Resurrecting a brand: Impossible is nothing

Land’s Dream

In 1948, Edwin Land establish Polaroid and released the world’s first instant camera. It took a process that required a darkroom, dangerous chemicals and lots of time and money and made it instant. The quality of the cameras and the photos themselves would never prove a match of the single lens reflex cameras to come but from the start, there was magic behind the mechanics of instant film photography.

Edwin Land. The man who had a dream of instant photography and brought it to life.

Land’s End

60 years later, Polaroid went bust, a victim of the success of photography. The commoditisation of film photography and the rise of digital led to a decrease in the popularity of the relatively-expensive film. When a printed high-quality photo costs a few pennies and digital photography meant instant visibility for your work, their pool of customers became ever smaller. And it had competition.

Fujifilm had been a big player in instant — its now shuttered FP-100 and FB-3000 series of films were staples of high quality instant photography — for years and its focus was on its Instax film. Instax was cheaper to produce, had higher margins with smaller sizes. For about the same price as a packet of 10 Polaroid shots you could get 20 Instax shots.

A double-exposed selfie wasted on one of the last packs of unexpired Fujifilm FP-3000B in the world. Shot on my Land 250.

After a bankruptcy in 2001, Polaroid was on shaky ground. Multiple failures and rapidly declining revenue meant in 2008 it was over for Polaroid as a going concern. On acquisition its assets were sold off or dumped and it continued to exist as a brand, lending its once-powerful name to any product that wanted it. It was a sad end to one of the most iconic companies in the history of photography.

A Polaroid of Polaroids shot on a Polaroid. Featuring an SX-70 with Sonar, a special edition Disney 600 camera and an Impulse AF

The Fujifilm Throttle

Fujifilm acquired some of those assets but used its acquisition to end competition in the instant market. The chemistry behind Polaroid was effectively deprecated; hidden away to be forgotten so Instax could thrive. And Instax did. Fujifilm has most recently announced a new square format for the film that tries to replicate the style, if not the substance of the classic Polaroid.

By chance, a Dutch fellow named Florian Kaps was at the same time falling in love with Polaroid. He was shocked that it was being discarded. He desperately tried to convince Fujifilm to save it — in his book on the rise of Impossible he tells a particularly tragicomic story of visiting Fujifilm’s offices only to be given some nods and an insulting used calendar for his efforts — and has been continuing to do so with instant film ever since.

He didn’t give up. Along with investors, he went to one of the last remaining Polaroid factories, being dismantled for scrap, and organised an asset acquisition of some of the most important machinery, particularly the slicing machines for producing the unique film. But his nascent company, The Impossible Project, had a severe problem: it didn’t have the chemicals for making Polaroid film.

Simon Kemp takes a picture of me on one of those digital thingies while we wait for Byron Sharp to speak at Cannes Lions in 2016.

It was Impossible

That was a huge problem. You couldn’t just buy industrial quantities of developer and fix and mash them together. Each Polaroid picture had, at its base, three chemical pouches that would erupt and spread evenly between these layers while simultaneously protecting the negative from further exposure (ie more sunlight) while it developed. And it developed extremely rapidly. In seconds, you had your photo. How on earth do you even get started with something like that?

It turns out it takes years. After three major iterations of its film, the Impossible Project’s colour film still doesn’t quite have the colour fidelity of the original and it requires about 20 minutes to fully process. You have to shield your film with a mylar sleeve as soon as it’s ejected, often using something affectionately known as a ‘frog tongue’. It’s not quite back to the height of Polaroid’s heyday but it was enough.

Taking a picture in Richmond park on Impossible’s third gen beta film.

Polaroid Reborn

After 9 years of producing film and even launching its own camera, the Impossible Project announced that its biggest shareholder, the money behind Impossible, had acquired the Polaroid license. The instant film community was ecstatic. It was everything Polaroid-lovers, like myself, dreamed of. The company that had saved the film, had preserved the art of Polaroid, was finally allowed to use the name and bring the company back to its former glory.

Some six months later, today in fact, the Impossible Project is officially dead. There was no careful announcement and retirement of the brand. There was no soft merging. The Impossible Project is now Polaroid Originals. It has launched with a new website, a new camera (modelled on the old One Step) and new film. It’s an entirely new start. The Impossible Project is gone. Polaroid is alive again.

The new shopfront of Polaroid Originals.
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