What Art Collectors Should Know Before Buying Polaroids
Advertised as “The World’s Simplest Camera,” Polaroids revolutionized photography in the 20th century thanks to their instant film. The glossy three-by-four-inch Polaroid image is now iconic. The world’s simplest camera system was heavily marketed to amateur photographers as a way to bypass the complexities of analog film production and printing, and became synonymous with family and personal photographs. Its intuitive design and self-developing features also attracted a legion of fine-art photographers. But could something that was invented to capture home or family memories possess the longevity needed to be an art object?
Many Polaroids enter the art market. Prominent artists like Andy Warhol, Willam Eggleston, Dawoud Bey, Nan Goldin, Lucas Samaras, and Lorna Simpson experimented and created compelling artworks with Polaroids. Polaroids are one of the few photographic formats that render a truly unique print, unable to be reproduced since the cameras produce final positive images and not negatives. However, the technology that makes these images singular also creates problems with collecting, preservation, and conversation. Artsy spoke with Kyle Depew, founder and director of Brooklyn Film Camera and former member of the Impossible Project, and Amber Morgan, the director of collections and exhibitions for the Andy Warhol Museum, to find out what collectors need to know when thinking about acquiring Polaroids.
It should be stated that the Polaroid of today is not the same as the Polaroid of the 20th century. The classic white-border, integral film model for which the brand is best known was but one of many formats that were in circulation until Polaroid’s bankruptcy in 2008. Many of the aforementioned artists used a variety of Polaroid products to emphasize a “domestic” aesthetic when shooting more intimate or personal images of themselves or their subjects. Goldin’s Spectra Polaroids—a larger version of the classic style—of friends demonstrate this in particular, and artists like Warhol, Bey, and Simpson often used larger, now extinct peel-apart Polaroid film for their work.
Depew recounted some of that history via email. “There are essentially two broad categories: Integral and Peel-Apart. Peel-Apart film was the first style of instant film to ever be invented and was released by Polaroid in 1948,” he wrote. “This is what instant film was until 1972 when Polaroid released the SX-70 camera along with a new film type called Integral film. Integral film was totally self-contained and required absolutely *no* action from the user.” The instant film print, in any format, is, as Morgan described, fragile because it contains the chemical paste needed to develop the image in the image itself. This makes the images “highly light-sensitive and prone to fading,” Morgan wrote. “Once something has faded, there is no bringing it back.”
After its 2008 bankruptcy, Polaroid ceased producing even its most recognizable film, but a small group of former employees—Florian Kaps, André Bosman and Marwan Saba—was able to acquire one of the company’s factories in the Netherlands and start the Impossible Project, which aimed to resurrect and continue the manufacturing of Polaroid integral film. However, this was not a simple matter of turning the machines back on. When Polaroid filed for Chapter 11, most of the equipment for producing its entire line of products was disassembled and many of the materials needed for production were lost. Although the Impossible Project had the benefit of some of the machinery to make integral film, it essentially had to start its production of instant film from scratch, succeeding in creating a usable product only after several years of trial and error. In 2017, the company bought the rights to use the Polaroid name and today plays a critical role in the renewed popularity of analog photography.
With the resurgence of Polaroid film has come a return of both artist production and a new interest in collecting classic Polaroids. For collectors who long for an original print by seminal artists like Warhol, Polaroids are the easiest entry into that collecting journey due to their lower cost and the fact that they are often overlooked as part of an artist’s practice. But they also possess some added quirks when it comes to their preservation. Specifically, the storage of a Polaroid is key to its longevity since it is especially susceptible to fading when exposed to light for long periods of time.
As Morgan wrote via email, “All photography benefits from storage in a cool, dark space. Private homes don’t typically have the storage facility options available to museums, but you can still extend the life of your photography through careful storage. There are a lot of products available but I personally prefer plastic sleeves because they allow viewing of the photograph without removing it from its enclosure. It is essential to use the right type of plastic, such as polyester or polyethylene—never vinyl (PVC).” Depew further advised, “Three words: Flat, dark, dry. Instant film is most archival when stored flat on its back, in total darkness, and in a low-humidity environment.”
These storing tips complicate display options for a Polaroid work. Both Morgan and Depew recommend against displaying an original Polaroid. If displaying an original is desired, options like framing the image in UV museum glass will help reduce the amount of light affecting it. However, Morgan recommends a different option. “One solution can be to create facsimiles for display,” she advised, which mimic the look and size of the Polaroid original.
But she warns that collectors should take care when it comes to how and where these copies are displayed. “It might be appropriate in someone’s private home, but absolutely inappropriate to make multiple facsimiles and distribute these in any way,” she said, and pointed out that the Andy Warhol Museum is in a unique situation when it comes to publicly exhibiting facsimiles. “We are in close contact with the rights holder and have permission to create copies for exhibition purposes in order to protect the original Polaroids,” she explained.
While Polaroids present some complicated hiccups for collectors, the uniqueness of the prints cannot be overstated. They are one of a kind, which presents a rarity in the field of photography where all images are reproducible. And though they may be more temperamental than other photographic formats, like any artwork, they benefit best when properly cared for. “Some of the earliest instant films from the late 1940s are still vibrant and beautiful,” Depew explained. While he emphasized that we still don’t know the lifespan of a Polaroid, he said even “the earliest examples are capable of retaining most of their beauty when archived properly.”