What makes us love Polaroid so hard? Is it the way that stray
details and furtive glances always seem to catch the lens’ focus, the way nothing looks
accidental? Is it the
those first pale colors appear, arriving both fresh and old before deepening,
tunneling backwards? Is it the shaking—pointless, by the way—to make the picture
dry faster, develop more fully? The way life inside a Polaroid looks unaccountably warm and safe, in a way no one could ever reasonably expect?
Polaroid’s brush with extinction started in 2001 when, nearing bankruptcy, the company was restructured by various investment firms known for selling off valuable assets from failed brands. Curiously, the instant film didn’t count as one of those assets and was consigned to the scrap-heap. In 2004, the company stopped producing the negatives needed to create its instant film, and four years later, the company’s materials supply was running dangerously short of demand. Undeterred, the company continued with plans to dismantle its chief instant-film plant in Enschede, Holland.
The Polaroid employee tasked with this dissolution, André Bosman, met Austrian entrepreneur Florian Kaps, founder of the fan community Polanoid; and together they began The Impossible Project, an initiative to save Polaroid instant film from extinction.
Bosman and Kaps sensed the truth Polaroid management had missed: Sales may have declined with the rise of digital cameras, but the antiquated film sold steadily to a cultishly devoted base that, the two men argued, more than justified the manufacturing costs. In 2008 alone, 24 million instant-film packets were sold around the globe, feeding an estimated one billion working Polaroid cameras worldwide. A living anachronism, maybe, but certainly living.
Two obstacles stood in their way: first, the ingredients necessary to make the original film were scarce. Second, the company itself bedeviled the duo with difficulties even as it was slowly waking to the business opportunity being squandered, as Wired UK writer Mic Wright explains in “The Impossible Project: Bringing Back Polaroid.” Bosman and Kaps bought some scrap machinery and the entire back-stock of Polaroid instant film (still for sale via Polapremium.com) and promised Polaroid they would not reproduce the original film but reinvent their own version. The Project’s first black-and-white film will hit the market in early 2010; color film will follow in summer 2010. And Polaroid’s new brand licensees, the Summit Global Group, have announced they will reproduce several classic Polaroid cameras, all using film made by The Impossible Project.
But back to the original question: What is the appeal of Polaroid? The answer lies in five contradictory, maddeningly engaging charms.
Start with 1) the iconic frame, which is brilliant in several ways. It’s a safe spot for your fingertips as you watch the image swim into
focus. It’s a built-in caption site that takes Sharpie ink particularly
well. Even the frame’s milky color suggests a sustaining, wholesome
thing, like baby teeth. There’s simply a different kind of seeing taking place. Applications like Poladroid or dozens of Photoshop tutorials make it easy to re-create the act of slipping a white frame on any picture, and industrial designers have paid winking homage in “Polaroid-frame” products, from potted plants to picture frames to hand mirrors from Atypyk and Colin O’Dowd.
It takes 90 seconds for a Polaroid to develop. What used to be considered immediate gratification now feels, in the era of digital film, like a slow lifecycle in miniature. Everyone pauses, perhaps with stomachs still hurting from laughing, to peer into this small, shared image that will be remembered slightly differently by each of them. In addition to re-making Polaroid instant film, Polapremium offers an intriguing experimental film called Fade to Black. As the name suggests, the full-color Polaroid image you take slowly darkens over a period of 24 hours, with drifting color shifts, until it becomes totally black.
Polapremium clearly understands Polaroid’s fascinating relationship to time. Their site describes Fade to Black’s allure like this: “It is almost as if TIME tears at the picture’s existence in FAST FORWARD…the precious moment of time becomes a VISUAL SECRET.”
Polaroid’s third double-edged charm is expertise. A Polaroid, to the wordless chagrin of camera-buff Hugh Laurie in a 1980s Polaroid commercial above, is easy. Yet scads of photographers—Walker Evans, Robert Mapplethorpe, David Hockney, Andy Warhol, Helmut Newton and the breathtaking experiments of Lucas Samaras—have all bent reality, in the form of a Polaroid, into their own characteristic shape. Like the Trabi, East Germany’s iconic, terrible automobile, Polaroid’s primitive mechanics are readily understandable, inviting tinkerers to master, then transcend the technology.
Director John Waters—who documents every single person who enters his apartment with a Polaroid—puts a finger on 4): secrecy. “Now what the hell am I supposed to do?” he asked in a 2008 New York article about Polaroid’s then-imminent demise. “What are wardrobe departments supposed to do—how else will they keep costume continuity shots? And has anybody thought about the poor home-porno enthusiasts? Are they supposed to now risk arrest by taking some memory disk to the drugstore to get printed?” (Polaroid did take a sad, 1980s-heavy stab at marketing Polaroid’s everyday functionality in its “Nothing Works Like a Polaroid” campaign.) Secrecy is potent. In one TV spot, a bride and groom, alone in their limousine, laugh themselves silly over a Polaroid we never see. In another spot directed by Michel Gondry, a Japanese salaryman quits his crappy job via a mailed Polaroid. As his boss fumes, again over an image we don’t see, the camera cuts to the employee smiling satedly, on a train hurtling out of town. Without question, though, the most audacious riff on Polaroid’s secrecy is this commercial spoof of a high-rent pervert taking a Polaroid shot of his junk.
But Polaroid’s most double-sided charm is 5) soul. Clicking through Polaroid images on Flickr or Polanoid can become quietly unbearable, as shot after shot is clouded with atmosphere, mood, saturated color. Even the most mannered, unfeeling photos steal a certain emotional weight from the technology they’re made with. And all of them feel time-tested, perhaps because they’re already time-scarred. The technology possesses a visceral tug that gives a near-perfect Schein of inner life to just about any image. Which photographers will wield that tool masterfully? Now that Polaroid’s second life has begun, we can at least find out.