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The Impossible Polaroid: My Foray into Instant Analog Film

December 14, 2011 , , , ,

“How much is that Polaroid?” I asked the shopkeeper.

“It’s $40.  There’s no film for that camera anymore, though,” she responds.

The shopkeeper was wrong on both counts.  Analog instant film is still produced today and eBay has cheaper Polaroids.

The revival of Polaroid instant film is a modern day fairytale, which sprinkled its magic dust over me.  I dashed to eBay to buy my first Polaroid after absorbing The Impossible Project’s About Us page for 10 minutes.

The logo and site design effuse understated brilliance.  However, it’s the story and idea of The Impossible Project, which inspired me in a flash. The saga spans the rise, fall, and total reinvention of instant film, enlivened by millions of fans holding that iconic 3×4 white rectangle.

Polaroid’s story begins in New York City in the 1940’s.  Harvard dropout-turned-inventor, Edwin Land, creates the world’s first instant film when his daughter asked why she couldn’t see their family vacation’s pictures immediately.  Land found the magic sauce by aligning millions of polarizing crystals under transparent plastic instead of growing one giant iodoquinine sulphate crystal.  All 57 units of the first instant cameras sell out on its first day at a Boston department store in 1948.  Yes, it is like the 1950’s version of Steve Jobs and Apple.

Alas, the digital tidal wave overtakes Polaroid as the corporation announces bankruptcy in 2001.  An investment firm buys the 64 year-old company.   As the raw materials for producing instant film grows scarce, Polaroid’s management decide to stop producing the required negatives in 2004.  Legions of avid customers deplete the last stockpile by 2008 with their 300 million Polaroid cameras around the world.

Polaroid holds a factory closing party in the summer of 2008 in Enschede, Holland.  The destruction crew arrives on Monday to dismantle Polaroid’s last machines.  André Bosman is the engineering plant manager charged with closing the same plant where he rose up through 28 years.   Bosman previously proposed an alternative plan of producing 100 million film packs per year with 200 employees from the current 5,000 employees.  Management had other priorities than the thousands of customers who spent an average of $1,000 a year on Polaroid products.

Enter Dr. Florian Kaps, an Austrian entrepreneur, analog film fanatic, and manager of the Lomographic Society.  Kaps already worked a reseller of Polaroid film so he knew of the dedicated customer demand. Kaps had been harassing Polaroid’s U.S. and German management teams for months to salvage instant film, but he only receives an invitation to the closing party.

The story goes like this: the plant manager charged with stopping the entrepreneur ends up finding an ally to save instant film over beer. Bosman and Kaps work through the weekend to halt the demolition, announce the news to shocked employees, and battle Management on Monday.

Polaroid management repeatedly said that it would be impossible for Kaps to reproduce Polaroid film because the intellectual property rights were already sold off.  The impossible became “I’m possible” as Kaps plans to invent a entire new type of instant film.

The engineer and entrepreneur bring in the financier with a third co-founder, Marwan Saba.  The partners raise $2.6M in 3 months by May 2009 to fund the new startup for one year.  That financing buys the nearly scrapped machines, heats the factory to a required temperature, and hires back 10 employees averaging 30 years of Polaroid film experience. Check out a how Impossible films are made in this recent video.

The Impossible Project launches their first instant film in March 2010, the PX 100 and PX 600 Silver Shade.  The colorful PX 70 Color hits the market 4 months later.  They’re currently developing an 8×10 and 20×24 inch film format!  How’s that for scrap booking?

The Impossible Project’s passion, vision, and tenacity knocks me over.  They persisted up to the brink of destruction to innovate an entirely new design to go to market in one year.  Kaps even worked with Paul Giambarba, the designer of the original packaging and brand, to design the 2010 version.

My eBay triumph arrives from Oregon during the summer of 2011.  I first skipped over the mythical Polaroid instamatic as a young lass since it had come and gone by the late 80’s.  This time around, I bought the JobPro2 since the black and yellow contrast hovers like a bumblebee around the subject.  Flipping up the built-in flash reminds me of E.T. extending its long neck up.  Building the camera battery into the film is completely alien to me.

Peering through the 1cm viewfinder after years of looking at the 2×2.5 inch LCD screen feels oddly cool again.  There is only 2X zoom: close or far. Knowing that I only had 8 black and white exposures forces me to carefully compose each frame.  When was the last time you stored a box of instant film in your refrigerator?

The photographer can’t just press the red button and the picture spits out.  One must immediately and swiftly cover the exposed film for the first 2 seconds and allow the masterpiece to develop upside down for 60-90 seconds.  Each exposure is actually like an individual development room.  Full development could take up to 24 hours…

This moment of randomness plays into my favorite part of using the Impossible Project’s film.  The picture can turn too dark or white depending on the temperature and light of that moment.  There is actually a sliver of skill and luck using this instant film.  Your heart may sink or swim when flipping over that picture, but that’s the fun (or frustration)!

Images taken on instant film have an authentic, time warped feel, without Photoshop.  I like the messy color and imperfect sharpness.   You never know if you’ll get faint lines or blurry edges around the image.  The whole look and feel is immediately wistful and yearning.

Instant analog film takes a chance.

I can’t wait to visit the Impossible Project Gallery store in New York City!  For now, I’ll order film with a black frame for when the mood turns noir.  Perhaps I’ll join The Impossible Project Flickr group with the other +5,100 members one day.

It’s astounding how these photo trials and triumphs started from one child’s question.

What do you think?

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Really good article on Pola and Impossible, Those shots are SO much better than anything I’ve achieved with the Impossible film so far.Joint the Flickr group – see you there,


December 15, 2011

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