In 1944, legend has it that a child’s impatient question led to the creation of Polaroid film: “Why can’t I see them now, Daddy?” asked Jennifer Land of her father Edwin, a scientist. Flash forward to 2008. At a pro baseball game last summer, I watched as a curly-haired girl no older than three hitched a ride on her father’s shoulders out of the stadium, mom stopping them to snap a picture. The child plastered a grin on her face obligingly, then, without missing a beat, whined: “I want to see it!”
But Polaroid and digital film are not the same. Artists and amateurs alike have bemoaned the recent decision of the Polaroid company to get out of the business, of, well, Polaroids. Consumers can no longer buy the cameras. The company, in the process of systematically shutting down remaining factories, will only create enough film to last it through 2009, according to Bloomberg News. Then, sayonara.
There is something almost inexplicably sad about the loss of Polaroid. Digital photography has so outpaced the maybe-if-I-shake-it-it’ll-develop-faster “technology” of instant photography that it has become a surviving anachronism, albeit one poised to draw its last breath. It feels nostalgic, even to the young. Polaroid photography is more about the medium—and all of its idiosyncrasies—than it is about the subject.
There is no ‘delete’ button with instant photography. Digital technologies simply can’t hold a candle to the roll the dice, cross your fingers joy of a developing Polaroid. The girl on her father’s shoulders at the baseball game smiled when her mom presented the camera to her for her approval, but I couldn’t help wondering how long it would before this girl got used to saying, “no, take another.”
For these reasons, artists like Lia Saile delight in working with Polaroid. “In 2005, I found an Integral Polaroid camera at a flea market, it cost maybe one euro. It was indeed a very cheap plastic camera with plastic lens, a typical mass-family-plastic-camera in a way,” Lia says. “But it was a revelation, magic, like having waited for it. The spell was there straight away, when I inserted the first film. Watching the developing process under the transparent window is a fascinating moment that stays.”
Lia says digital film can, and in many ways has, replaced Polaroid. But, she says, “not in the essential ways: tangibility, chemical change, and a high amount of chance—not knowing what you’re going to get.”
“Also, there’s the missing gap between the ‘click’ and the ‘picture.’ Polaroid always takes a minute no matter if you’re using integral or pack film,” she says. What happens in this minute is the creation of an original piece of art.
So what would Lia’s work be like without Polaroid? “It would change a lot,” she says. “I work almost exclusively with Polaroid in the visual sphere. With its death, something unique is lost, something special is gone (accepting the fact that Fuji is not the same), and a specific aesthetic, feel and artistic methodology, as well as a socially important tool, is gone irreplaceably.”
If an effort dubbed The Impossible Project has anything to do with it, Lia will never have to know how her work would change without Polaroid. Executive director Florian Kaps says he has, since childhood, delighted in the running in the opposite direction as was expected of him. In 2005, he reacted to the digital revolution by founding a strictly analog company, establishing what is today’s largest network of everything related to instant photography.
“When the chance came up to do something with the old machines from Polaroid, it was only logical to give it a try and to find out,” he said. “We can’t just sit and watch it go.”
Kaps says people are bored with “perfect” film. “You wish for lively material that can surprise you and that you can experiment with,” he says. “Making Polaroid pictures is pure magic that nobody can describe, you just can feel it when you push the trigger, hear the sound, look at your new born Polaroid slowly developing in the palm of your hand.”
The Impossible Project aims to re-start production of analog integral film for vintage Polaroid cameras in 2010. So says the Web site: “We have have acquired Polaroid’s equipment, factory and seek your support.”
The idea isn’t to re-build Polaroid Integral Film but to develop a new product produced in a streamlined modern setup and sold under a new brand name. The Impossible Project aims to save Polaroid because, according to Kaps, “Polaroid has always brought something good to a lot of people, apart from instant fun. Today more and more people are attracted by the artistic prospects of this unique analog medium in creating photographic originals. Instead of looking for the “perfect film”, the new customers are ready to spend a lot of money to buy the “new kind” of Polaroid film, which stands for unpredictable visual adventures combined with a splendid retro-style feeling.”
The project is still in its initial stages, finding possible suppliers, building basic structures, and presenting the quandary to the world. “In the future we’ll post questions and problems that come up during developing our new film on our homepage and we’d appreciate if everyone can help us out with their knowledge as far as they can,” Kaps says. “Instant film is much too powerful and fascinating and it simply deserves another chance.”