Art & Business: The Polaroid Consultant Photographer Records

Project Summary

Submitted by Timothy Mahoney of Baker Library Special Collections, Harvard Business School.

The Polaroid Corporation, a giant of 20th-century American industry, was renowned for its consistent innovation—it has been called the Apple of its day. A lesser-known aspect of Polaroid’s history is the active engagement of leading art photographers, including Ansel Adams and Clarence Kennedy, in the corporation’s research and development activities. Working closely with Polaroid’s scientists, the consultant photographers tested Polaroid’s prototype camera and film products, providing feedback and recommendations for technical improvements.

The extensive Polaroid Corp. Collection (4,000 l. ft.) includes a series that documents this unique relationship and little known activity. The series includes in-depth correspondence between Ansel Adams and Polaroid scientists, circa 1950 to 1980. Adams, whose collaboration with Polaroid founder Edwin Land began in the 1940s, shared his opinions of the new products he tested. Most of Adams’ memos to Polaroid are accompanied by his own test photographs, taken with the company’s cameras and film. These are a key resource for understanding the artist’s influence on the creation of an iconic photographic medium, and a trove of largely unstudied Adams photographs.

Other materials document the working relationship between Polaroid and photographer and art historian Clarence Kennedy (Harvard PhD 1924), a close friend of Edwin Land and important contributor to the early development of the company.

Baker Library proposes a processing project to make accessible the records documenting this unique program. The project would be jointly funded by KLS and the Hidden Collections program. Funding components include: an archivist for a year to process the collection of 150 linear feet of correspondence, reports, and photographs, and to reformat a selected portion of the records; project supplies; project management; and publicity.

Amount requested is $90,000 - $93,000: Funds to support the costs of a full-time Processing Archivist & reformatting costs.

Expected Results with Partial Funding

The scope of the project could be limited to a subset of these Polaroid records. For example, the project might address only the Ansel Adams correspondence, rather than the full series.

Estimated Follow-on Activities and/or Costs

Ongoing costs to support this collection would be built into the Department’s annual budget and PCDI annual allocations.

Benefit to Harvard Scholars and Patrons

If funded, the project will provide Harvard scholars and patrons with the documentary evidence of the unique collaboration between Polaroid, one of the 20th century’s most technologically innovative companies, and some of the most acclaimed artist/photographers of the period.

Opening these records for scholarship will build upon the existing strong holdings at the Fine Arts Library—the Clarence Kennedy papers and photographs (HOLLIS # 000601580) and the Edwin Land collection of Clarence Kennedy photographs (HOLLIS # 011955598). Land hired several of Kennedy’s Smith College art history students as Polaroid scientists. The records include papers of Meroe Morse, a Kennedy protégé who became Polaroid’s director of the Special Photographic Research Division and its chief contact with Ansel Adams.

Ways the Project Supports Cross-Unit or Cross-Discipline Activities

The Polaroid consultant photographer records document an uncommon intersection of the worlds of technology, business, art, and science. The records will be of considerable value to scholars interested in a wide range of disciplines, including business history, photography and the fine arts, cultural studies, and the history of science and technology. The broad concept of innovation—both technological and artistic—is richly illustrated in the records of the relationship between the company and the photographers. Adding these records to Harvard’s existing resources offers an opportunity to build bridges between two research communities that are traditionally quite separate—business and industry, and the fine arts.

Resources the Sponsoring Library Can Support or Will Need Support For

1. Project Management: A member of Baker Library Special Collections staff (Special Collections Librarian, Manuscripts) would serve as project manager and supervisor for the processing archivist. HBS Knowledge & Library Services (KLS) would fully fund this work.

2. Supplies: The project will require significant rehousing supplies, including specialized materials for photographs. KLS would be responsible for the cost of the supplies needed to process the records, estimated at $10,000.

3. Conservation: Any required conservation would be funded by KLS as part of its annual program.

4. Publicity materials (both print & web) to announce the opening of this collection. Estimated cost at $12,000.

Other Approaches to Achieving Goal or Result

Donated in 2006, the 4000-linear-foot Polaroid Corporation Collection is by far the largest manuscript collection that Baker Library, and possibly Harvard University, has ever accepted. Working with the HBS faculty, processing has focused on the high priority records for business research. Two series, the Administrative Records and Legal and Patent Records, have been processed and are now open for research use. Using existing staff, and accommodating for other priority collections, an estimated 15% of the collection has been made available.

The Special Collections Librarian for Manuscripts will continue to process the full Polaroid Collection as part of the department’s ongoing processing and cataloging activities, as priorities allow. However, the emphasis will be placed on those records that are of the highest immediate research priority to the HBS faculty. In all likelihood, attention to the materials outlined in this proposal would not be possible until FY 2020.

Risks If Proposal Is Not Approved

The main risk is that the records of Ansel Adams and the other Polaroid consultant photographers will remain hidden from research use until they can be prioritized for treatment. If funded, this project would allow for a more detailed level of processing than the department’s standard protocols might permit. Our priority is to make available materials that deal with strategy, negotiation, decision making, and marketing. Given our needs, we would likely process these records at a folder- or box-level. The project would allow a more item-level approach to the records, particularly for the Ansel Adams materials, which would significantly increase their accessibility and usefulness to a broader research community beyond business.

Additional Information

Short project title: Art & Business: The Polaroid Consultant Photographer Records

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