Polaroid instant photography was on the edge of extinction in 2008. In September, less than ten years later, the company announced Polaroid Originals, a new brand dedicated exclusively to analog instant photography. Their first two products are a new instant film and a new analog instant camera, christened the Polaroid OneStep 2, a tribute in both name and design to the original OneStep released in 1977- and the first bonafide Polaroid camera released in decades.
“One essential building, one year, ten people: 55 percent chance.” These were the numbers André Bosman uttered to Florian Kaps in 2008 when Kaps asked the odds of being able to continue to produce Polaroid instant film. As the general manager of the company’s last operational factory, Bosman understood the extraordinary mix of machinery and chemistry the film required, and he knew saving the seemingly magical material would not be easy. Each white frame embodied decades of research and development and the genius of Edwin Land.
Land founded Polaroid in 1937, eighty years before the launch of the Polaroid Originals brand. He is often compared to Steve Jobs in part because Jobs would often name Land as one of his role models. Jobs admired Land’s commitment to radical ideas and eye for design. Land’s first products were polarized films (hence the company name) but a walk with his daughter in 1943 inspired him to perfect one-step photography. She wanted to see the pictures they took along their walk as soon as they returned home; Land set out to make it possible. Polaroid released Land’s first one-step camera, the Model 95, on November 26, 1948. It weighed over 4 pounds and cost the equivalent of $800 today. Land thought the company would sell 50,000 of the new camera; Polaroid would end up selling over 900,000.
Polaroid defined instant photography as we know it today with the release of the SX-70 camera in 1972. After testing the camera, a columnist in the Los Angeles Times proclaimed, “If there were a Nobel prize for cameras, this would win it easily.” By the late 70s, over a billion Polaroid pictures were being shot every year.
If you’ve ever taken a Polaroid, it is easy to understand why people took so many pictures. The process is akin to handheld voodoo. A mix of complex chemistry and opaque layers of film create a one-of-a-kind memento in a matter of minutes, while you watch. Film alternatives required developing, a process that might take weeks in offsite laboratories. Digital photography undermined Polaroid’s unique product- the delivery of an instant image at minimal cost. In the late 90s, Polaroid’s management decided the only way to compete with the new technology was to create cheaper cameras, a decision that brought the world the Popshot and i-Zone cameras and led the company to file for bankruptcy in 2001.
In 2005, the two men who would determine the legacy of Polaroid made fateful decisions. American entrepreneur Tom Petters bought the company for $426 million and decided to shut down most of the factories, keeping only enough operating to meet the projected demand for film. About the same time, the self-described “bewildered biologist from Vienna” Florian Kaps followed his passion for instant photography to a meeting with a Polaroid manager.
The manager would convince Kaps to make a €180,000 investment to become a Polaroid retailer. As a retailer, Kaps connected with analog instant photography enthusiasts from around the world and made startling discoveries, for example that these fans even loved faulty film that produced unexpected images. They, including Kaps, were committed to the physicality of the product, imperfections and all. “In today’s fast-paced, digital world a tangible object outside of your phone screen becomes a valued artifact,” explains Oskar Smolokowski, CEO of Polaroid Originals.
When Polaroid announced it would stop producing instant film in 2008 there was a public outcry, but the company said there was little that could be done. The factories that had been shuttered by Petters were the only factories that had produced the materials necessary for assembling the film and Polaroid announced the final factory would close on June 14, 2008. At the closing party for the final factory, Kaps met Bosman, and they developed a plan for saving the film. Prohibited from using the Polaroid moniker, they named the undertaking The Impossible Project. In March 22, 2010, The Impossible Project announced the production of its first instant film. It had required the creation of twenty new components (and Bosman chaining himself to a machine) to assemble one single frame, but Kaps and Bosman had made the 55 percent possibility a 100 percent reality.
Kaps retired from The Impossible Project in 2013 and in 2014 Smolokowski became CEO. Smolokowski was himself a Polaroid devotee, and his father, an energy industry tycoon, invested in The Impossible Project in 2012. The senior Smolokowski decided to increase his investment in May of 2017 with the purchase of the Polaroid brand, which had continued to operate independently from The Impossible Project. The purchase reunites the brand with the company that has been devoted to preserving the Polaroid legacy of one-step photography.
Polaroid Originals is a result of this merger; its first products are the new line of film and the OneStep 2 camera. The new film, which is available for both the new and vintage Polaroid cameras, is designed to reproduce the original dreamy aesthetic of the original Polaroids. With its black and white face, the camera is a tribute to the original OneStep released by Polaroid in 1977. Like the original, it is compatible with 600 film.
The OneStep 2 is not straight from the 70s, however. Polaroid Originals designed the camera with modern touches, including a powerful strobe flash, easy USB charging, and a self-timer. Where the original cameras were powered by a battery in the film pack, the new camera contains a rechargeable battery with a 60-day life. Coming in at 1 pound, the camera has a fixed focus lens with a focusing range of .6m to infinity.
In an interview with the New York Times in 1972, Land said, “There is no such thing as a simple invention. It has to be supported by a whole chain of equally difficult ideas. There were 100 places where most people would have said, ‘There is no point in going on.’” He was reflecting on the release of the SX-70, but forty five years later, his quote seems an apt summary for the story of Polaroid Originals.
Polaroid cameras and film are available at Amusespot.com.