With the soaring popularity of smartphone cameras and online photo sharing, is there room in the photographic world for instant analogue photography?
Early in April 2012 social media giant Facebook left many prominent business analysts scratching their heads after forking out a princely $1bn dollars for a start-up that was barely 18 months old, had next to no revenue stream and had little more than a handful of employees on the payroll. The company so highly valued by Mark Zuckerberg and co was Instagram, a photo-sharing app that allows smartphone users to shoot square-format pictures, apply retro-inspired filters onto them and share them with friends.
Despite any business shortcomings, surely the primary source of interest came from the fact that Instagram boasts a set of user statistics that are undeniably impressive. Some 40 million photos are snapped each day, generating 1,000 comments from the app's user base every second. Not bad for an app largely used for taking snaps of shoes, sandwiches and cats.
Thanks to their ease of use, emphasis on fun, and retro styling, apps such as Instagram are seen by some as the natural successor to the kind of quirky instant analogue photography which was essentially monopolised by the Polaroid instant camera after its invention by Edwin Land in 1948. A bona fide design icon, the camera produced the instantly recognisable square, white-edged shots that have since become a kind of visual shorthand for photography that was fast, fun and even potentially risqué. Over the last seven decades the camera has found its way into the hands of just about everyone from fashion designers to architects, and has counted luminaries such as artist Andy Warhol, photographer Robert Frank and Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky among its many fans.
But as time went on and digital camera technology improved, the Polaroid found its popularity waning. So much so that in 2004 its parent company announced it would cease production of the iconic film after its current stock of negatives was used up. The decision sparked incredulity and outrage in equal measure from the camera's devoted followers. Eventually, however, one pair of enthusiasts made a bold decision: if Polaroid would no longer make film for their beloved cameras they'd make it themselves.
The Impossible Project
By 2008 all the negatives had indeed been used up, and on 14 June, Polaroid held a closing party for its factory in Enschede, the Netherlands. It was with a heavy heart that the factory's manager, Andre Bosman, surveyed the factory for what he thought would be the last time. Here he met Florian Kaps, an analogue photography enthusiast who had founded 'Polanoid', a fan community, and 'Polapremium', an online retailer, after learning of the company's plans to phase out its instant cameras.
The two struck up a conversation and found they both held the belief that there was still enough demand for the instant film to make a viable business. Determined to prevent the much-loved cameras from ending their days languishing on car boot sale paste tables and in dusty second-hand shops, they decided to formulate a plan to save the factory. 'The Impossible Project' was born.
"I started the project because I had to," explains Kaps. "Just observing how one of the greatest inventions in photography was about to die was simply not an option."
Inspiration for the name of the company came from a quote by Edwin Land: "Don't undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible". It would prove disparagingly apt.
"Once we had saved the machinery and rented the factory, chances that we would succeed in producing a new instant film were 50/50. Even the most optimistic experts doubted it would be possible to manufacture instant film in today's conditions.
"There were more than 30 components that we had to replace, re-invent and source from scratch in order to continue production of analogue instant film in the 21st century. Polaroid and their suppliers have stopped producing several components, others were banned for environmental reasons. Given the highly complex chemical reactions taking place within one instant photo, it's basically one small chemical laboratory, finding and combining the many new components for one working instant photo was the primary technological challenge.
"Having created a new recipe, the next challenge was to heave chemical spreads that worked in the lab onto the scale of mass production."
After two years of research, the company overcame the difficulties and launched the monochrome PX 100 and PX 600 Silver Shade film in March 2010. The film was designed in house from scratch and comprises 29 new layers and 13 newly researched chemicals. PX 70 Colour Shade followed in July and word of the company spread quickly.
It has since grown into a unique ecosystem offering online tutorials and galleries for users to display their best shots, as well as an extended product range including books, accessories and refurbished cameras. More than simply wanting to shift product, the company is dedicated to keeping the spirit of instant photography alive and creating a thriving subculture of enthusiasts.
Interestingly, Kaps says the majority of the company's customers are aged between 15 and 25 – the first generation likely to have grown up solely using digital photographic media. For many younger users Polaroid cameras come with a feeling of nostalgia for an era of photography they have never experienced, and this perhaps leads them to believe, either rightly or wrongly, that this contact with the processes themselves puts them in touch with a more authentic experience. This could be part of wider trend towards the celebration of the physical object, its smell, texture and feel – something that digital media are currently unable to reproduce. It could also be that the convenience and ease of use of smartphone camera apps and their automatic faux patina filters has taken some of the fun out of the experience. Or that the distinctive look of Polaroid or other analogue photos referenced by Apps such as Instagram are pointing them back towards the real thing.
"In my opinion Instagram is another cup of tea, which very well reflects my perception that people are bored by the tonnes of flawless digital photos, and that they are looking for unpredictability and uniqueness," Kaps says. "Instagram is a service that allows you to get this with your virtual photo, if you want a real photo you'll always be best served by real film.
Kaps, though, is far from a technophobe. "Personally, I will always be using my iPhone for digital photos thanks to its easy handling and pricing, but when something special is coming up, I will always bring my SX 70 camera. We are humans with five senses which want to be touched and make us feel human, so forgetting convenience but passionately diving into a real and sometimes challenging experience is only human and thus a good sign for me."
Following on from this philosophy is the Impossible Project Instant Lab. Launched in October 2012, the Instant Lab is a device with one foot in the digital world and one foot in the analogue. Looking something like a closed SX 70 with a concertina stuck on the top of it, the Instant Lab allows users to dock an iPhone in the top and print instant photographs on Impossible Project film via an app. The company hopes to have the device on general sale, later in the year.
Make mine a bamboo 8x10
At this year's Consumer Electronics Show, held in Las Vegas in January, Polaroid announced it is teaming up with start-up Fotobar to launch "a series of experiential retail stores where consumers can quickly and easily liberate their favourite images from the confines of their digital devices and turn them into museum-quality art". It's a bold claim. The idea is that customers can visit the store and wirelessely transmit their favourite photos from their smartphone to one of several bar-top workstations. The photos can then be edited, manipulated and uploaded to social media sites. Finally prints of the pictures can be ordered in a range of materials including canvas, metal, wood and bamboo to be delivered at a later date. But with delivery taking up to 72 hours the service is from the providing the instant gratification that made the company's name.
"There are currently around 1.5 billion pictures taken every single day, and that number continues to grow in tandem with the popularity and quality of camera phones," said Warren Struhl, founder and CEO of Fotobar, LLC. "Unfortunately, even the very best of those pictures rarely ever escape the camera phone with which they were taken to be put on display around our homes and offices. Why? Because turning those pictures into something tangible, creative and permanent is neither easy nor fun. Polaroid Fotobar stores are going to change all of that."
The first Fotobar opened in Delray Beach,'Florida, in February and the company plans to open several more in New York, Las Vegas and Boston and other locations over the next year. Each store will be run by trained staff who will be on hand to help customers and run classes and tutorials. Polaroid seems to be aiming for an Apple Store-type environment to make them stand out from other similar services already available.
But not only will the Fotobars have to wrestle customers away from online printing services such as Flickr, which has been offering online printing services for some years, as well as the several other companies that offer printing services from within Instagram such as Prinstagram, but also from more traditional high street stores such as chemists, camera shops and reprographics.
Elsewhere, in a bizarre twist of fate seen more often in the 'plucky underdog' cliches of Hollwood than in real life, the Polaroid brand name has been licensed to a web-integrated instant camera themed around Instagram. Planned for release some time next year, the provisionally-named Socialmatic will enable users to take digital snaps, apply the Facebook-owned picture-sharing service's retro filters to them and share them through social media, or make square Polariod prints using the built-in printer.
If the product takes off it would mean the very thing that looked set to kill Polaroid off may ultimately wind up contributing to its salvation. Nevertheless, with printed matter of all kinds falling out of favour, it remains to be seen what the future holds for the venerable company. But who knows? Maybe Polaroid itself can do the impossible.