Can he revive the Polaroid era? Let’s see what develops
Can Impossible Project CEO OSKAR SMOLOKOWSKI get us to smile for the camera?
When Impossible Project, the company founded to revive production of Polaroid film, released its first batch of product six years ago, the results were embarrassing. Pictures frequently had weird splotches on them and occasionally leaked corrosive chemicals. Sometimes an entire $21, eight-picture pack of film would spit out of a camera at once. The photos that did develop took as long as an hour to do so, which is not very instant.
“The product was barely usable,” says Oskar Smolokowski as he sips green tea at a New York City bakery. The Impossible Project’s 26-year-old chief executive officer is in town to discuss launch plans for the I-1, the company’s new camera, which goes on sale May 10. Priced at $299, the I-1 marries digital controls with analog photography. The camera’s mechanics, right down to the distinctive whine of the rollers that eject each photograph, evoke Polaroid’s legacy, but Smolokowski is eager to point out that the I-1 is not a Polaroid product.
Until now, his Berlin-based company made film that worked only in vintage Polaroid cameras. With the market for contemporary instant-film cameras quickly growing into a profitable niche for Japan’s Fujifilm and others, Smolokowski is betting the I-1’s hybrid design will offer the first real chance to decouple Impossible Project’s future from Polaroid’s past.
Like similarly triumphant narratives about the return of vinyl records and independent bookstores, Impossible Project’s story begins with the rapid collapse of a legacy analog industry facing digital disruption. During its heyday in the 1970s, Polaroid, based in Cambridge, Mass., had as much as $2 billion in annual sales (more than $ 12 billion i n today’s dollars) and 50,000 employees. And, like Apple today, it was the most admired consumer tech company in the land, according to Christopher Bonanos’s book Instant:
The Story of Polaroid. But decades of mismanagement took their toll, paving the way for the first of two bankruptcies in 2001. As it bounced between owners, Polaroid quickly discontinued cameras and film.
Florian “Doc” Kaps, an Austrian biologist who at the time was working for Lomography, a Viennese company that markets new versions of quirky Soviet-era film cameras, spied an opportunity. He approached Polaroid in 2005 with a marketing plan heavy on social media and e-commerce. “They told me, ‘If you really believe in this s---, you can be a distributor,’” he says. Kaps began selling discontinued Polaroid film for more than twice its original price on his website, unsaleable.com, along with old Polaroid cameras he bought on EBay and refurbished. Three years later, when Polaroid announced it would close its last film factory, in Enschede, Netherlands, Kaps scraped together €180,000 ($204,000) to buy the plant’s equipment and struck a deal with the landlord to take over the lease. For an additional €1 million, he purchased Polaroid’s remaining film stock, which he sold to finance the revival of the plant at a total cost of €4 million. Unsaleable was rebranded Impossible Project, after a quote from Polaroid founder Edwin Land: “Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.”
Making film is a delicate dance of chemistry and physics,
● Herchen helped work out the kinks in the film’s chemistry