Feature As digital cameras replace traditional film, many thought no one would care when Polaroid photos disappeared. But two men are gearing up to resurrect the instant snapshot from the company's old factory in Holland.
Back in a flash
As digital cameras have replaced traditional film, many thought no one would care when Polaroid photos disappeared. But two men are gearing up to resurrect the instant snapshot from the company's old factory in Holland. Hallie Engel reports. Enschede is much like any Dutch town along the German border. Brick paths lead from the railway station to a shopping centre filled with cafes and shops, and a few church steeples pierce the horizon. It's not the kind of place with the power to lure tourists, but something special is happening in this quiet burg: instant photography, which we all thought had been relegated to the cultural scrap heap, is being resurrected one snap at a time.
When Polaroid closed its Enschede factory in June 2008, it seemed that instant photos, a cultural touchstone of the 20th century, would be no more. More than one and half billion packets of film were produced at the Enschede plant between 1975 and 2008, but with the transition to purely digital products, Polaroid ceased production of analogue film. The only other Polaroid manufacturing plant, in Mexico, was shut down, and Enschede's remaining 160 employees (whittled down from a peak of 1,200) were made redundant: the final death knell for instant photography.
However, not everyone was willing to go quietly into the night. Andre Bosman, who had worked at the Enschede plant for 28 years, had been thinking of a way to continue production from the moment the end was announced. "I started as an engineer and soon became the boss of a department and then a manager," he explains, seated in the factory that is his second home. "We had one and half years from when they told us they would close to when it happened. I knew on the final day I wanted to keep making film. Then, around the same time, people from all over the world reacted, saying, 'You can't do this. You can't take Polaroid away from us.'"
Many thought that a public entranced by the digital age wouldn't bat an eye at the disappearance of instant film, but demand for Polaroid products significantly increased after the announcement. (Polaroid has since gone into bankruptcy, and the new owners declined to comment for this article.) "They saw the estimations of the sales were huge," says Bosman. "The remaining film was on allocation for dealers around the world. If a distributor said they want these cameras and film packs, Polaroid had to say no because they didn't have enough for everyone and most was spoken for. The sales went much better than anticipated. They talked to other companies about perhaps supplying the materials for making more film, but it didn't go anywhere."
It seemed hope was extinguished, but Bosman wasn't the only one with a dream. In Vienna, Florian Kopps, who has a PhD in biology and a love of vintage photography, had been selling Polaroid film over the internet for a couple of years. His fascination with instant photography began in the autumn of 2004, when he got hold of a "peculiar and mysterious toy", his first Polaroid camera, which he describes as "charmingly bulky and emitting a strange odour". Like Bosman, Kopps was "deeply enthusiastic from the first moment", describing instant photos as "analogue beyond description, with their own colours, grain and its characteristic margin", referring to the signature white trim that frames every picture. Kopps knew there was demand for the product and pleaded with Polaroid to maintain production.
"Management in the US was irritated by Florian hunting them down, and they invited him as a means of compensation to the closing in Enschede, where I looked him up," says Bosman. "I had never met him, but I saw this guy with a ponytail and a really nice Polaroid camera and I knew it was him." Kopps describes the scenario with a laugh, explaining that Bosman "was advised by Polaroid management to talk me out of the idea to keep things running, but we soon discovered that we are both too passionate about instant photography, and too crazy, to not give our vision a try."
Next, Bosman set about renting the boarded-up factory. "September of last year, I was negotiating about the lease. Very shortly before that, the building was bought from Polaroid by the current owner to tear the whole place down and create housing," Bosman says. The battle to rent the factory was one of the easier feats in Bosman and Kopps' campaign, though. Many of the machines Polaroid used for producing film were scheduled for destruction, and the company refused to sell. "Once the company made the decision to stop, they didn't want someone running off with their project. Polaroid was afraid we would not be successful, and we'd sue them for selling something that wouldn't work."
The tides began to turn when a financial scandal left Polaroid short on cash. "The owner of Polaroid was charged with running a Ponzi scheme," Bosman explains. "That was the breaking point." He was arrested and detained, "then the feds came in and wanted money". Desperate, Polaroid acquiesced and sold them the equipment. Using capital supplied to them by a group of investors, Bosman and Kopps purchased various machines for their brainchild, the Impossible Project, an organisation founded with the goal of reinventing instant film and making "a new product with new characteristics, consisting of new components, and produced with a streamlined modern set-up."
With their dream inching closer to reality, things began to snowball. "Once we had the machinery, we got a 10-year lease on the building. It's owned by a social housing company, so I said we want to bring jobs and prosperity into this town, and we got a very nice reduction on the price." The credit crunch also benefited the Impossible Project, with Bosman admitting, "without it, the building would have been demolished and we wouldn't have gotten the lease."
Even with the factory secured and manufacturing equipment at the ready, the core of the Impossible Project, a total reinvention of instant film, was yet to come. "People think we're exaggerating when we say we're reinventing the film, but it's in no way exaggerated," Bosman explains. "Of all the things that make up the film, there are one or two we don't have to reinvent, but the others we have to. We need new suppliers, machinery and base materials. The heart of the photograph is the negative, receiving sheet and the chemicals in between. Those are all totally new, from scratch."
With much of the original equipment gone, the last remaining chemicals used up, and the former process for producing film rendered useless, "it wasn't an option to go back there". After a year in the lab developing the new manufacturing processes, the 15 people behind the Impossible Project are now tweaking their final product. Chemicals have been reformulated, new materials found for making negative sheets and various pieces of manufacturing equipment have been adapted accordingly. The process was quicker than Bosman and Kopps had hoped, and the Impossible Project expects to be the world's sole manufacturer of instant analogue film, to be sold under a yet-to-be-disclosed brand name when it is launched in the first quarter of 2010.
And what about the cameras? The newly configured Polaroid, impressed by the Impossible Project's success and the enthusiasm generated by fans across the world, is working with the Summit Global Group, a "worldwide consortium of leading design, development and distribution firms for imaging products", to re-release a range of instant cameras. The film developed by Bosman and Kopps is compatible with all camera models, new and old. Polaroid spokeswoman Lorrie Parent told the San Francisco Chronicle: "We were really ecstatic to see that there was a strong community of enthusiasts that were more than requesting new film: they were demanding it."
Fan mail arrives at the Enschede plant daily and a Facebook fan page for the Impossible Project boasts more than 3,700 members. Founded by the Swede John Sandström, he captures the sentimentality of the Impossible Project's endeavour, saying he was "moved by the techno-romantic idea of breathing life into the old factory and trying to make something that took so much faith to accomplish." Faith might be the last ingredient necessary to creating the new film, along with a pure love of instant photography. "Most people have digital cameras and that's true with our customers, too" Bosman says. "I'd be surprised to find someone without one. But Polaroid is an instant picture, which is different from a digital photograph, where you just snap away and view them on your computer. An instant picture isn't cheap: you think before you push the button. People love the sounds of the click, and you get to hold it in your hand for a couple of minutes to see it develop."
Walking around the factory, which he hopes to see filled with workers in the coming months, a sentimental smile falls across his face. "I've worked here for 28 years and I've seen a lot of pictures develop in my hand. I still like looking at it, wondering what it's going to be." Photographers share their chosen moments captured on instant film to show you the beauty, art and celebrity that Polaroid helped preserve.
Polapremium (www.polapremium.com) This site houses the most extensive Polaroid camera and film stock available on the web and can ship to worldwide destinations for an extra cost of US$50 (Dh185). They deliver to the UAE by courier; orders should arrive within two to six business days. Urban Outfitters (www.urbanoutfitters.co.uk) Urban Outfitters has teamed up with the Impossible Project to release a special edition Polaroid camera kit and film. The items are sold out online, with hopes of new stock arriving soon. eBay (shop.ebay.com) A one-stop shop for all things Polaroid: instant film, instructions manuals, books and cameras, to name a few.
Make: technology on your time (blog.makezine.com/archive/2008/02/no_more_polaroid_instant.html) This site has detailed tutorials on all sorts of quirky updates you can use to transform your Polaroid camera. These include "how to make a pinholaroid (pinhole Polaroid camera)" and tutorials on how to create Polaroid transfers. Some of the more complex techniques include "how to make a Polaroid X-ray radiograph" and "Robots and the Polaroid sonar". The best is, without a doubt, the plush Polaroid camera chair, which is photographed beside a real Polaroid camera and looks identical to it, except about 15 times its size. Save Polaroid (www.savepolaroid.com) With a history of Polaroid, FAQs, stories, up-to-date news and an "action pack", Save Polaroid is the site to visit. The posts try to encourage the general population to save Polaroid film by writing to manufacturers and film companies, signing petitions and using as much film as possible in an effort to remind people of the joy of Polaroid. Their action pack contains pre-written and addressed postcards that anyone can mail to Polaroid, Fuji and Ilford to try and save instant film. Nadia El Dasher