in the history of photography.” But, he added, “to sell it is criminal.”

While he and other artists would have liked the collection kept intact in a museum’s holdings, John R. Stoebner, the court-appointed trustee for Polaroid, said he had talks with several museums, including the Fogg Museum at Harvard University, but was never able to reach a deal.

The collection has its roots in the Artist Support Program, a project Mr. Land started after realizing how important artists’ input was in improving his products. It was a handy arrangement, the collection’s longtime curator, Barbara Hitchcock, explained: Polaroid provided some of the greatest talents around with equipment and film, and they gave the company photographs. “Experimentation was encouraged by Polaroid,” Ms. Hitchcock added. “It was a mantra — experimentation, creativity, innovation, pushing the envelope of photography.”

Rauschenberg, for instance, used bleach to make his large Polaroid 1990s prints “Bleacher Series: Japanese Sky” and “Bleacher Series: North Carolina,” both of which are included in the sale. He turned to the chemical after some black-and-white photos faded in the sun when he left them to dry.

As the years went by, the company amassed thousands of examples of work by Rauschenberg and other celebrated artists, many of whom relied on Polaroid’s 20-by-24-inch camera. Ms. Hitchcock recalls Warhol, in particular, as a Polaroid nut who frequently used the camera and film at the Factory, his studio. Land collected conventionally made prints too, believing that showing them alongside Polaroids would illustrate his products’ high quality.

For six days before the auction Sotheby’s plans to put the images on public view in an exhibition expected to take up its entire York Avenue headquarters. This is likely to be the first and last time the cream of Polaroid’s collection will be seen together.

What Sotheby’s is selling is just a fraction of Polaroid’s holdings however. There are still more than 10,000 images in a Massachusetts warehouse that could end up in a museum in the future, Mr. Stoebner said. There are also photographs from the collection on loan to the Musée de L’Elysée in Lausanne, Switzerland.

For Sotheby’s experts, holding an auction of 1,200 works is challenging enough. “It will take nearly five months to properly catalog everything,” said Denise Bethel, director of Sotheby’s photography department.

When selecting the most valuable (and salable) photographs from the collection, Ms. Bethel said she sought a wide price range in the hope of attracting new or young collectors. Thus the auction includes a Wegman dog image estimated at $3,000 to $5,000 and an Adams mural expected to bring $400,000 to $600,000.

The sale offers a particularly strong look at Adams’s work. He met Mr. Land in 1948 and was so taken with him that he became a friend of the brilliant inventor and served as a consultant to the Polaroid Corporation. In Adams’s autobiography he recalled his introduction to a Polaroid when Mr. Land took a picture of him with a prototype camera. “As it was peeled from its negative after just 60 seconds, the sepia-colored print had great clarity and luminosity,” he wrote. “We were both beaming with the satisfaction of witnessing a photographic breakthrough come alive before our eyes. For Land it represented confirmation of a dream; for me it was a thrilling experience relating to the future of my craft.”

Sotheby’s will be selling some much-loved images Adams took with a Polaroid, like “Bridal Veil Falls, Yosemite” (circa 1949), estimated at $100,000 to $200,000. The rarest works will be 30 murals that he completed before the invention of Polaroid and that once hung on the walls of the company’s Massachusetts headquarters. Among the most coveted images are “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” (1941), which is expected to sell for $250,000 to $350,000; “Clearing Winter Storm,” (1938) estimated at $300,000 to $500,000; and “Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, from Lone Pine, 1944,” also expected to fetch $300,000 to $500,000.

The auction will also include portraits by contemporary artists. Lucas Samaras took self-portraits with both large- and small-format Polaroids, manipulating the image before the emulsion dried. Three of his classic works, taken with an SX-70, are called “Photo-Transformations” and they are estimated at $5,000 to $7,000 each.

The sale will include a nine-part self-portrait by Mr. Close, made up of 20-by-24-inch prints from 1987. It is expected to sell for $40,000 to $60,000. Mr. Close said the invention of the Polaroid “revolutionized my work,” giving him a tangible print to paint from as he is composing a portrait. “I don’t know what I have till I see it,” he said. “When I pull that 20-by-24 print and put it on the wall, I can change the framing and slowly I can get what I want, incrementally making it better.”

That sense of immediate gratification is not lost on other artists. The New York photographer David Levinthal said he found that using a Polaroid “lent itself to experimentation” in a way that other cameras didn’t. Over the years he has used a Polaroid for some of his most popular images. The Sotheby’s sale will include selections from his “Wild West” series, a 1987-89 project in which he created his own imaginary universe using toy cowboys and Indians. There will also be photographs from “American Beauties” (1989-90), in which he shot buxom, bathing-suit-clad dolls from the 1940s and 1950s. All are 20-by-24-inch prints and their estimates range from $500 to $7,000.

Although an initiative in the Netherlands called “The Impossible Project” is working on introducing its own version of the Polaroid, most photographers like Mr. Levinthal have moved on to digital cameras. “I love it,” he said, of shooting digitally. But he’ll always have a soft spot for Polaroid

“The tactile and tangible quality of Polaroid is unique,” Mr. Levinthal said. “There’s still something magical about seeing that instant image.”

The images: David Hockney’s “Imogen & Hermione and “Avalanche,” by William Wegman

From the New York Times, February 10 edition, by Carol Vogel

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