NEW YORK — Described as the Apple of its time, the Polaroid company gave the world instant photography. It was founded in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1937 by Edwin Land, who hit upon the notion of using a polarizing filter in cameras to cut down on light glare, an invention that produced photographs that did not require a darkroom and fully developed in mere minutes. Land called these filters Polaroids, and later, the public applied the name to the photographs themselves. Even after the advent of 35mm film, which produced crisper and higher-quality images, Polaroid fans preferred the instant film’s speedy results and distinctive look. After Polaroid phased out its early peel-apart instant films, users no longer needed to shake the image to help it dry faster, but the ritual lived on because it was fun.
“Some items, in my opinion, transcend their functionality and become cultural relics. I am 60 years old and I recall getting my first Polaroid camera as a child,” said Wade Terwilliger, president of Palm Beach Modern Auctions in West Palm Beach, Florida. “We would all sit around and watch as an image appeared.”
Polaroids were exclusively black and white until the company debuted color film in 1963. It dominated the instant camera market in the 1970s and experienced many ups and downs before going bankrupt in 2001. But the legacy of its photographs didn’t disappear from pop culture. In 2008, a European initiative dubbed The Impossible Project worked with former Polaroid employees to keep the technology and forms of the instant film products alive. It rechristened itself as Polaroid Originals after purchasing the instant photography brand in 2017.
The distinctive medium has gained favor with millennials enchanted by its vintage aesthetic, and it never lost its appeal among those who grew up with it. Polaroid also benefitted from at least one key pop-culture shout-out. Two years after the company’s bankruptcy, the hip-hop duo Outkast released its monster hit Hey Ya. The song’s catchy refrain, ‘Shake it like a Polaroid picture,’ helped revive interest in the photography brand at a time when smartphones were in their infancy and social media barely existed.
“I still find Polaroids charming and I’m certainly not alone in that. From the filters that made Instagram and VSCO what they are to younger generations who never waved a piece of plastic until the image showed up to the crop of Instax Mini cameras that were popular a few years ago, Polaroids simply seem to speak to people,” Terwilliger said.
Vintage Polaroid pictures are also popular as collectibles, particularly those that show celebrity subjects. Palm Beach Modern Auctions struck a chord with buyers in January 2013 when it auctioned items from the iconic New York City club Studio 54. That sale featured several Polaroids of club co-founder Steve Rubell and some of his famous guests, such as Rod Stewart, Grace Jones and Liz Taylor. The most desirable of these images had the added cachet of being shot by Pop artist Andy Warhol.
“Like the muscle cars of the 1960s-1970s, T-shirts from first concerts and vintage toys, Polaroids bring memories to life again and inspire the more emotional and passionate aspects of collecting. The immediacy of the moment is important,” Terwilliger said. “They are a tangible reminder of a time past, shot and printed in that moment. The Andy Warhol Polaroids in our 2013 Studio 54 sale went for prices from $5,000 to $10,000, and the reactions of bidders made it very clear that it was not just the Warhol name.”
A highlight of that Palm Beach Modern Auctions sale was an Andy Warhol Polaroid taken at Studio 54 in September 1977 of actress Grace Jones with Rubell and other happy clubgoers. It sold for $10,000 plus the buyer’s premium.
While the selfie quickly became a well-established photographic genre in the social media era, a Polaroid Warhol dating to 1986 represents a proto-example of the form. Wearing a fright wig and sunglasses, Warhol stared somberly into the camera in an image that brought $16,000 plus the buyer’s premium in September 2021 at Rago Arts and Auction Center.
Polaroids were a crucial tool in the fashion industry in the pre-digital era, allowing photographers on expensive shoots to proof their compositions and adjust their settings as well as immediately capture a look. Polaroid’s history in fashion photography kept the medium alive long after digital equipment made inroads among professionals. As with the Studio 54 shots, the authenticity of the moments captured in contemporary Polaroids is a huge selling point, and collectors’ interest is heightened if celebrities are pictured. “We sold a pair of Steven Klein fashion Polaroids of Madonna and Brad Pitt that were part of shoots for W Magazine and L’Uomo Vogue respectively and they went well above the estimate at $1,200,” Terwilliger said. “I’ve seen some incredibly high prices achieved for Polaroids by Carlo Mollino, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Richard Hamilton and Chuck Close, to name a few that speak to the medium’s relevance in the art world.”
Gonzalez-Torres, known for his photographic billboards, is one of several artists who had an affinity for Polaroids. An image he took in the medium that he transformed into an abstracted study in muted, neutral colors achieved $47,500 plus the buyer’s premium in May 2021 at Hindman.
Mollino is better known for his furniture designs but dabbled in photography, even releasing a book of erotic Polaroid photographs of women. An untitled color Polaroid print by him sold for $14,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2016 at Los Angeles Modern Auctions.
Though the photographs are emblematic of mid-century America, Polaroids retain their timelessness. Once its main selling point – its immediacy – was rendered obsolete, the Polaroid brand could have fallen by the wayside and taken with it the expensive and complicated analog technology required to create them. But the power and the impact of these photographs, and the countless numbers of people who carry happy memories of watching a gray square of chemically-treated paper slowly reveal the faces of family and friends, ensures that Polaroids will never fade away.