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Photographic Memory

After Polaroid shut down its instant film factories, a motivated subculture of photographers miraculously revived a beloved brand.

Author Sarah Gilbert Photography Claire Benoist

Image – Claire Benoist

TODAY, WE TAKE for granted the humble snapshot. The digital camera revolution led to ever-escalating Megapixel Wars, and now we are transfixed by the effortless joys of snapping perfect photos with cameras the size of soap bars. It seems we’ve almost forgotten the lost roots of the point-and-shoot.

But not everyone has. Take Florian Kaps, a self-described “crazy Austrian entrepreneur” who became a fervent Polaroid fanatic late in life, in 2004, when he used instant film with a plastic Holga camera. He was so bewitched by the resulting images that he went home, Googled “Polaroid cameras” and stumbled upon an equally devoted fan base. Consisting of photographers, artists, archivists and hobbyists like Kaps, it communicates primarily (and somewhat ironically) by sharing scans of Polaroids on Flickr, the photo-sharing site launched at the height of the digital revolution. Participants gush over the images in the comments section. “It’s a liquidy, dreamy feel,” says one. “The light it captures is really soft and ethereal,” says another.

So when the Polaroid Corporation announced it was discontinuing instant film in February 2008, a great sadness came over Kaps and Co. But in the months that followed, they mobilized. In Iowa, photographer Grant Hamilton began shooting video footage for what he figured would be “a long eulogy” to Polaroid film, a way “to later share the pain with everyone who wasn’t yet feeling it.” In Minnesota, Dave Bias and Sean Tubridy began a website called www.SavePolaroid.com, a collection of stories in pictures and words. And in the Netherlands, Kaps tracked down André Bosman, engineering manager of the last Polaroid film plant, in Enschede. The factory was being shuttered, and Kaps invited him out to commiserate.

Over a beer, Bosman told Kaps that the soon-to-be-dismantled equipment with which Polaroid film was manufactured would cost $130 million to replace. Together, they came up with a plan to save the equipment and continue the operation. Few people thought they would succeed. Hence the name: the Impossible Project.

The fall of film could be seen a mile away. When digital cameras were first introduced in the 1980s, the entire camera industry diverted all research and devlopment funding to the new technology. Polaroid failed to get ahead of the collapsing market, a surprising lapse considering that company founder Edwin Land, who invented instant photography, had always been among the most forward-thinking men in the business. Until the late 1980s, every one of his innovations surpassed its predecessor: The Land Camera begat the Highlander begat the SX-70. Meanwhile, instant film developed alongside it, becoming indispensable: a tool not only for art, insurance and history, but a window onto our personal memories.

Land died in 1991, leaving the company adrift. By the late 1990s, Polaroid had become a corporation with a split personality, on the one hand furiously producing digital cameras, on the other marketing throw-away cobranded cameras for kids, such as the Spice Cam and the Barbie camera.

For the most part, as the decade wore on only a few niches still used Polaroid film: Movie crews used it to block their shots; college campuses and driver’s license offices created IDs with it; police crews used it to catalog evidence; and casting agents snapped aspiring models and actors. But these groups were a dwindling lot. According to Infotrends, between 50 and 60 billion digital images were taken in 2008. By comparison, just 30 million film packs (enough to make 300 million photos) were manufactured in the last full year of production of the Enschede Polaroid factory. That’s one Polaroid taken for every 200 digital images.

What the numbers don’t say is that the instant photographs taken on Polaroid film are all original works of art. “Every single one of them is entirely unique, like a painting,” says Hamilton. Photographer Rich Burroughs adds, “When I hear the sound of the shutter and wait for the image to appear, there is this visceral feeling that blows me away.”

Somehow, the Impossible Project turned out to be possible. Kaps and Bosman, along with dozens of other longtime Polaroid employees, raised enough corporate and private donations to purchase the physical assets of the plant in 2008, and they also raised enough money from fellow connoisseurs to buy all the remaining stock of film—enough to keep customers supplied for up to 18 months. There are still stumbling blocks. For instance, the chemicals used to create the makeshift darkroom contained within a Polaroid picture have been out of production for years, so the crew has lined up new suppliers.

Prospects for the film’s resurrection are so good that Polaroid finally agreed, in October 2009, to license its name to the Impossible Project and to start producing instant cameras again. In March 2010, the old factory lines were restaffed and began turning out black-and-white film; by mid-2010, color film will be added as well. Pop superstar Lady Gaga even signed on as Polaroid’s newest creative director.

This year, says communications director Marlene Kelnreiter, one million packs of “Instant Film by IMPOSSIBLE” will be manufactured; in 2011, that number will ramp up to three million. In a press release, Scott Hardy, president of the company that owns the Polaroid intellectual property, says the project will be “reconnecting consumers to the very soul of the Polaroid brand.”

When Edwin Land first announced his instant film invention in 1948, after years of experimentation, he famously said, “Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.”

For Kaps and his team of engineers feverishly working away in the Netherlands, the Impossible Project may have to change its name to something less pessimistic. They pulled it off, but barely—just the way Land would have liked.

SARAH GILBERT has an MBA from Wharton and a Polaroid SX-70 purchased online. She writes and photographs in Portland, Oregon.


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