Impossible Project - Design Bureau

The Impossible Project

Impossible Collection - Grant Hamilton

Impossible Collection - Lia_Saile

Impossible Collection - Lia_Saile

Impossible Collection - Lia_Saile

Impossible Collection - Brian Henry

Impossible Collection - Brian Henry

Impossible Collection - Josh Goleman

Impossible Collection - Josh Goleman

Alexandre says:

This article reminds me how instant film has the quality that it really is capturing a single instant. I know all photography does that, but with Polaroid pictures, it really seemed like you were freezing that exact moment of time and kind of trapping it forever on that small square of paper. To me, Polaroid pictures always seemed both old and timeless in that way, like the moment you had captured was indelibly in the past, but it would never go away because you had trapped it there in that picture, frozen forever. I remember my mom taking a picture of me before a high school dance where a bunch of friends and I had rented wacky novelty tuxedos. Mine was lime green, and as I stood at our front door waiting to leave, my mom grabbed the old Polaroid camera sitting on our piano. It probably hadn’t been used since about 1982 — this was 2003. She snapped the picture, and whenever I go back home and see that photo, I get that feeling: that this picture is both old and timeless, a moment that will always feel eerily like it happened twenty years ago, no matter when I’m looking at the picture, and even though it’s only been seven years since that picture was taken. It’s a frozen instant, that will always be old, but never get older.

Impossible Project

Monday, December 13th, 2010

The rumbling sounds of the Polaroid factory in Enschede, Holland were just hours away from being silenced forever when Austrian entrepreneur Florian “Doc” Kaps stepped in to make one final offer.

He would buy the $130 million worth of machines at fire-sale prices and sign a 10-year lease on the factory. From there, he planned to bring instant film back to life. Kaps gave his mission a name: The Impossible Project, echoing the impregnable mantra of Polaroid’s founder and inventorEdwin H. Land.

Kaps’ dream of recreating what was at the time a photographic revolution and empire proved just as audacious as it was seemingly “impossible.” According to Polaroid’s own estimates, about half of all American households in the 1960s had a Polaroid camera, with the film and photographs to prove it. By the time Land died in 1991, the company had grown into a veritable optics empire, with sales of cameras and film peaking at nearly $3 billion. The company that had brought instant analog photography into the hands of millions worldwide fell on hard times and filed for bankruptcy in 2001 and again in 2008, changing management twice in as much time. In the most recent turnover, the Polaroid Corporation was caught in the wake of a Ponzi scheme perpetrated by the chief executive of its holding company, Petters Group Worldwide, and in February 2008, publicly announced the discontinuation of its instant films in favor of refocusing on the booming digital market. Since then, the Polaroid name has lived on, if only as a universally recognizable brand with undeniable cultural cachet.

Polaroid enthusiasts took to the Web with last-ditch appeals and tributes to instant analog film. As news spread, the last stores of film flew off the shelves, and a new resale market emerged on the internet.

An eccentric man with a bent for photography, Kaps first learned of Polaroid’s plan to cease production of its instant film while under the employ of the Lomographic Society, then one of the largest-scale buyers of Polaroid film, in 2007—well after the troubled company’s plan had been put into motion. In fact, Polaroid had stopped commissioning the chemicals and supplies necessary for producing instant film in 2004, believing that they had sufficient materials left to produce ten million exposures a year for the next ten years. But demand was larger than anticipated, and by June 2008 they were nearly out of negatives, and the medium so loved by artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol andAnsel Adams was suddenly on its death bed. Polaroid enthusiasts took to the Web with last-ditch appeals and tributes to instant analog film. As news spread, the last stores of film flew off the shelves, and a new resale market emerged on the internet.

Then, in October of 2008, The Impossible Project was born. Over the course of 17 months, a devoted team of scientists, engineers, photographers, and Kaps himself put their energies into reviving the medium. With the critical support of André Bosman, a longtime Polaroid employee and the former engineering manager of the Enschede plant, Kaps negotiated a partnership with Ilford Photo UK, and set about developing the Impossible Project’s first films, the PX100 and PX600 Silver Shade films for use in the SX-70 and 600 Series Polaroid cameras. By 2011, Impossible plans to have a total of six instant film formats in circulation, including two PX color films and two larger integral films for use in Polaroid Image, Spectra, and 1200 cameras.

The Impossible Project aims both to pay tribute to instant Polaroid film and its history while improving upon the formula that contributed to its demise. Dave Bias, Vice President of the Impossible Project’s American wing, attested, “We’re all huge fans of Edwin Land; the man was one of the great geniuses of the 20th century, and largely unsung.” The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office might beg to differ; Land sits in the top tier of American inventors with 535 patents to his name, and during his lifetime was the recipient of three medals from The Franklin Institute, a premier science education and development center in Philadelphia.

Emblematic of Land’s innovative genius was his idea to solicit the input of skilled and celebrated photographers in the development of the company’s materials. Polaroid would provide equipment and film to a handful of heralded photographers in exchange for feedback and original prints. The comments helped to improve their products, and the prints became part of The Polaroid Collection—one of the most storied collections in the history of photography and ultimately, a valuable asset to a company plagued by financial troubles.

Nearly six decades later, The Impossible Project has adopted a similar model with The Impossible Collection. Forty photographers from a variety of artistic and professional backgrounds were tapped to contribute the first prints to the collection. The inaugural images speak to the idiosyncracy of instant photography, and express the passion and fury of a medium that deserves to live another day. Featured in the collection are photographs by Brian Henry, Grant Hamilton, Josh Goleman, and Lia Sáile, each with their own story of how instant photography has shaped their vision.

Iowa City, Iowa

You’re making a documentary about the end of Polaroid film. What’s your impetus?

The first idea was for it to be sort of a eulogy. It really bothered me that people didn’t appreciate or understand what was going away when Polaroid decided to stop production. I thought this was a big deal, not just for somebody who wanted to keep using the film, but a big deal culturally. Look at anything in any magazine that is supposed to represent “the photograph” and it’s got a big Polaroid frame around it. Polaroids are photography in terms of popular culture. So I wanted to try to make everyone else as disappointed as I was by the end of the movie. But then, Florian [of the Impossible Project] said they were gonna try to restart production and I thought, well, this a monumental task, but maybe I’ll actually end up with a happy ending, so then everything sort of changed a little bit.

So the Impossible Project has really changed the trajectory of the story for you?

Definitely. By virtue of the film, I feel that I’m uniquely aware of how technically challenging this task is for them. A lot of people thought, ‘Oh, they got the factory, they’ll just turn the switch back on and start making film.’ It is absolutely not that; it’s reinventing the film, not re-starting production.

How did you decide to make the documentary?

I wasn’t actually going to do it myself—my wife is friends with Patrick Creadon, who made the documentaries Wordplay and I.O.U.S.A., which both got theatrical distribution.  He told me I should do it. I thought, I don’t know what I’m doing. I had guise for it and I have high enough standards that it wouldn’t look like I didn’t know what I was doing, but I literally didn’t know what I was doing. So I kicked it around for six months. The problem was that if I kept waiting then the story would just go away. I had this little window of opportunity where the story was going to be relevant and the people would still be around. I talked to my wife and we decided to go for it.

Do you have a working title?

If I don’t get harassed by Polaroid, I’m going to call it Time Zero: The Last Year of Polaroid Film. We’re submitting it to Sundance Film Festival.

It’s almost like this underground market. You meet this guy on a street corner and they have ‘the stuff’ and you look at it and you have no idea what conditions these packs have been sitting in and you gotta be like, ‘Have you tested this?’, or ‘Is this batch good?’

- Josh Goleman

Vienna, Austria

What draws you to instant photography as a medium? How do you think your work benefits from it?

That’s a very short, simple question with a huge, vast answer. The three things that make instant photography different are its tangibility, its unpredictability, and its immediacy. Integral film is like an open darkroom, and even now it is mysterious for children as well as grown-ups, even if you’ve taken zillions of Polaroids or instant photographs,  you’re still fascinated by it because you  don’t know what’s going to happen, you don’t know what the outcome of the picture’s going to be, even if you just saw it seconds before through the viewfinder. Integral pictures have the association of being private and maybe  even erotic; of being something secret, a little mystery in and of themselves. Plus, there’s the question of its permanence: How long is the picture gonna stay? Is it gonna fade? Is it gonna get darker or scratched all over, because you can’t repair those things? You’re gonna see how time changes the picture and how time influences its meaning.

When did you first start experimenting with instant film?

It was at the same time that I started my studies in Vienna. I’d had a tough time choosing what subjects to study because I was into art and film and theatre, and during that time I went to a flea market and I saw a Polaroid camera for just €1. For some reason, I had been looking for one. I don’t remember what the trigger was—I think I just thought about it because I had just started working with photography a bit more professionally and wanted to go into the more analog area, but in a snapshot kind of way. So I bought that super cheap camera which worked, and all I needed was film.

Baltimore, Maryland

Are there specific subjects you like to shoot?

I spent the last two or three years traveling around the U.S. and exploring abandoned buildings with Polaroid film. Shooting abandoned places with instant film adds another layer of time to both the image and the experience. A lot of the places that I shoot will be completely demolished a couple months later, and it’s just really neat to have something in your hand that you shot in that space when it was right there at that moment. I shoot instant film slowly—probably because of how expensive it is, but also because after I expose a negative the film comes out instantly, and then it’s in the room with you at that very moment, developed. I have to think a lot about what’s going to happen when I press the shutter, so my style has evolved from just snapping simple pictures to planning events weeks in advance. Polaroid’s very good for photographers who are trying to grow because at least for me the nature of the medium almost encourages you to put a lot of thought into it.

New York, New York

Do you have a personal history with instant film?

I was in high school the first time I shot Polaroid [in the 90s], and it wasn’t anything special. You could buy film at any gas station, anywhere you went you could find some Polaroid to shoot. Polaroid helped me to realize what film actually is, probably in part because of its cultural saturation but mainly because of its sensitivity to light and how easy it is to manipulate. I got sort of obsessed with instant photography and found this whole scene of people who were obsessed with it, too. Nerds, of course, but of the breed that are half-artist, half-nerd.

What cameras do you shoot with?

I’ll always bring my SX-70 and my Polaroid 600SE, otherwise known as “Goosebox”. Have you heard that term? If you look at the camera, on the front it says 600SE in all caps and it looks just like “GOOSE.” It’s a huge metal box that’s practically indestructible; it’s like a tank in a camera, so it’s nicknamed ‘Goosebox’.

Since Polaroid stopped manufacturing instant film in 2008, their old films have become a hot commodity. Where do you get your film?

I buy film off of eBay and off of Craigslist and I might meet someone on the street in Williamsburg [Brooklyn] and buy $200 worth of Polaroid off of them.

Sounds a little dicey.

It can be. Once I went to Philly to buy 20 packs of 665 off this guy and I bought it all and I was super stoked about it. I took it home and shot it and there was this staple that holds pressure on the pack and it had somehow rotted and the whole thing was oxidized. I got 20 packs and almost half of them were ruined.

Text and Q&A by Ellen Knuti


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