What's A Picture Worth? Polaroid Auctions Photos More than 1,000 Polaroid photographs are being auctioned at Sotheby's in New York City as part of Polaroid's bankruptcy court order. The auction includes legendary photography dating back to the 1940s. Some artists argue that they only lent their work to Polaroid and that the company does not have the right to auction it.
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What's A Picture Worth? Polaroid Auctions Photos

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What's A Picture Worth? Polaroid Auctions Photos

What's A Picture Worth? Polaroid Auctions Photos

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More than a thousand extraordinary images from Polaroid's historic collection of photographs will be auctioned off tomorrow and Tuesday at Sotheby's in New York. They include pictures by legendary artists and photographers going back to the 1940s.

The sale is part of a bankruptcy order, and the exhibit is controversial because some of the artists believe the collection should not be broken up.

NPR's Margot Adler has more.

MARGOT ADLER: All of Sotheby's block-long building has been taken over by photographs - 70 percent are Polaroids. There are 400 images by the great Ansel Adams.

Denise Bethel is director of the photography department at Sotheby's.

Ms. DENISE BETHEL (Director, photography, Sotheby's): Were lucky if we see one great mural every four, five years. We have, in this collection, 30.

ADLER: Ansel Adams had an unusual relationship with Polaroid and its founder, Edwin Land. Adams not only helped to develop their technology, but also helped them acquire photographs from world-class artists.

You can see many examples of small Polaroids and large murals from the same image, like one of Adams' "Sugar Pine Boughs and Lichen," at Yosemite National Park. The large picture has almost as much detail as the small Polaroid.

There are also dozens of tiny, 4-by-5 Polaroids taken with the same camera millions of Americans used, like two humorous self-portraits of Andy Warhol sneezing.

Lee Rosenbaum writes about culture for the Wall Street Journal and the blog CultureGrrl.

Ms. LEE ROSENBAUM (Writer, Wall Street Journal, CultureGrrl): You have a little, deckle-edged Ansel Adams of a stream that - you know, with the deckle edge that we used to have on our Polaroids back when we did our snapshots. And yet he managed to get so much texture out of that water, just as he does in his much more polished, you know, bigger-scale productions. And that's the part of the exhibition that I find very intriguing.

ADLER: Then you have artists like Lucas Samaras, whose images are filled with brilliant yellows, greens and magentas, and who did unusually inventive things with the SX-70 camera.

Christopher Mahoney, of Sotheby's.

Mr. CHRISTOPHER MAHONEY (Photography Specialist, Sotheby's): There was this period after the Polaroid slides out of the camera, where the emulsion is still soft. As the development is taking place before your eyes, you can actually manipulate that emulsion. And he came up with these results, some of which are very surreal. And a lot of them are almost as much drawing as they are photographs.

ADLER: The works show that an artist with a good eye can do superb and inventive things with cameras sold for amateurs. But even as these works are going up for sale, many artists are upset. Some who gave Polaroid their works, in exchange for use of cameras and film, believe they only lent their work.

Polaroid signed many different types of agreements with artists. A bankruptcy judge in Minnesota has said it's too late. The time to get the works out was eight years ago, when the first of two bankruptcy proceedings began. But some artists say back then, few realized the collection was in danger.

John Reuter worked for Polaroid off and on for 30 years, and there are 100 of his own photos in the larger Polaroid collection of some 16,000 images, though not in those going up for auction. He says he's more sad than angry that so many creative people lost their jobs.

Mr. JOHN REUTER (Photographer/Painter): The auction of the collection, to me, is kind of - almost the funeral, in a way, because its the last act of the dissolution of Polaroid.

ADLER: Originally, there was some hope that an institution might buy the collection. Now, the best guess is that the photographs will end up in the hands of hundreds of collectors. The photographs at Sotheby's are on view until the auction.

Margot Adler, NPR News, New York.

HANSEN: And you can see some of the Polaroid photos up for auction at our website, NPR.org.

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