The Impossible Project: Firing up an old Polaroid instant film factory

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Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.” – Edwin Land, Inventor of Instant Photography

That’s the quote that opens “The Impossible Project“, a group of obdurate men who have purchased the old Polaroid factory in Enschede, Netherlands, with the aim to restart production of instant film.

Producing instant film for a ratty old camera, no matter how charming it may be, is hardly “manifestly important”, especially considering the environmental toll of instant film. (Which is not to draw a distinction between instant and traditional film, but instead to point out that there is the need for plastic, metals, and chemicals to produce a photo at all. [Besides the camera, but don't you dare...])

The “nearly impossible” part of their endeavor seems at first overwrought: can’t they just turn the machines back on? Not exactly. Presuming they could secure the same reagents used by Polaroid, the exact process used is still entwined in patents like good ol’ 6,227,729, which gives Polaroid the rights to a “film cassette for housing and dispensing film units of the self-developing type” until 2019.

But that’s not what The Impossible Project claims to want to do. Their stated aim is to “develop a new product with new characteristics, consisting of new optimised components, produced with a streamlined modern setup. An innovative and fresh analog material, sold under a new brand name that perfectly will match the global re-positioning of Integral Films.”

I understand that film for Polaroids is getting insultingly expensive. I understand that these guys miss shooting with their Polaroids. It just seems like an awful lot of effort to go through to recreate something that is not just antiquated, but practically obviated by modern technology. See that photo above? I shot it with my iPhone and processed it on the phone with Camera Bag before uploading it to Flickr with Mobile Photos. If I wanted to, I could print out a copy on a home printer or have one of Flickr’s parters send me a copy. But instead I can show it instantly to my friends on my phone as well as anyone else in the world online. I find it nearly impossible to understand how that isn’t better than shooting with a Polaroid instant in nearly every way.

[via this supremely interesting Metafilter thread]

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35 Responses to The Impossible Project: Firing up an old Polaroid instant film factory

  1. Downpressor says:

    Stupid argument is stupid.

    I’d actually like to get a Polaroid(esque) instacam again. I like my digicam, I like my software synths, I like working in Logic or Photoshop but just the same I like my j-bass and analog synths.

  2. DragonVPM says:

    I really enjoyed Pipenta’s comments and I think there’s a lot of truth there.

    Personally I moved away from film photography as soon as I could find a halfway decent digital camera in my price range.

    It’s all well and good to wax nostalgic about the ‘soul’ inherent in using various older film and camera combinations, but I would argue that it’s a question of how a photographer’s soul comes through and that is obviously influenced by their equipment.

    I won’t claim to be a great photographer, but I think there’s a lot of value to being able to experiment and try out various ideas without incurring a significant cost financially or environmentally. Digital photography has allowed me to take thousands of photos where I might have only taken dozens (or low hundreds) with a film camera and I’m routinely amazed at the differences that I find from one picture to the next. Sometimes I’ve even gone back years later and found some neat new element or perspective on some of the photos that I considered ‘bad’ (but which I kept on a hard drive for that very possibility).

    Whether you use a pinhole camera, a polaroid, or a top of the line digital camera, the soul isn’t in the tool we use to take the picture, it’s in the photographer’s eye and how they choose to look at the world and what they’re able to capture on their medium of choice.

  3. jake says:

    i’m 15 and i love all sorts of technology. i have a laptop, a blackberry, a digital camera, and an ipod. i also have 3 polaroids and one medium format film camera. i absolutely love digital photography. however, no digital camera with ever be able to achieve the “low quality” and “off color” results of polaroids. some people think this is stupid, but i honestly think it’s one of the coolest things ever. why can’t people just realize and acknowledge the reason why polaroid enthusiasts like me love the results of an instant photograph? it really is truly remarkable. editing a photograph using photoshop is fun, i will admit. but, getting a different result every time with instant film is just as, if not more fun. after editing a digital picture, you don’t get the satisfaction of watching a “one of a kind” picture develop right there in your hand.

    It’s simple really, sometimes, digital lacks soul.

  4. bcsizemo says:

    This all reminds me of the audio guys, tube vs. solid state debate…

    I shudder when I hear/read those…

  5. DragonVPM says:

    I really enjoyed Pipenta’s comments and I think there’s a lot of truth there.

    Personally I moved away from film photography as soon as I could find a halfway decent digital camera in my price range.

    It’s all well and good to wax nostalgic about the ‘soul’ inherent in using various older film and camera combinations, but I would argue that it’s a question of how a photographer’s soul comes through and that is obviously influenced by their equipment.

    I won’t claim to be a great photographer, but I think there’s a lot of value to being able to experiment and try out various ideas without incurring a significant cost financially or environmentally. Digital photography has allowed me to take thousands of photos where I might have only taken dozens (or low hundreds) with a film camera and I’m routinely amazed at the differences that I find from one picture to the next. Sometimes I’ve even gone back years later and found some neat new element or perspective on some of the photos that I considered ‘bad’ (but which I kept on a hard drive for that very possibility).

    Whether you use a pinhole camera, a polaroid, or a top of the line digital camera, the soul isn’t in the tool we use to take the picture, it’s in the photographer’s eye and how they choose to look at the world and what they’re able to capture on their medium of choice.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Polaroid was a mainstay for medium and large format photographers. Not just for making one-off prints, or the positive/negative film mentioned earlier, but also for checking the evolving setup for lights on set. You could spend a few bucks on Polaroid film. Or you could spend ten, twenty, thirty thousand dollars for a medium or large format digital back.

  7. Meanderbot says:

    No one is saying that Polaroid film is better than a digicam, but it’s a hell of a lot more fun.

    Exhibit A: Polaroid transfers and emulsion lifts. I’ve always wanted to try this, but after Polaroid stopped production I lost hope. They seem to produce very interesting and varied results. I’ll avoid the soul/no soul argument, but it would be very difficult/impossible to render something like that digitally without mastering photo manipulation programs, or following canned instructions from an individual. Emulsion lifting is simple.

    Granted, that alone is not a valid reason to try to resurrect the technology. But hopefully you can see my point. I would have more, but I’ve spent about an hour writing this trying not to sound like a raving my-farts-don’t-stink artist.

  8. BCJ says:

    @11: Joel, what about people who prefer live music over Vinyl? Doesn’t that have to do with soul? It’s about a process. There’s no chance involved in your technique, and if there is chance, (ala scratches in a record), it’s normal wear, not chance at all. It’s not hand drawn versus film, it’s the entire man versus machine argument. It’s about aesthetic, both procedural and emotional.

    Your method lacks soul. You take a picture and through chemical reactions with limited error, you plunk in film with different chemical properties to reach a result. You draw a picture and when you show the end result, who knows if it’s the truth anymore. There’s an implied honesty in hand made media. It may all sound like bullshit, but there it is.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Pragmatists don’t have soul either ;)

  10. Daemon says:

    Polaroid is dead as a general consumer product, but there is still artistic use for it. There are some things you can do with a polaroid you just can’t do with anything else, like the polaroid image transfer.

  11. corpse 1 says:

    @11: Joel, what about people who prefer Vinyl records over CDs? Doesn’t that have to do with soul? It’s about a process. There’s no chance involved in your technique, and if there is chance, (ala Toy Camera for the iPhone), it’s programmed and not chance at all. It’s not polaroid versus digital, it’s the entire analogue versus digital argument. It’s about aesthetic, both procedural and emotional.

    Your method lacks soul. You take a picture and through 1s and 0s with no chance for error, you plunk down in front of a PC and fiddle with an unlimited undo buffer to reach a result. You take a picture and when you show the end result, who knows if it’s the truth anymore. There’s an implied honesty in analogue media. It may all sound like bullshit, but there it is.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Don’t insult the Pola-freaks for wanting more film. There are a lot of things that can be done with Polaroid film that are hard to do otherwise. My favorite is (was) the type 665 positive/negative film. It gave you a nice instant print, and a 3-1/4″x4-1/4″ fine grained black and white negative. A negative that size works out to the equivalent of something like 45 megapixels. It needed no comercial processing, although you did have to dunk them in a tank of sodium sulfite. You could blow them up to poster size without getting grainy.

    You could shoot this film in any of their old pack film cameras, which you could pick up for $5 at a yard sale. The film was about $15 for ten shots.

    Do you know of any other way to take a 45 megapixel B&W picture for a couple bucks?

  13. Anonymous says:

    Following that logic you could also argue that any physical medium for music or video is obsolete in the digital age where anything can be obtained in digital form producing zero waste… Nevertheless I very much enjoy listening to Vinyl records. There is just such an immense difference in philosophy between producing a unique photograph using a polaroid cam or just a set of ones and zeroes infinitely reproduceable on an SD card.

    Additionaly: Have you ever seen how the factory-cities in China where consumer electronics are produced look like? I very much prefer using a 20-year-old camera instead of adding to the pile of garbage only to produce thousands of generic and boring digital photos.

  14. ryuthrowsstuff says:

    So we should stop using oil paint because some one invented Photoshop? How about dropping plasticine for Maya?

    Most of the art photogs I know still use film for at least some of their work. One girl in particular uses only film on used, frequently off brand cameras. Using the strange film stocks and piss poor construction of the camera itself she produces work that looks like Jim Jarmusch put a baby in Victorian portraiture. It’s pleasant.

    And while you can use tricks and gismos and a lot of Photoshop to mimic these effects to a certain extent, you will never be able to match how an individual type of film in a specific camera works as you actually take the picture. I could spend hours in Photoshop swapping out colors and inventing shadows. But I’ll never quite match the strangely inaccurate but vivid color pick up of my favorite slide film. Neither can I match the particular way it deals with contrast, or its ball breaking leeway and range.

    There will always be at least some small niche among hobbyists and artsy fartsy type for film in general, and Polaroid in specific. When I was selling cameras a few years ago (03 or 04 can’t remember) I ended up speaking to our Polaroid sales rep. He claimed the company was already stopping film manufacture. They had at least a two year stock in warehouses and would sell that through and augment it with the occasional batch. At the time Fuji and Ilford were already producing their own version of discontinued Polaroid stocks. And we suspected they would continue that trend as soon as the patents were clear.

  15. Anonymous says:

    “None of this is really all that archival. I’m just as happy that I’m not filling landfills with my photos.”

    So you want to tell us that you shoot photos which aren’t even worth to rot in a landfill? Wow!

  16. Gaudeamus says:

    I have a green Instamatic in my bedroom closet. I should get some film for it. The arguments here on both sides are good, and I agree with Jo, that in the end we use analog and digital for our own different reasons, and neither one devalues the other.

    I love Polaroid and I was so sad when I heard the hand-shakery was going to end. I wish these guys good luck in their endeavor, and I look forward to the strange looks I will get from people when I admit to paying exorbitant prices for “artisan” film.

  17. chrism says:

    Ah, you young digital obsoletists. Sometimes analogue and imperfect is the only way to go. Think lo-fi acoustic music rather than Logic/Reason-processed techno. Polaroid’s a very special thing, invented by one of our maddest, brightest genii and used by Warhol, Hockney and more. I wish them the greatest luck.

    • Joel Johnson says:

      Land was a genie!?! I wish that were true.

      And I know what you guys are saying, but I mean, gosh, I don’t know. I’d probably be able to accept the analog-for-analog’s sake argument more if these guys didn’t sound like twerps.

  18. Anonymous says:

    Don’t care what anyone thinks is magic. My medium is dead, my hobby is obsolete, I can’t find any digital image or replacement to fill the empty hole in where I used to spend my Sundays watching white fade into art.

  19. Infinitygoesupontrial says:

    “I find it nearly impossible to understand how that isn’t better than shooting with a Polaroid instant in nearly every way.”

    Your iPhone doesn’t instantly crap out an utterly unique physical thing to wave around in superstitious wonder while an image appears out of blackness. Instant photography feels like magic and it is thus awesome.
    Additionally, instant photography is a unique aesthetic. Your quick touchup looks something like an image of the same moment produced using instant photography, but even if the image could be reproduced, the object couldn’t. Your photo will never actually travel through time with you. You will age and it will stay the same, and then you will die and it will continue on being the same, probably for a really, really long time. And there are some aesthetic purposes to which functional immortality is not well suited – e.g. looking at pictures of “the good old days” is a different experience when the pictures are actually from the good old days. Your picture is also inherently not unique – in a house fire, you’ll never have to choose whether save your photo albums or your records or your whatever – and we rightly value unique things differently than we do non-unique ones.
    Different media have different uses and values. Given time’s marching right on and all, it seems like a silly thing to spend much effort on to preserve the medium, but instant photography hasn’t been “obviated.” It’s just been replaced with something that serves many, but not all, of the same purposes.
    etc.
    etc.

  20. Anonymous says:

    While these ‘lacking soul’ comments are utterly risible, I find Joel’s lack of comprehension as to why people might choose to persist with an out of date technology completely unfathomable bearing in mind that a very high proportion of the articles on BBG and its sister sites are about some kind of retro technology or other.

    I mean, i’m not sure how you can diss polaroid for being anachronistic on a site with regular articles on steampunk, of all things. Priorities, dude.

  21. diogro says:

    The polaroid SLR 680 still has the best in camera flash I’ve ever seen. Never ever overexposes, even 20cm from the subject.

  22. Halloween Jack says:

    This is all highly amusing, given that the Polaroid instant camera wouldn’t have existed in the first place if its mass audience–the bell-bottomed, love-beaded, horn-rimmed glasses-wearing bourgeoisie–hadn’t adopted it for exactly the same purpose as their modern-day descendants with their digital cameras and photo-quality personal printers: taking nudie pictures of themselves without having them fall into the hands of the local darkroom jockies.

  23. Eleanor Wells says:

    I can hardly wait for your new product.As a fundraiser, we would walk the parade routes and take instant pictures of the participants and the folks lining the route.I have never made so much money so quickly and had so much fun doing it.When I saw the writeup in our local paper about your buying the company,I cut out the article and put it on my ‘fridge.
    Hurry please.$$$$$$$

  24. Pipenta says:

    Magic, you want magic? That I can throw a camera the size of a pack of filterless Camels into my pocket and then go off on a hike and rattle off two hundred pictures, and some of them close ups shot about four inches from the subject, then come home and upload them to my computer, well to me that’s pretty much magic.

    I never was big into Polaroids. I had one in the late 70’s, the cheapest model. I think it cost me all of about 20 bucks. It was the film price that got ya, not unlike printers and their ink cartridges today.

    The lens was crap. It couldn’t do much. We used to play with it, using lights and colored gels and taping close-up diopters and what all else to the lens to see what we could do to make it take something approximating real photographs. We got some neat effects. But for me, it was a toy, and a very expensive toy considering the results.

    I had a Canon AT-1 that was my workhorse for over twenty years. I still have it. It still works as well as it ever did. But why would I want to haul it around? All the stuff: flash, lenses, tripod, film, filters and what all. The cost of the film, even when I was rolling my own! And I stopped doing my own dark room work a decade before I stopped using the camera. I did some neat stuff, but I really don’t miss it.

    The pictures I get now, from the AT-1’s great grandchild? They are terrific.

    Of course I hardly print any of them. I have boxes and boxes of prints from my AT-1 days. Now, when a computer dies, I lose a lot.

    Really, I do not care.

    None of this is really all that archival. I’m just as happy that I’m not filling landfills with my photos. I started out doing art photography, then for a long time I was doing mostly family photography. Now I am doing art photography again, but very much for my own purposes, my own emotional purposes.

    I’m not showing my work now. It is not going in any gallery, but it is as good as when I considered myself an art photographer. It might actually be better now.

    The thing is, now the process does not get in the way of the experience. Pretty much anyone can pick up a camera and get pretty damn fine results without fussing with tech stuff. I think part of the appeal of the initial Polariod cameras was that they minimized the tech as well as the wait. It wasn’t just the immediate gratification, it was the immediate feedback. That certainly was what my whole process with my little crappy Polaroid camera was about. I took a shot and saw the problems and started messing about to see how I could fool the Polaroid into performing like a real camera.

    But the soul part of photography isn’t about the gear. It is about the photographer. For me, now, it is about the fleeting things. I look out my window and see tree trunks wearing skirts of snow, the creamy warm colors turning to blue in the shadows. The sun will shift in a few moments, the snow will melt. Can I capture it? Right just now it is so lovely. And it will be gone in a moment. But the next moment has the possibility to be just as lovely if we know where to look.

    So maybe this little newfangled camera of mine is just an excuse to get outside and look at things. It has inspired me to take long hikes in the woods during ice storms, something I never would have done with my AT-1.

    It is for me, it is for the moment. It isn’t about generating a lot of rubbish for posterity. Posterity doesn’t care, and I’m fine with that. It is a matter of “let go”.

  25. Chris L says:

    I want these guys to succeed. Sure using digital is more convenient, but film is still viable technology. There’s no reason to allow it to just die.

    The environment argument is irrelevant. Polaroids are a niche market nowadays. The amount that they would be making would be nowhere near it was when they were popular.

    And really, the whole “it seems like a whole lot of effort” sounds the kind of jerk argument that one is likely see in the comments section rather than in the main post.

  26. Jo says:

    I don’t think “soul” (exclusive assignment of which devalues modern digital media, which are undoubtedly important, valuable, and artistically useful) is an effective parameter by which to judge two media that are patently different in process, product, and psychological profile.

    Different souls.

    A Polaroid photograph is an instant, only-imperfectly-controllable, unreproducible physical object. Its final form can be altered or hacked using various analogue methods, each with its own quota of unpredictability. Once produced, it cannot be fixed, unmade, or re-made. It is as temporally and essentially unique as a live performance of a song, as opposed to a recorded version of a song. Both are valuable, and each is used to different ends.

    The fact that I love live music doesn’t make me value my extensive collection of recorded music less, and my love of a good record doesn’t mean that I think live performance is obsolete. It’s a false dichotomy and a stupid unnecessary argument.

    Different souls, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable that we should want access to both. I love digital photography. I don’t think it’s a lesser thing. That doesn’t mean I can’t recognize that film, and particularly instant one-off film, offers something different and valuable as well.

  27. Anonymous says:

    Your picture sucks. But it has everything to do with you and not the medium. Angelo

  28. dingoblue says:

    Really thoughtful comments Pipenta.

    I moved house the other day and re-packed my Polaroid, and thought to myself that I should try to get some film soon. Your words made me think..as an avid re-cycle fan and pious anti-littering advocate.

    I enjoy my hot little 10mp camera and its features.

    Time to let go of lots of things I think, for our planets sake.

  29. ryuthrowsstuff says:

    The its got soul argument is total bull. What you’re really saying there is you prefer the aesthetic and the process over the one Joel advocates. Which is all well and good. But by phrasing it that way your saying that all other aesthetics and processes are inherently inferior. Which is bs. Saying you prefer it at least admits the other options have equal value as a tool.

    Film is a useful tool, with a nice aesthetic. If you like or need the aesthetic, or need that extra resolution then you use it. This is why its now a niche, hobbyists and artists will always use film for this reason. But you don’t see news photogs running around with view cameras just cause they like the way it looks and think it has soul. They need a high quality decent resolution image right now and they need to be sure they got it. Digital does that better and faster than film. It also does family photos and drunken bar fun better.

  30. dculberson says:

    What about people that prefer playing hand-made instruments with nothing but their coccyx over live music?

  31. Anais80 says:

    I have been looking for an alternative to my Polaroid i-zone pocket sized instant gratification.

    Just returned the pogo digi printer, ink less, i printed out 30 photos and they were so inconsistent, sometimes a line down the bottom. I hated it!! Such hi hopes I had….

    Has anyone used the fujifilm instax instant camera and film.. I would love to hear any feedback before I buy one on ebay.

    http://www.fujifilm.com/products/instant_photo/cameras/instax_200/index.html

  32. Anonymous says:

    I have an artist friend who would physically manipulate her polaroids: pushing on the surface to smear the emulsion around, or cutting them into strips and weaving them together. Very nice. You can’t do that with a digital photo.

  33. Anonymous says:

    “I find it nearly impossible to understand how that isn’t better than shooting with a Polaroid instant in nearly every way.”

    It’s simple really, your way lacks soul.

    • Joel Johnson says:

      “It’s simple really, your way lacks soul.”

      Thank you, anonymous, for giving me a one sentence description of why Polaroid die-hards can be safely ignored.

      (I won’t really. But look at that. Look at that! So silly!)

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