Polaroid, aperture and Ansel Adams: rethinking the industry-aesthetics divide

Buse, Peter (2009) Polaroid, aperture and Ansel Adams: rethinking the industry-aesthetics divide. History of Photography, 33(4), pp. 354-369. ISSN (print) 0308-7298


This article takes the history of Polaroid photography as an opportunity to question a presupposition that underpins much thinking on photography: the split between industrial (ie useful) applications of photography and its fine art (ie aesthetic) manifestations. Critics as ideologically opposed as Peter Bunnell and Abigail Solomon-Godeau steadfastly maintain the existence of this separation of utility and aesthetics in photography, even if they take contrasting views on its meaning and desirability. However, Polaroid, at one time the second largest company in the photo industry, not only enjoyed close relations with those key representatives of fine art photography, Ansel Adams and the magazine Aperture, but it also intermittently asserted the ‘essentially aesthetic’ nature of its commercial and industrial activities in its own internal publications. The divide between industry and aesthetics is untenable, then, but this does not mean that the two poles were reconciled at Polaroid. While Aperture may have underplayed its commercial connections and Polaroid may have retrospectively exaggerated its own contributions to the development of fine art photography, most interesting are the contradictions and tensions that arise when the industrial and the aesthetic come together. The article draws on original research undertaken at the Polaroid Corporation archives held at the Baker Library, Harvard, as well as with the Ansel Adams correspondence with Polaroid, held at the Polaroid Collections in Concord, Massachusetts.

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