The endeavour which eventually became known as “The Impossible Project” was founded by Florian Kaps, André Bosman and Marwan Saba in 2008 after the news from Polaroid that it was ceasing production of all film products. The goal of Impossible was simple: save Polaroid’s technology and production facilities and ensure instant film remained in production.
Now, a little over 12 years since The Impossible Project’s inception, the company has squared the circle and become the very brand whose products it was created to save.
Why call it “The Impossible Project”? There are quotes attributed to the founding team which you can find in various online and print articles but I like the idea that there was no better influence than Edwin H. Land himself, the man who founded Polaroid in 1937.
Don’t do anything that someone else can do. Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.Edwin H. Land
The Impossible Project’s story begins in February 2008 on the day Polaroid announced the end of instant film manufacture and the closing of its facilities in Mexico and the Netherlands. The company had already ceased production of cameras in 2007 and manufacturing of the company’s remaining products was quickly being outsourced to China.
Florian Kaps (CMO), André Bosman (COO), Marwan Saba (CFO) and a team of former Polaroid employees begin the process of obtaining private investment to preserve the machinery and technology. Their goal: restart production.
The first major step came with the purchase of production machinery in December 2008, along with the signing of a 10-year lease agreement for the use of the now ex-Polaroid at Enschede in the Netherlands.
The means of production were secured but not the intellectual property (IP). This meant the only solution to restarting film production was to re-engineer the film from scratch. Kaps and the Impossible Project team would be kept very, very busy. Early results fell below expectations but the company persevered and on March 22nd 2010, a brand new instant film was finally released to the world.
Two in fact: Impossible PX 100 and PX 600 Silver Shade. Both were created with assistance from Harman Technology, owners of the ILFORD Photo and Kentmere photographic film and paper brands.
By the time the new film hit the selves, what remained of the Polaroid Corporation resembled a shell of its former self. Remaining assets and IP were now owned by “PLR IP Holdings, LLC” with ex-Polaroid Corporation EVP and GM for Americas Scott W. Hardy named as “President of Polaroid Corporation and PLR IP Holdings, LLC”.
If that doesn’t make sense the first time you read it, don’t worry. It’s genuinely convoluted and I recommend reading my “Brief history of Polaroid” if you’re interested in a wild ride of corporate renaming, bankruptcy, criminal investigation and legal battles.
With Polaroid Corporation still in the process of pivoting to digital imaging and seemingly wringing as much out of its name as possible, The Impossible Project was going from strength to strength. 2010’s first-generation black and white film was met with both enthusiasm and disappointment – the former outweighing the latter. It wasn’t perfect but it was something and had the community’s backing. Importantly, it meant that millions of Polaroid cameras going back nearly 40 years were given a new life.
The Summer of 2010 saw the launch of second-generation colour film from Impossible. It was a big step forward and although more troubled than the earlier black and white film, it paved the way for future product refinements and updates which dealt with issues around colour accuracy, contrast and longevity of exposed and developed film sheets.
It’s safe to say that the results from Impossible film never really achieved and exactly matched what had come before from Polaroid but that didn’t matter. The company found a niche with existing instant film fans and analogue-curious digital native photographers.
The latter demographic were especially important: Millennials and Gen Z’ers who wanted something more “vintage” than Fujifilm Instax but less demanding than a “proper” film camera. Funny colours? Low contrast black and white? Who cares?
There were dozens of models of Polaroid cameras that could use the new film and none of them looked like anything else out there in a world of grey/black digital professional camera bodies and carbon copy consumer digital point and shoots. As objects of desire go, the stunning Polaroid SX-70 is pretty high up on my list.
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The Impossible Project’s plan for world domination was helped by almost frictionless access to the products: you could buy the cameras — all refurbished and tested — from the same people that produced the film. Impossible became a one-stop-shop for all things Polaroid and the company was pushing hard on collaborations with retail brands such as Urban Outfitters, which would ultimately nudge the company from the niche traditional photography market into mainstream consciousness.
Impossible’s management was playing the long game. An improved film here, a rereleased film there, a new camera, a new accessory…all small steps to a bigger goal. This all came to partial fruition in May 2017 when Impossible’s largest shareholder acquired the Polaroid brand and intellectual property. Just four months later The Impossible Project was gone, replaced by Polaroid Originals.
Same company, same people, same products, new name.
A new camera and film were released to celebrate the rebranding: the Polaroid OneStep 2 camera and updated I-Type film. The new film could have been a headline launch in and of itself. Vastly improved over its predecessor and capable of producing results which were closer than ever to the colour reproduction and quality of original Polaroid film.
You could see the new company was leaning heavily on nostalgia but it was equally targeting young, hip audiences with cash to burn and reputations to nurture. Unlike certain recent camera brand resurrections, this was all backed by nearly 10 years of solid R&D. They were winning.
Many people in the film and traditional photography community saw this rebrand as the final step for The Impossible project. I myself called it “an act of ultimate consummation” but we were wrong to call it. The ultimate goal was absorption, not consummation and on March 26th 2020 the company that was originally The Impossible Project and then Polaroid Originals became simply Polaroid: One company, one website, one brand.
What’s next for the newly invigorated Polaroid?
For a start, it’s worth remembering that the Polaroid of 2020 isn’t the Polaroid of 2008 and to be fair the Polaroid of 2008 was not the Polaroid of 2001, which had run continuously since its founding in 1937 by Edwin Land.
Given the past ~12 years, it’s safe to say that new Polaroid is not a poorly conceived attempt at using nostalgia to wring money out of the pockets of consumers. A quick look at the new website shows that the cameras and films are firmly front and centre. And while the company still continues to honour and sell pre-existing licencing arrangements for TVs, 3D printers, digital cameras and other products, they’ve been relegated to a submenu. An afterthought.
From a purely technical perspective, the “good enough” image quality today’s instant photography options should make it an outlier, an also-ran, something of a second or even third-line product positioned to pull consumers towards the main event.
This is obviously not the case and while Polaroid won’t likely be publishing financial data any time soon, all it takes is a quick look in the direction of Fujifilm to understand how instant photography sales utterly eclipse digital (and film) products.
What is it about instant film that makes it so popular today? Is it a pushback against the neverending scroll of Instagram et al? Perhaps it’s the imperfection? Both are certainly factors but in an age where most photographs live on screens or on hard drives, it’s obvious that much of the popularity of instant photographer resides in the medium itself: instant physical gratification.
It’s a simple idea that’s powerful enough to have created — for Fujifilm at least — a market that is fast approaching a billion dollars a year in the midst of pervasive digital imaging. It makes me wonder where Polaroid would be today had they not squandered their market lead and all but given up in the early 2000s. Now the market’s most famous player is back in the thick of things, I like to think there are interesting times ahead for the future of instant film.
Do me a favour, just don’t call it a comeback, they’ve been here for years.
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