Ansel Adams Polaroid Assesment

by Amanda Maloney, Special Collections Conservator at the Weissman Preservation Center

The Baker Library at the Harvard Business School contains a significant and expansive collection of materials from the Polaroid Corporation (nearly 3500 linear feet!). One of the highlights is the Polaroid Corporation records, series IV: Photographs and correspondence of Polaroid consultant photographer Ansel Adams, 1949-1985. As stated in the finding aid, “For over three decades, Adams helped guide the company in making products that served not only amateur photographers but professional and creative ones as well…As Polaroid's products became increasingly refined, consultants were encouraged to make artistic photographs with the materials, not just test photographs, to see how far the materials could be pushed creatively.” This collection also provides insight into Adams creative process even though these images are always called “test photographs” to differentiate them from what he considered his fine art prints. 

A test photograph of Yosemite.

Test Photograph of Yosemite by Ansel Adams.

Elena Bulat, the Paul M. and Harriet L. Weissman Senior Photograph Conservator for Special Collections, and I had the extreme pleasure of assessing 705 Polaroids from this collection by Adams in preparation for their digital capture. We built a spreadsheet to track any condition issues that could potentially worsen through handling, as well as methods of attachment, and annotations, from which we were able to write a detailed report for the consideration of the curators. 

A woman wearing a mask looking through folders of photographs.

Amanda Maloney assessing the collection, image by Elena Bulat.

Many of these objects were taped to glossy paper window mats with various generations and types of tapes. There also are a wide variety of notes and stamps on the photographs indicating experimentation with exposures and other observations. 

Handwritten notes around the edge of a test photograph.   Notes on and around the back of a test photograph.

Tapes and inscriptions on verso (left) and inscriptions on recto (right).

 All this information is valuable and can teach us about how these items were used and what roll they played both in the development of Polaroid technologies and in the artistic development of Ansel Adams, one of the leading figures in 20th century American photography.  There are also many images of casual moments that Adams spent with other prominent figures in photography, such as Beaumont Newhall. 

A photograph of a man wearing an apron standing over a tall pot.

Test photograph of Beaumont Newhall by Ansel Adams.

All images of test photographs courtesy of the Polaroid Corporation Records, Series IV: Photographs and Correspondence of Polaroid Consultant Photographer Ansel Adams. Baker Library, Harvard Business School. 

See also: Conservation