Collecting Vintage Polaroid Photographs by Barbara Levine

In the 1930s Edwin Land developed a plastic filter that greatly reduced the glare of light. Land called his plastic filter a "polaroid" and founded the Polaroid Company to make sunglasses and camera filters. In 1947, he introduced his revolutionary one-step black-and-white film camera. It used film treated with chemicals that developed an image as soon as the film was exposed. The image was transferred onto specially treated paper, and a finished print emerged. Land introduced a color version of the camera in 1963 and the popular SX-70 Polaroid camera arrived in 1972. 

Nearly everyone has memories of using a Polaroid: the grinding whir of the rollers, the precision timing before peeling back the paper, the magic of the picture developing before your eyes, shaking the photo so it will dry faster and regardless of the year or model of the camera, never knowing exactly how the picture would turn out until the process was finished. Some of the most interesting amateur polaroids are a result of flaws specific to Polaroid films and cameras - streaking, oversaturated colors, and in the example on the right, the crinkling of the film from grit in the rollers or touching the picture surface as the film was developing. Often as a result of these imperfections a mundane subject becomes an interesting distortion, abstract composition, or study in color. Further, it was not uncommon for people to take a sharp object and willfully alter the surface of the film as it was developing. Artists ranging from Walker Evans to Warhol, David Hockney, and Chuck Close have always loved to make Polaroid photographs.

In conversation with Bernard Yenelouis, we discussed that with polaroids, not only does the photographer take the photograph but there is also an involvement with the machinery of it, part photograph, part alchemical experiment, and the resulting photograph is a souvenir of that experience (a parallel can be made with Photobooth photos). Therefore, unlike 'mistake' photos we would automatically delete today, people kept their blurry off-color polaroids, sticking them in shoeboxes, tacking them to bulletin boards or putting them alongside regular photographs in albums.

Digital technology has been a galvanizing force in drawing attention to the value of outdated photographic forms and their often over looked aesthetic and historical value. There is increased interest in both black-and-white and color Polaroid photographs amongst vernacular photography collectors. Artist and collector, Mark Brereton says "I've started to amass a number of Polaroid prints from the 1950's onwards. With the death of the instant film camera models and still many people wanting to save the film I would hope to see it appreciated more by future generations that have never experienced the instant image other than digital". 


Pictured above: 1970's Polaroid photographs from the collection of Barbara Levine