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Polaroid Lovers Try to Revive Its Instant Film
Polaroid Lovers Try to Revive Its Instant Film
Published by Victor Krag
26th May 2009
Default Polaroid Lovers Try to Revive Its Instant Film

ENSCHEDE, the Netherlands — In this small town just across the border from Germany, a small group of Dutch scientists and one irrepressible Austrian salesman have dedicated themselves to the task of reinventing one of the great inventions of the 20th century — Polaroid’s instant film.

Rolf Oeser for The New York Times

Florian Kaps, an entrepreneur who supports film photography, with his favorite Polaroid camera.
The New York Times

The group conducts its work in Enschede, the Netherlands.

Digital cameras are ubiquitous, cheap and easy to use — the reasons Polaroid stopped making the film last year — so what this group in Enschede is attempting may seem hopelessly retrograde.

But to them, that is exactly the point. They want to recast an outdated production process in an abandoned Polaroid factory for an age that has fallen for digital pictures because they think people still have room in their hearts for retro photography that eschews airbrushing or Photoshop.

“This project is about building a very interesting business to last for at least another decade,” said Florian Kaps, the Austrian entrepreneur behind the effort. “It is about the importance of analog aspects in a more and more digital world.”

No one said it would be easy. Chemical processes and the chemicals themselves must be reinvented in a factory that, though littered with Polaroid detritus of yore, lacks the necessary materials to restart production. Crucial equipment nearly landed in a Dutch dump. But the group got a break when prosecutors in the United States arrested the private equity investor who owned Polaroid’s assets.

Mr. Kaps is, if anything, enthusiastic despite the hurdles he faces. He hopes to start production later this year for distribution in the United States, Europe and Asia and is convinced there is still an eager market for Polaroid film packs.

He estimates the number of Polaroid instant cameras in circulation at one billion. That number is probably fanciful, or at the very least includes a lot of cameras in the back of closets. But 30 million film packs in 2007, and 24 million in the first half of 2008 were produced at the Enschede factory for sale worldwide.

The digital storm, Mr. Kaps says, has left analog opportunity in its wake. “If everyone runs in one direction, it creates a niche market in the other,” he said.

Marta Bukowska, a partner in Basic Model Management in New York, said that digital cameras had entirely displaced Polaroid for the workaday tasks of scouting talent, pitching clients, and beginning a photo shoot. About 18 months ago, the agency stopped using Polaroids regularly because digital is much less expensive, but still gets requests to capture that “high-quality, old-fashioned look” with a genuine instant photo.

“It used to be something you use for a lighting test,” Ms. Bukowska said. “Now it is the art itself.”

Mr. Kaps, 38, was already tapping the artist market in 2005 with an online shop devoted to selling Polaroid products, and a Web site,, where people can upload scanned Polaroid pictures. Mr. Kaps, a Ph.D. biologist with the tiniest of ponytails who trots around the Enschede factory in sneakers, had been an Internet project manager for a group dedicated to preserving analog photography.

The experience left him firm in the conviction that his calling and his training were not in sync. “I wrote a very interesting thesis about spider eyes, but I was always a salesman,” Mr. Kaps said.

Mr. Kaps, who lives in Vienna, was on hand in June 2008 for the ceremony when Polaroid shut down its factory in Enschede, which had manufactured film cassettes for the SX-70 — the signature Polaroid camera that folds into a squat rectangle.

There he met André Bosman, the engineering manager at the Enschede plant, a sprawling complex in the middle of the town of 150,000 people. Mr. Bosman tipped off Mr. Kaps to the fact that the machines for making Polaroid film cassettes, whose replacement cost Mr. Bosman estimates at about $130 million, still worked but would be cleared out in a matter of days.

“So we stopped drinking beer — which is a pity because Dutch beer is good — and started talking business,” Mr. Kaps said.

They managed to stave off destruction of the equipment by peppering Polaroid with requests to surrender it. They might have failed had federal prosecutors last October not arrested Tom Petters, head of the Petters Group Worldwide, a private equity firm based in Minnesota, that had bought Polaroid’s name and assets in 2005. He was accused of running a Ponzi scheme. (The charges are unrelated to the Polaroid investment.)

Mr. Petters had driven an aggressively digital strategy for Polaroid, and his downfall — though the case is still pending — made Polaroid receptive to Mr. Kaps’s pleas. The machinery was saved.

Polaroid’s last assets, including the name, its intellectual property and its inventory, were sold this month. It did not respond to requests for comment.

The Dutch owner of the factory leased the building to the company created by Mr. Kaps, who had since raised $2.6 million in capital from friends and family.

The task at hand is resurrecting production of Polaroid instant film.

Each film cassette that slips into a camera contains all the things that would normally be in a darkroom: photographic paper, a negative, a substance to fix the image and one to stop the photo from developing further. Rollers inside a Polaroid camera explode chemical packs in the cassette to set off the process.

Unfortunately for Mr. Bosman, the former head engineer, Polaroid itself once manufactured the chemicals integral to the process in the United States but dismantled that production years ago after stockpiling what it needed.

So they are now seeking, or reinventing, chemicals that can mimic what Polaroid’s own once did. For example, they are searching for a form of latex that can be easily coated onto a gelatin base to recreate the “timing layer” of Polaroid film, which controls the developing process.

“We have a total of about 300 years of experience here,” Mr. Bosman said. “That is the key to reinventing this process.”
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By Barry on 26th May 2009, 07:54 PM

Interesting read Victor, thanks for posting.
I wish them the very best in their endeavours.
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By Mike O'Pray on 26th May 2009, 08:16 PM

Isn't this what Ilford was in talks to do but decided eventually to abandon the idea? Presumably the difference is that Ilford needed to transport the equipment to Mobberley. It might be easier if the whole process can be kept on the original site. Maybe Ilford couldn't persuade those with the expertise to move to Mobberley - even if it was only for a temporary period while that expertise was taught to new staff. On the other hand maybe it couldn't be handed over in less than several years or tens of years. Allegedly film making has an element of almost alchemy in it which prevents mastering of the secrets by any normal instructional process. I now this sounds as if I am being disparaging and alluding to a kind of "voodoo" system and I am not. It's just that I have never quite got my head round what is different in film making compared to other processes which are capable of transfer such as Ford in Liverpool turning into a Jaguar factory turning out models that are indistinguishable from those made at the home of Jaguar, namely Coventry.

It begs the question: If Ilford with its expertise, resources and revenue couldn't or wouldn't take the chance to invest, I wonder what the current owners think they have by way of a product that will repay the investment?

The very least you can say is that it is a brave initiative


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By Victor Krag on 28th May 2009, 02:05 AM

Don't sell those (nearly) worthless polaroid film holders yet !
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By Akki14 on 28th August 2009, 08:16 AM

My SX-70 loves it. I love it. and now have posted an article on it too

And the best bit?
"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."
They've made it!!
And the proposed price of £14/8shot packs doesn't sound too unreasonable considering the old 10shot packs are now going for £20 (double their original price).
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By IanB on 28th August 2009, 09:01 AM
Default The Impossible Project

Well we can only hope it is a misnomer, as it seems there are distinct signs of hope - I wonder if they will re-manufacture the large format versions such as 8x10 or even 20x24?
Certainly won't be cheap (as if it ever was!), but could be good.
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By StanW on 29th August 2009, 07:15 AM

It will be good if they revive SX70 film. It's possible to do a lot of manipulation on the print. I might have to reclaim my SX70 from a friend's collection.
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