Is Polaroid Making a Comeback?

March 1, 2012

By RF Staff

Judging from the response Edwin H. Land elicited with the introduction of instant photography in 1948, he might as well have invented the wheel or discovered gravity. This was one of those chartbuster moments in the history of human innovation—a tsunami in the international press, front-page story in The New York Times, a spread in LIFE magazine and an immediate, one-day sellout of every Polaroid camera that came off the production line.

To anyone raised on digital imaging, the need for this technology probably seems laughable today, but yes, there was a time when you had to wait for your pictures to come out of a lab—your own darkroom or someone else’s. Land condensed the arc between image capture and print into a kind of instantaneous alchemy that worked its magic on the spot, between the layers of a film-and-paper manifold. The corporate behemoth that grew from this idea is legendary, and so were many of the additions to the product line that regularly popped up on Land’s drawing board. These reached their zenith in 1972, when Polaroid introduced its magnum opus, the so-called integral film system, with its foldable compact SLR, the SX-70.

Even with its immense popularity, the SX-70 wasn’t enough to stave off the economic woes that eventually strangled Polaroid. The digital juggernaut would have that effect on a lot of traditional “wet” imaging technology. By 2008, Polaroid films were a thing of the past...or so it seemed. At the factory’s closing ceremonies, a pair of entrepreneurs, Florian Kaps and André Bosman, pooled their nerve and their resources to launch a firm dedicated to reviving the manufacture of instant films for use in existing Polaroid cameras. They named their dicey venture “The Impossible Project;” thus the quirky title of a newly released photography collection, From Polaroid to Impossible: Masterpieces of Instant Photography—the WestLicht Collection.

The book’s subtitle refers to a unique exhibition that debuted in Vienna last summer. In the early 1960s, Polaroid launched a program whereby the company gave grants to noted photographers, supplying them with unlimited quantities of various Polaroid film stocks to use in personal creative projects of their own choosing. Ultimately, 800 photographers were involved in this project, which yielded more than 4,000 works of stunning diversity, many from a roster of name artists starting with the iconic master Ansel Adams and running through many of the world’s topflight commercial, editorial and fine art shooters: Helmut Newton, Mary Ellen Mark, John Paul Caponigro, Peter Beard, Bill Burke, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, to name a handful. One important segment of these contributions, known simply as the International Collection, initially housed in the company’s European Headquarters in Frankfurt am Main, Germany, was recently purchased by the Viennese photography museum, WestLicht. From Polaroid to Impossible is a painstakingly designed and reproduced cross section of this museum’s 2011 exhibit.

Film Like No Other
Equally important as the eclectic diversity of the imagery in this collection, is the extraordinary assortment of Polaroid films that contributing artists have used; practically each one is a unique emulsion and format with its own distinctive color interpretation, acutance and contrast rendition. The book is organized by film sizes, from the 3 x 3 SX-70 images up through the workhorse 31/4 x 41/4 prints, the commercial 4 x 5 and 8 x 10 formats and the rare, astonishing large-format work which begins the book—images produced on Land’s gigantic, 235-pound, 5-foot-high 20 x 24 camera—only five of which are still in existence worldwide. Polaroid’s color films especially had a patented charm, in all their various formats, a soft palette that was impossible to achieve with conventional emulsions.

The line of positive/negative black-and-white emulsions, 665 and 55 P/N produced the sharpest grain-free negatives in the entire industry. And the SX-70 films—originally designed for the consumer snapshot market—are particularly seductive to the commercial shooters represented in this collection, some of them driven to wild fits of creativity by the soft image quality and pastel color shifts of this film’s unusual chemistry. The more mainstream Polacolor emulsions were similarly delicate in their color interpretations. Witness Werner Pawlok’s elegant 20 x 24 double exposed portrait, or the ethereal delicacy of Paul Huf’s fabric tableau, shot on 8 x 10 type 808 sheet film.

Analog’s Last Bastion
True to its title, From Polaroid to Impossible includes images made with revival Polaroid film stocks given new life under the rubric of The Impossible Project. The company began production in early 2010, at the former Polaroid plant in Enschede, The Netherlands. Some veteran photographers have experimented with this new generation of instant films, but many others are, in the words of co-founder Florian Caps, “little-known young artists who have succumbed to the fascination of the analog.” Non-digital imaging is unquestionably in a permanent state of eclipse these days, but the one-of-a-kind, objet d’arte quality of a Polaroid print, may well keep this medium in play among fine art photographers as the last bastion of analog imagery. Those of us who’ve experienced the astounding range of creative possibilities Land left for us, and who lamented the passing of this era, can only hope, along with the Impossible’s bright-eyed young newbies, that the Polaroid world has been given a new lease on life. If you’ve never experienced this remarkable style of imagemaking, the 230 color illustrations of From Polaroid to Impossible will make you a believer—in an instant.

Rangefinder book critic and contributing editor Jim Cornfield ( is a veteran commercial photographer. He has worked extensively with many Polaroid films and was featured in several gallery shows and publications with his series, Fat Tuesday, black and white images of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras photographed on Polaroid 55 P/N film. His work was featured in Popular Photography magazine’s introduction of Polaroid’s new 8 x 10 color film during the 1970s.