Polaroid Redux: Doing the Impossible

by Jim Cornfield

Thomas Jackson

July 26, 2012

 The Impossible Project (www.the-impossible-project.com) is an imaginative new photographic brand spawned from the ruins of what was once the Polaroid Empire. Impossible’s mission is to put instant analog photography back in our lives, mainly by pairing its family of newly-minted films with Polaroid’s familiar line of vintage idiot-proof cameras—still readily accessible online and off (including flea markets and yard sales). 

The story of Impossible Project’s genesis has already become a minor nugget of folklore: With the clock ticking on its planned shutdown in 2008, Polaroid’s factory in Enschede, Netherlands, was rescued by a pair of European entrepreneurs. They soon had the production line humming again, turning out a line of films that are close approximations of the signature Polaroids that for 60 years were the main currency of instant imaging. 

In the digital universe and under a wilting economy, the idea of dusting off a technological relic like the SX-70 and filling it with pricey artisanal film seems impetuous, maybe even a little nuts. Impossible Project’s founders, who had to raise $1.5 million in venture capital for their startup, candidly laid bare their own qualms in the very act of naming their company. From the beginning, they obviously saw themselves as dreamers, adrift on a remorseless sea of pixels. 

The Wizard Behind the Curtain

The introduction of Polaroid instant imaging in 1948, took the industry, and the public, by storm. Throughout most of the company’s history, Dr. Edwin Land was the wizard behind the curtain, churning out ideas for new films and hardware. His tour de force is universally acknowledged to be Integral Film and its flagship camera, the ingenious SX-70. This user-friendly system produced images with unique idiosyncrasies of color and contrast rendition—unlike any of Land’s previous film types—and soon attracted the attention of fine-art photographers around the world. Land had already begun cultivating serious artists, encouraging contributions to his Polaroid Collection, the archive he established at the company’s Massachusetts headquarters. “The purpose of inventing instant photography” he said, “ was essentially aesthetic—to make available a new medium of expression to numerous individuals who have an artistic interest in the world around them.” 

By 2008, that credo seemed destined for the trash bin, with the demise of Polaroid manufacturing beneath the gigantic digital steamroller. The  Polaroid Collection was unceremoniously parceled out to galleries and auctioneers. But there was a glimmer of hope: Enter, the Impossible Project.

Soul of an Artist

André Bosman and Florian Kaps, enthusiastic devotees of Polaroid imaging, are the principal players in this saga. It was their technical knowledge and combined passion “to keep the magic of analog instant photography alive” that brought the Impossible Project’s product line to market. Starting with a black-and-white integral film they called “PX 100 First Flush,” the factory embarked on a series of limited-edition, experimental film stocks—black-and-white and color—variously compatible with SX-70, Spectra and model 600 Polaroid cameras. Impossible is definitely a work in progress, with some 18 generations of films evolving since 2010, and more on the way. The current product line now consists of two basic types: Silver Shade (for black and white) and Color Shade, all under a newly released COOL edition, which purports to feature improved development times and “reduced artifacts and irregularities.” 

Ironically, it’s those very artifacts and irregularities that seem to be the biggest draw for Impossible’s core market—serious fine-art photographers. The film’s a little quirky. There’s the soft, hand-tinted quality of earlier Polaroids, but with that come occasional eccentric color shifts, blown-out highlights, uneven vignetting and other anomalies that appeal to the adventurous soul of an artist. 

“I like the surprises,” says California-based editorial and advertising photographer Chloe Aftel, a regular Impossible Project customer. “Something wonderful always comes out, [something] that you weren’t expecting,” she says. “Not everyone would tolerate it on a commercial shoot, but when you’re experimenting, these unanticipated effects totally outweigh the downside of using these films.” Many of Aftel’s subjects for publications like Elle, Marie Claire and New York magazine are female models. At every opportunity during a commercial shoot, she “pops off” a few Impossible images. Sometimes they make it onto the printed page, artifacts and all. “There’s a dreaminess to them that I really love,” she says. “They seem to add a candid, off-the-cuff intimacy to a photograph, particularly shots of women. It’s a very sensual look, and it makes you forgive the flaws.”

Thomas Jackson is a celebrated Dallas shooter with a prestigious client list that includes Neiman Marcus, Fossil, JCPenney and Bergdorf Goodman. The main body of his work is digital, but he’s a devoted aficionado of the Impossible Project, and he too is charmed by the film’s imperfections: “I like those erratic behaviors, the artifacts—that donut shape in the background, or the bloom in some underdeveloped part of a shot,” he says. “It’s a niche thing, a curiosity, like vinyl records. I think it might be a way of connecting with the past.” Our visual media today, Jackson believes, has become too clean and tidy. In the digital world, he says, “it’s gotten too easy to make a technically perfect image.” 

Jackson’s Impossible Project pieces are obviously grittier than his mainstream work, but even these images reflect a measure of precision. He’s fine-tuned the film as far as it allows, testing combinations of lighting, exposure and development times to inject a measure of consistency into the process. Like Aftel, Jackson says he usually tries to fire off a few Impossible images when he’s doing one of his regular assignments. “I really like the look,” he says, “but I still haven’t found a client who wants it.”

Fine-art photographer Bradley Johnson has been totally committed to Polaroid imaging for the last eight years. He began with remnants of the company’s last run of Integral films, and now works exclusively with Impossible Project emulsions, principally PX 680 and PX 600. Johnson is another shooter in the thrall of that stylized retro look. “I also like the objet d’art quality of these films,” he says, “as each one is a unique work unto itself. With Impossible film especially, you never get the same image twice.”

Not Your Father’s Polaroid Film

“These films do have a reputation for unpredictability,” one Impossible Project spokesman admits. “It’s the erratic nature of the new chemistries we’re trying, and the variations between successive batches as they come out of the factory. But this all seems to be part of its appeal. We’ve built a large community of fine-art photographers who are experimental and committed to the idea of ‘letting go’ a bit. We encourage that.”

Not all of Impossible’s idiosyncrasies have the allure of a surprise color glitch or a rogue halo next to a subject’s head. This is definitely not your father’s Polaroid film. Processing times, for instance, are still in excess of Impossible’s Polaroid forebears. Initial development requires 2 to 3 minutes and complete processing, an additional 15 minutes for the latest generation of Color Shade emulsions (COOL PZ 70, PZ 680, PX 680), and 4 to 5 minutes for black-and-white “Silver Shade” emulsions (COOL PX 100, PX 600 and PZ 600). Archival stability is another problem, and still something of a mystery across this line of films. Impossible Project markets a silica-based Dry Age Kit for black-and-white emulsions, to preserve images “for eternity and beyond.” The Color Shade films, which initially exhibited gradual color shifts over time, are approaching stability as Impossible’s R&D squad works out the kinks in updated batches coming out of the factory. 

Easily the single major liability of Impossible Project film is the requirement that each image be completely shielded from light as it exits the camera after an exposure, and kept in the dark for an additional 3 minutes. Impossible offers a couple of strategies for accomplishing this, including a “frog tongue” attachment for adapted Spectra style cameras, and a flexible shade that covers the exit port of an SX-70. “Right now, solving this problem is our number one mission,” an Impossible Project technician tells me. “We have to improve the ‘opacification layer’ inside the chemical envelope. It’s crucial to reducing the film’s light sensitivity during development.” The original integral films had this capability, but the technology wasn’t available when Impossible Project took over the factory. “Research-wise,” says the tech, “it remains our ‘holy grail.’ ”

History suggests that this solution, however elusive, isn’t far off.  Edwin Land once told a Forbes magazine reporter that one of his rules for success was to never “undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.” So far, the little startup company that’s bringing his innovations back to life appears to be heeding his advice.

Writer/photographer Jim Cornfield is a regular contributor to Rangefinder. He is based in Malibu Canyon, CA (www.jimcornfield.net).

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