Polaroid, which suffered badly since the death of its inventive founder Edwin Land in 1991, could have completely lost the instant film -- a whole artistic medium, pop culture icon and technological marvel in one -- had the company not crossed paths with the Impossible Project's founder, Florian Kaps, a man described as a "crazy Austrian entrepreneur."
Kaps sought to do what seemed impossible -- rally a group of disgruntled factory workers to re-invent a nearly destroyed technology and bring Polaroid's instant film business back from the grave. To this end, Kaps and his Impossible Project have been improbably successful.
Yet, Polaroid doesn't seem to appreciate how impossibly lucky it has been.
Small Group Resuscitates an Almost-Dead Medium
If Polaroid-fan-come-lately Kaps had not, as he writes, been so lucky as to have a mysterious film he ordered over the Internet fit the "peculiar," "charmingly bulky" camera he discovered in a Lomographic museum, "my life probably would have taken an entirely different course." In the spring of 2008, he was drinking a beer in Enschede, the Netherlands, with a manager of a Polaroid factory which had just closed. It was just a day or two before $130 million in Polaroid film production machines were scheduled to be destroyed. The factory workers, angry about the closure, had already begun to destroy the machines when Kaps came up with the idea of buying, and saving, the assets.
The world could have lost the capacity to make new Polaroid film if Kaps and the engineers behind the Impossible Project weren't so darned smart. Grant Hamilton, a plastic surgeon who is shooting a documentary on Polaroid film, explained to me just how complicated it is to make the film. According to the group's website, there were seven challenges to finding "new (and better) solutions for replacing/upgrading problematic/expensive components: and we have nearly made it!"
One of those challenges, Hamilton explained, is creating the waterproof layer on the top of each unit of film. "Each photograph is its own darkroom," he said, "and needs this layer that goes from completely opaque to completely transparent in about a minute, once it is exposed to light." When you shake your Polaroid picture, you are jiggling one of the most complex pieces of technology around. "The idea that film is somehow low-tech is completely wrong," Hamilton said.
Lack of Exposure Signals a Rocky Relationship
As the Impossible Project makes progress resurrecting the film, the two companies are growing increasingly distant. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, Polaroid unveiled its new instant film camera (a product that would not have been possible if the Impossible Project hadn't stepped in) and announced that pop icon Lady Gaga would become "creative director and inventor of specialty projects." In its press release there was no mention of the Impossible Project, just a brief note about "a family of Polaroid partners." Perhaps it was a simple oversight in a press release that was primarily about a sexy music star, but the Impossible Project took it as a slight.
"Polaroid rocked CES in Las Vegas, dancing with Lady Gaga," the Impossible Project said in an email to its web site subscribers. "This breathtaking performance so overwhelmed them that they obviously forgot to share the real facts about the future of Analog Instant Photography. The details are simple: The Impossible Project is the one and ONLY institution in the whole Milky Way that will be capable of producing Analog Instant Film for Polaroid cameras."
Last week, the Impossible Project, which had been selling a large stock of Polaroid film it had purchased from Polaroid when the company closed its last factory, changed its sales website identity from Polapremium to Impossible, The Shop. There is also no mention of Polaroid's new camera products in its press releases.
Analog Cameras Clash with Increasingly Digital World
Over the past several years, Polaroid has been through one bankruptcy proceeding and two contradictory and (for the purposes of our story) vital decisions.
The first crucial move was when the company decided to stop making instant analog cameras. Evidently, the company believed analog film photography was dead and along with it, the invention that had made Edwin Land's brainchild a cultural icon. The company cut its chemical supplier relationships one by one until all that remained was a factory and a stockpile of chemicals that ran out around February 2008.
The second vital decision was to agree to license the Impossible Project's team to re-create that Polaroid film, entirely from scratch -- a film for which the component chemicals had been out of production for years.
What would have led the company to make these two decisions, especially the first one? I turned to Scott Hardy, the president of PLR IP Holdings (which owns the Polaroid brand) and the person who struck the deal to license instant film production. My questions: "How was that initial decision [to shutter the instant film business] made? Did you ever look around and say to yourself, 'What have we done?'" This last question may have been one of the reasons he and his publicist didn't get back to me. (Update: Hardy's publicist returned my messages after the initial publication of this story. We have since corrected and updated the story.)
Once Polaroid made the decision to shut down the film business, the outcry was widespread. Some devotees of Polaroid film were moved to tears. One group of photographers started the website Save Polaroid. Hamilton's documentary "started out as a long eulogy to Polaroid film," the filmmaker says.
Losing a Loyal Audience: Is the OneStep the Wrong Step?
Polaroid-lovers seem to be passionate, artistic sorts who have come to analog photography in spite of themselves, many because they were uploading digital photos to the Flickr photo-sharing site and saw friends uploading scans of Polaroids. and loved the result of that peculiar Polaroid lighting and granularity.
I've asked every Polaroid photographer I've encountered: Which Polaroid camera do you shoot with, and how much do you spend on Polaroid film each year? The answers to those questions are always the same: an SX-70 (usually purchased from eBay) and $1,000.
Unfortunately, the camera that Polaroid has decided to revive is not the SX-70. Instead it announced it will offer a "completely redesigned, modern version of the Polaroid OneStep camera, the PIC 1000."
The OneStep is the most basic of all Polaroid cameras. It's not a camera for artists, and it's not a camera for the sorts of people who might spend $1,000 a year on film. In short, it is not a camera for Polaroid's market. I asked Hardy why he chose to recreate a basic OneStep camera when the audience so readily prefers the SX-70. (That question may be another reason he didn't get back to me.)
It appears that management team, experienced as they are, do not, after all, understand the market for their company's iconic product. They do not know who their supporters are; either the ones who are spending $1,000 a year on film, or the ones who are spending all of their lifeblood and considerable ingenuity to re-create the film.
I believe in the Impossible, which is, for a business-minded person, the sort of risk that can leave you either sinking or soaring. For the Impossible Project, I am watching the skies.
This story was corrected on March 3, 2010 to clarify that the company's decision to end the instant film photography business was made by Polaroid's "legacy management team."