Page last updated at 00:25 GMT, Friday, 28 August 2009 01:25 UK

Analogue appeal in a digital age

By James Fletcher
BBC World Service

Polaroid picture

A group who call themselves The Impossible Project are trying to reinvent analogue instant film made so popular by Polaroid in the 1960s and 70s.

There was a time before the advent of digital technology when, if you wanted instant gratification photographically, you turned to your trusty Polaroid camera.

Its cameras were best-sellers, and in 1974 an estimated one billion "Polaroids" were taken.

Florian Kaps
I often say God must be a lover of instant photography because the major issues...are pretty much solved
Florian Kaps

But when digital photography took off, Polaroid saw its sales fall. In 2008, they decided to stop making instant film altogether.

In the cavernous rooms of one former film factory in the Dutch town of Enschede, giant assembly machines now lie dormant.

Old parts and packaging are piled high, their Polaroid rainbow logos slowly disappearing beneath layers of dust.

But in one room, a group of men gathers around a machine.

Talking excitedly, they diagnose problems and swap parts, and after several hours the machine comes to life, noisily injecting chemicals into small paper sachets.

Watching them is Austrian entrepreneur Florian Kaps, a director of The Impossible Project.

"It's all about reinventing and restarting the production of instant film," he said, "creating a new material to exactly meet the demands of the modern photographer that loves analogue instant photography."

Starting from scratch

The Impossible Project began last year at the closing ceremony for the old factory.

At the time, Mr Kaps had a successful online business selling Polaroid film and accessories.


How a Polaroid camera works

He got talking to the plant's chief engineer Andre Bosman.

"We perfectly fit together," Mr Kaps said, "because he gave me all the information I needed to see if there's a chance to continue it, and he needed just one person that tells him that there is the demand out there."

They decided to try to take over the factory and begin producing Polaroid film again.

Investors put up $3.2m (£2m), but the new team could not simply restart the machines.

"Roughly half to 70% of the crucial materials were produced by Polaroid themselves; those plants are gone, vanished off the Earth," said Mr Bosman, who is now the new project's technical director.

"Basically we're starting back from scratch where Dr Land, the founder of Polaroid, started in 1947."

Reinventing instant film

The invention of Polaroid instant film was one of the engineering feats of the 20th Century, managing to squeeze the complex processes of the darkroom onto a single piece of film.

Reinventing this process in one year is a big task, but the small team can draw on their more than 340 years of combined experience working in the old factory.

It's the ultimate way to capture a moment, it's so precious, watching it developing is incredible

Wendy Bevan, Polaroid fan

"Without that you just do not stand a chance," said Mr Bosman.

To develop the photographic elements, they are also enlisting partners including Harman Technology, the British company behind Ilford film.

They recently managed to produce their first complete and stable instant picture, and are confident they can have their first black-and-white film on the market by early 2010.

"I often say God must be a lover of instant photography," says Mr Kaps, "because the major issues, finding all the components, they are pretty much solved."

But Mr Bosman admits that the tight timeframe means they have to cut corners.

"We have no idea how solid this film will be, how stable everything will be. But you can take the chance like we did and buy this, or leave it alone."

Like vinyl

Some, like popular technology blog Boing Boing, are not convinced the project is worthwhile.

"It just seems like an awful lot of effort to go through to recreate something that is not just antiquated, but practically obviated by modern technology," the blog wrote.

Digital photographers can take thousands of shots, manipulate them, and share them on social networking sites quickly and easily.

There are even applications to make them look like classic Polaroids.

So why pay about $23 (£14) for eight shots of the new film?

Wendy Bevan has had her Polaroid photographs published in magazines like i-D and Vogue.

"I love the tactile side of it, so you've got something you can hold straight away," she says.

"It's the ultimate way to capture a moment, it's so precious, watching it developing is incredible."

Instant film made by other companies is not compatible with the most popular Polaroid cameras, so the new Impossible film will be the only option for many Polaroid fans.

But given the sheer popularity of digital photography, is there enough of a market?

"There are 300 to 500 million working Polaroid cameras out there, it's huge, and 24 million films have been sold last year," Mr Kaps said.

"Our aim is to sell one million next year. I don't have any fear that we can sell it."

"I think the best example of how successfully this can work is the old vinyl record that has a revival and people start buying it."

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