In an old shoebox, I have a Polaroid of my beagle and me, taken in Lower Manhattan about a decade ago. That was my last Polaroid print – until this spring, when I was walking around Cleveland with a camera shop owner and his friend Tim.
Tim was using a Polaroid 250, which hed bought at an antiques mall, and an old pack of Polaroid instant film. He shot a picture of me, and in the palm of my hand, I watched the image miraculously appear. Because of the films age (it expired five years ago), the colors were a little off, giving it an artsy, dreamlike quality. And because Polaroid will never make film again, it was also a collectors item.
Polaroid, best known for its instant cameras, stopped making film in 2008. That same year, rather than watch Polaroid fade into extinction, some former employees teamed up to form the Impossible Project. They saved the production machinery in the Netherlands and were able to start manufacturing new instant film for old Polaroid cameras.
Today, according to the Impossible Project, there are more than 100 million of these classic cameras that can use Impossibles film, which hit the market in 2010. Some are in our parents attics; others are stuffed in boxes at yard sales; and more and more, they can be found – refurbished and shiny – at retro camera stores across the country.
Not surprisingly, says Cory Verellen, owner of Rare Medium, a photography store in Seattle, some of the biggest Polaroid enthusiasts are teens and young adults who have never known a camera that wasnt digital.
But then you also get folks my age – Im 39 – who grew up with instant cameras and want to capture some of the magic of their childhood, he says. Every time Id go to my grandmas, shed break out the same Polaroid camera and shoot us to measure our progress. The Polaroid was ubiquitous in the U.S. I get a lot of customers who are nostalgic for that.
Theres also a sense of backlash against digital technology, and the emergence of what might be called a slow photo movement.
Our demographic is pretty young, so were talking about a generation who grew up in digital, and they see our film as a way to escape, says Dave Bias, vice president of Impossible America. Initially, Impossible sold about 30 to 40 refurbished Polaroid cameras a month – found largely on eBay and through pickers (people who find cameras at yard sales). Today, it sells more than 2,500 each month and has standing orders through the end of the year.
But its not all about nostalgia, Bias says. For us, its showing that film has a viable place in the modern world, he says. People can have a real physical photo – something they can touch, something tangible.
Next month, Impossible will take the ultimate step in the marriage of digital and analog when it releases its first hardware device, the Instant Lab. Rather than taking instant pictures on vintage cameras, the portable Instant Lab allows users to transfer digital images from an iPhone onto instant Impossible film.
Instant Lab means that we no longer have to rely on these vintage cameras, Bias says. It makes sense. You go out on your travels, you want to stay light, you carry your iPhone and take thousands of pictures. Then you get home and can still make analog instant images without the clunky camera. I see images all the time that I think would look better on film than on the iPhone screen.
Impossible film is not exactly like Polaroid film: The combination of chemicals used to process the film is completely different. The intention was never to replicate Polaroid film exactly, the company says; rather, it is experimenting. Verellen, the former Microsoft engineer who opened Rare Medium two years ago, says that he used to hear a number of complaints about the film, but he thinks that it has improved. The chief complaint today is that the film isnt really instant. Black-and-white film takes about five minutes to develop, and color film can take a full half hour.
Impossible isnt Polaroid, Verellen says. Theyre making a more artistic product, so the casual photographer can be disappointed. With instant film, they expect it to develop in a couple of minutes before their eyes, and it doesnt.
In addition to setting expectations for film processing times, Verellen and other analog camera merchants spend countless hours talking to customers about vintage cameras and film. Many of these stores hold classes and workshops on how to use analog cameras, but more than anything, the owners spend time chatting about every aspect of photography – from reminiscing about childhood cameras to debating the merits of various types of film.
Were enthusiasts here, Verellen says, so people know they can come in and hit us with the most bizarre Polaroid questions, and well be able to help them out.
Some of the stores host photo walks – casual strolls around a neighborhood that give photographers of all skill levels a chance to slow down, carefully frame their shots, take pictures and discuss the minutiae of the experience with like-minded folks.