NEW YORK -- Most people of a certain age have a sharp memory of the first time they ever saw a Polaroid camera. A rich kid brought one to a high school basketball game and attracted more attention than the local heroes. Or a gadget-happy uncle slipped one out of his pocket at a family Christmas party and impressed the clan by producing an instant record of the occasion.

Even now, 40 years after Edwin H. Land introduced the "instant" camera and 15 years after Polaroid color film came on the market, American tourists offend the Chinese by snapping pictures of their children and then delight them by giving them the likeness that zips out of the camera. Dozens of technological marvels have succeeded the device that automatically functions like a portable darkroom, but the Polaroid still seems a magical gimmick.

Thanks to that perception, the importance of Polaroids to photography hasn't been fully comprehended. We know about David Hockney's update of cubism while "drawing with a camera" in collages of color Polaroid images. We have seen an entire book of Lucas Samaras' self-portraits, concocted by drawing into and otherwise manipulating the emulsion of film immediately after exposure.

Though artists may be reluctant to relinquish control of developing their film, they have been intrigued by the Polaroid's capability of producing pictures in 10 to 20 seconds without the usual graininess of fast film. But despite widespread familiarity with Polaroid, the process is still perceived as an adjunct to the central core of serious art photography. Or at least it was until the International Center of Photography opened a show called "Legacy of Light" (to Jan. 10). Organized by Constance Sullivan, the exhibition of 205 photos by 58 American artists fills the center's stately galleries on upper Fifth Avenue. The $50 hard-cover catalogue contains essays by Peter Schjeldahl, Gretel Ehrlich, Richard Howard, Diane Johnson and Robert Stone.

This is clearly a classy production, but an unwitting observer might mistake it for a survey of photography in general. Only with the realization that all of the works were produced with Polaroids does "Legacy of Light" become special -- and surprising. Even seasoned viewers can be forgiven for mumbling, "These don't look like Polaroids," while wondering if a few impostors share the limelight with such obviously genuine examples as Samaras' "Photo-transformations" and collaged portraits by Hockney and Joyce Neimanas.

The pictures are big and small, traditional and experimental, documentary and artistic. Produced in black-and-white and color by mainline photographers and people better known for their paintings, they represent about as many points of view as artists, though they are displayed in traditional categories of subject matter: landscapes, the nude, portraits and still lifes. One can imagine more telling organizational approaches, but this ordinary one serves the purpose of proving that Polaroids are not mere curiosities that play around the edges of photography; they swim in the mainstream.

Who better to prove it than Ansel Adams? His Polaroids of Yosemite, Arizona architecture and a "New England Barn" don't strike the Wagnerian chords of his larger, trademark images, but they are tendered with the same insistence on perfection. Adams took the Polaroid Land camera seriously. So did Walker Evans, Paul Caponigro, Minor White, Imogen Cunningham and William Clift, other major American photographers whose work historically grounds the exhibition in the '50s, '60s and '70s.

In the landscape section, we find intricately textured images of nature by Caponigro along with crisp, vividly colored reminders of small-town architecture and signs by Evans. Among more recent work, Danny Lyon continues Evans' fondness for the vernacular -- IGA Stores, telephone wires and old brick libraries -- in disjointed, black-and-white panoramas of Midwestern streets, spliced together from three or four separate pictures.

Jim Dow's "landscapes" are actually sumptuous interiors of elegant old theaters, dressed to kill in red velvet curtains, ceiling murals, carved columns and twinkling lights. Mark Klett investigates Southwestern deserts, but instead of producing the usual "majesty" he gives us ragged edges -- scruffy cacti, scraggly brush, a camping party and a photographer with her tripod set up on a lonely expanse of the Petrified Forest. Scrawling titles across the bottom of his photographs and resisting the urge to crop or mat the images, Klett presents photographs that have a scrapbook-like veracity and a refreshing lack of pretension.

Other segments of the exhibition have a similar blend of old and new work that generally moves from relatively traditional imagery and composition to more adventurous, sometimes cheekier varieties. Along with White's and Caponigro's satiny portraits that seem to probe character with a full range of values, we find intentionally grainy or blurry images by Jim Bengston, Sheila Metzner and Sally Mann among the newer pieces. One of the images in Bengston's "Slow Motion" series, for example, has a farm boy standing in a hazy ring of pigs -- like a candle skirted with a ruffle.

Far from dignified flattery, some contemporary portraits indulge in self-deprecation or mean-spirited exposition. Conceptualist William Wegman lathers his face, then apparently butchers it in a droll diptych called "Foamy, Aftershave." Andy Warhol pictures himself -- close up and cropped -- as a stressed-out albino. John Coplans' subjects appear so wary that he ends up depicting himself (in the imagination) as insufferably intrusive. In the section of nudes, however, Coplans' own body is a contorted mass of hairy, overweight, out-of-shape components.

Bill Burke and Jim Goldberg probe social issues in portraits that have a distinctly documentary flavor. A muscular, lank-haired Cambodian soldier is so exotically beautiful, in a photo by Burke, that he puts a glamorous spin on war while pointing out the obscenity of wasting youth on old men's battles.

Examples from Goldberg's incisive "Nursing Home Series," formerly shown at the University of Southern California, combine black-and-white pictures of old people reduced to near-vegetable status with handwritten comments from the subjects or their relatives. In one striking piece, H.E. Beal proclaims his swaddled image "a damn good picture" and keeps up his spirits with admirable bravado by writing about his "rough and wild" earlier days and "the good life" at the nursing home.

In "Legacy of Light" the overriding message is that Polaroids occupy a much larger and more substantial place in photography than we might have imagined. That probably means that artists' ingenuity is more elastic than any technological wonder.