If you thought the death knell for Polaroid had well and truly sounded, a group of engineers and photographers calling themselves The Impossible Project are setting out to reinvent the instant film format.
At the beginning of 2008, photographers around the world lamented the passing of the instant film format and its cameras as Polaroid decided to wind down production of its classic film, closing factories in Massachusetts, Mexico and the Netherlands to concentrate on its digital photography business. The instant gratification provided by a digital camera replaced the near-immediacy of a Polaroid for many photographers, but many hobbyists and artists were saddened at the passing of an era.
Florian Kaps(The Polaroid factory image © 2009 The Impossible Project. Used with permission of The Impossible Project. All rights reserved.)
Campaigns to provoke the company into reversing its decision were almost immediate: tribute books devoted to the art of the Polaroid began to spring off the presses, and numerous websites like Save Polaroid began to rally the celluloid cause. But these wouldn't make the company reverse its decision.
A few months down the track, a real contender for re-establishing the Polaroid crown began to emerge. The Impossible Project came about after one of the directors, Florian Kaps, spoke to the chief engineer of Polaroid's existing factory in the Netherlands, Andre Bosman.
Bosman was responsible for the technical aspects of making Polaroid film, whereas Kaps was a leading manager of the Lomographic society and founded Polanoid.net, a site dedicated to the art of Polaroid photography.
And so The Impossible Project was born — the team raised enough capital to buy the Polaroid corporation's existing machinery, signed a 10-year lease on the factory in the Netherlands, and set about to reinvent the instant film format. As the original Polaroid Integral film is patented and consists of 20 separate parts in each packet, the team has had to start from scratch as many of these components don't exist anymore. The aim is not to rebuild the Polaroid format but create a new system complete with characteristics of its own.
The interior of the factory. (The Polaroid factory image © 2009 The Impossible Project. Used with permission of The Impossible Project. All rights reserved.)
Giving themselves a timeline of just 15 months to come up with the new Integral film format, the team expects to have a finished, marketable product by the end of 2009 — when the final batches of Polaroid stock are projected to run out. Marlene Kelnreiter, a spokesperson for the Project, thinks this time limit is realistic. "It looks like we'll succeed — the prototype of the first new film (black and white) will be ready by the end of this year and hit the market within the first quarter of 2010."
The company will be able to produce film for the SX70 cameras, and the more commonly used 600 series cameras. They have already been able to produce a stable print using their new format, and at the moment are confident that there is no one else that would tackle a task as daunting as reinventing Polaroid. "The market for instant photography — which will in the future only serve as a niche product and, of course, never again [be marketed] as a mass product like it was during the 70's/80's — probably does not show enough potential for another competitor," she says. "But you never know how things will develop."
(The Polaroid factory image © 2009 The Impossible Project. Used with permission of The Impossible Project. All rights reserved.)
Polaroid's other ventures in the 21st century, like the PoGo which takes images from a digital or mobile phone camera and prints it out, isn't worrying for Kelnreiter and the team. In fact, they seem rather optimistic about how the new technology will complement their project. "The fact that formats like this are produced and sold show people's desire for something similar to Polaroid. Even more interesting, we find the phenomenon of the computer program "Poladroid", which gives your digital images a Polaroid feeling — proving that people are tired of the boring, ever so perfect and flat digital images."
While stocks of the original Polaroid film are still available in selected stores around Australia, the price is almost double what you would have paid a few years ago. US clothing retailer Urban Outfitters is selling the very last stocks of Polaroid, known as Deadstock film, contributing all profits towards The Impossible Project.
Will the same problem that plagued the original Polaroid stock — the increasing popularity of digital photography — befall the fate of the film produced by The Impossible Project? Kelnreiter doesn't think so. "The Impossible Project is about building a very interesting business to last for at least another decade. We estimate the maximum demand for integral film to be 10 million films per year. We're going to start with 1 million films in 2010 and 3 million films in 2011."