Back to the future.
A European team of Polaroid enthusiasts have just made their dream come true. They have recreated instant film that can be used in old cameras and developed a new one that combines the best of analogue and digital technology.
“Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.” That order from Edwin Land, the inventor of Polaroid’s instant cameras, was followed to the letter by the founders of The Impossible Project. The start-up’s goal: to allow the legendary camera to live on by developing new instant film for it.
This insane idea germinated as Polaroid, founded in the U.S. in 1937, was dying. Back in the 1970s, people took more than a billion instant photographs a year with their Polaroid cameras. But then the digital revolution turned the world of photography on its head. Saddled with debt, Polaroid Corporation filed for bankruptcy for the first of two times in 2001. The last Polaroid factory, located in the Netherlands, shut down in 2008.
Or nearly did. When a young Austrian entrepreneur, Florian “Doc” Kaps, found out that the production plant would be closing, he quickly came up with €180,000 to buy out the lease on the building and the machines inside. And for an extra million, he purchased the last stocks of Polaroid instant film. “I knew there was still a market out there, craving instant film to feed their Polaroid cameras for real, creative, unpredictable analogue instant photography,” he recalls. “In a digital world, the experience of something real, unique and sensual is becoming more and more important. Moreover I had this fire burning in my analogue heart since the magic of Polaroid first stroked me when I received my first SX-70 camera.”
Before his adventure with The Impossible Project, Kaps worked for a Vienna-based company that sold old Soviet cameras. He devoted his free time to restoring old Polaroid cameras and selling various types of film that were no longer available.
“Analogue instant film is the most chemically complex, entirely man-made product ever,” says Stephen Herchen, who spent 30 years at Polaroid and is now the project’s chief operating and technology officer. There are an infinite number of possible reactions between the chemicals, negatives, dyes and materials used to create these thin translucent surfaces. And their interaction can often be unpredictable. It takes just one ever so slight change for the whole process to be thrown off.
The five engineers involved in The Impossible Project had to overcome major challenges to devise a formula that could reproduce film compatible with Polaroid cameras. “This was deemed by many to be an ‘impossible project’,” Herchen says, “because most of the custom chemicals that were used in Polaroid’s film were no longer available.” With the worn-down machines, bankrupt suppliers and stricter environmental standards, it had simply become impossible in the late 2000s to produce Polaroid instant film using traditional methods. Meanwhile, Japan’s Fujifilm was firming up its leading position in the instant-photography market, coming out with its Instax cameras for amateur photographers and its professional FP pack film line.
The Impossible Project team stubbornly pressed onward. “We’ve never lost faith but our nerves have sometimes truly been challenged,” Kaps says. The impossible gradually became possible through an ingenious reverse-engineering process. “Coming up with original chemical compounds and materials that adapted to the new techniques has been a huge challenge,” Herchen explains. “It is this same complexity that makes this system so much fun to work with and makes the work so rewarding when you finally achieve success.” The Impossible Project’s first instant-film products hit the market in 2010. But they remained experimental. They required more than an hour to print a photograph, and image quality was unreliable.
The company needed help – which came in the unexpected form of €2 million. Warsaw-born Oskar Smolokowski was studying at Imperial College London and closely following the Dutch venture before he joined The Impossible Project, which he took over as CEO last year. Smolokowski met Kaps in 2012. “He convinced me of our business potential,” Kaps says. “And he then persuaded his father to invest some of his fortune in the project.”
In 2015 The Impossible Project sold more than one million colour and black and white film packs, becoming the only company to produce Polaroid film in the original format. In doing so it saved more than 200 million cameras from obsolescence. Their technical feat was applauded by professionals. “What they did is fantastic,” says photographer Anoush Abrar, who teaches photo technology at the ECAL Lausanne University of Art and Design. “I’m most impressed with the large format film. The photographs are beautiful.”
Combining analogue with Bluetooth
The Dutch company has been selling refurbished Polaroid cameras since its founding. But Kaps had greater ambitions. “Soon after we restarted the film production in 2010 it became more and more clear that we also had to start thinking about a new generation of instant camera that was built for the demands of the next generation of instant photographers, who grew up digitally and now started to discover the magic of analogue.” A research unit was formed, and their ex-periments culminated in the Instant Lab 1.0, which could convert images taken with a smartphone into a little Polaroid photograph. In the spring of 2016 The Impossible Project released its star product – the pyramid shaped I-1 – with its vintage style and sleek lines. “It’s well designed and very beautiful,” says Abrar. “The flash in a ring of LED lights is a tremendous improvement considering the very poor quality flash on old Polaroids.” Another useful feature on the I-1 is a smartphone app offering a variety of settings, including remote technology to take instant photographs via Bluetooth.
This effort has brought joy to lovers of traditional photography. “Digital technology dematerialised photography, and it’s worth nothing today,” says Jean-Marc Yersin, director of the Swiss Camera Museum in Vevey. “The vast number of images generated for free is creating a problem. Conversely, instant analogue photographs are tangible, real. They offer an entirely different value, both material and symbolic. These photographs also act as tokens of remembrance. We can find them in a cardboard box in 50 years. It’s not the same thing with the countless images we store on our hard drives.”
The cameras go beyond
Nostalgia, representing the rediscovery of fundamentals that are being brought into the present. Taking the time to buy film, looking in amazement at the unpredictable image developing in the palm of our hand, feeling amused by the bad shots and giving a colourful white-framed photo as a gift are little pleasures that cannot be dismissed as old-school. Kaps agrees. “Analogue technologies are not used just for imitation of a certain style from the past, they’re current technologies. They’re being performed by contemporaries, adapted and upgraded with the latest textual and technical input and innovations, enjoyed very sensually and directly, finding their very unique, non-imitable place in a digital world.”
Article by Marie Sandoz