The Company That’s Keeping the Polaroid Legacy Alive
The Impossible Project moves beyond nostalgia with its new I-1 camera.
By David Sax
April 11, 2016
Photographs by Mark Peckmezian for Bloomberg Businessweek
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 in 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, performed entirely in the dark. The Enschede factory had been one of the final links in Polaroid’s production chain; it assembled components from other factories into film packs. A skeleton crew headed by engineer André Bosman, a 30-year veteran at the plant, set out to reverse-engineer the process. “If you think about the development of Polaroid’s products, you’re talking about hundreds of engineers and billions of dollars in research,” Smolokowski says. “And Impossible did this with five guys who didn’t know the chemistry and only really knew how to run the machines.”
Chief Technology Officer Stephen Herchen explains that Polaroid’s film had three key components: the light-sensitive negative, the positive on which the image was imprinted, and a pod that released the developer fluid as the film passed through the rollers. By 2008 almost all the constituent elements, including custom dyes and polymers, had either expired, been discontinued, or been banned for environmental reasons. Impossible Project set out to try to make a simpler black-and-white formula. The product that debuted in 2010 worked, but barely. “Let’s just call it experimental,” Kaps says with a smirk and a shrug. To improve outcomes, the company began issuing increasingly complex instructions to customers, including orders to shield pictures from light by taping a cardboard box onto the camera front.
At a friend’s urging, Warsaw-born Smolokowski visited Impossible Project’s store in New York in 2012, where he was living at the time, and picked up some film. Like other millennial consumers behind the company’s growth, he liked the crapshoot quality of the experience. “The pictures were interesting and imperfect, and there was this engaging challenge of getting it to work,” he recalls. After meeting Kaps, Smolokowski persuaded his wealthy father to make an investment of €2 million in the business in exchange for a 20 percent stake. (A Soviet-era Ukrainian musician who later amassed a fortune in the energy business, Wiacezlaw “Slava” Smolokowski is Impossible Project’s largest shareholder.) Soon the younger Smolokowski was working as Kaps’s assistant. In December 2014 he became CEO.
Film has experienced a small renaissance in recent years, led by Fujifilm and its colorful Instax camera, which debuted in 1998 and uses a technology similar to Polaroid’s. The Japanese company reports it sold 5 million cameras last year. (Annual sales of Polaroid cameras peaked at 13 million in the ’70s.) Marketing for Instax targets young consumers and stresses the fun, novelty factor. “It’s not nostalgic. It’s a new thing for them,” says Manny Almeida, president of Fujifilm North America’s imaging division.
Impossible Project sold 28,000 refurbished Polaroid cameras last year and more than a million film packs, according to Smolokowski. The film is still a bit temperamental, but faster: Black-and-white develops in 10 minutes, color in 40. He says the company needs to sell twice as much film to be profitable—which is very difficult with a limited supply of vintage cameras. “It’s a massive hurdle,” he says as he surveys Impossible Project’s array of cameras at an Urban Outfitters in Manhattan. A nearby Instax display dwarfs it.
Two years ago, Smolokowski arranged a meeting with Jesper Kouthoofd, who runs the Swedish design studio Teenage Engineering, to show him blueprints for a camera Impossible Project was preparing for production. Kouthoofd, whose clients include Ikea, New Balance, and Absolut, tore them apart, saying the camera was too retro—another reheated Polaroid. The designer sketched up a concept for Smolokowski, who persuaded his team to change direction.
The I-1’s minimalist form is dictated largely by function. Its shape—a pyramid atop a rectangular base—is required to properly expose the film to light that enters the lens and bounces off a 45-degree-angled mirror. The metal body is covered in matte-black plastic; there are few buttons and no digital display. Says Kouthoofd: “We’re trying to spark an interest in analog photography, and I just tried to make it as simple as possible.”
What sets the I-1 apart from even the best vintage Polaroid camera is the quality of its optics, the LED ring flash that automatically adjusts to light and distance (and gives the camera the look of a rotary phone), a highly accurate pop-up viewfinder that looks like it belongs on a 19th century rifle, and the ability to connect to a smartphone with Bluetooth. On a companion smartphone app, users can adjust aperture, shutter speed, and other variables while employing complex effects with Instagram-like simplicity. Smolokowski plans to open the app up to software developers later this year. The I-1 was also designed to accept a range of future accessories such as viewfinders and screens.
Smolokowski estimates Impossible Project could one day own up to 10 percent of Instax’s market share, though he prefers to target the higher-end, photography-focused consumer that is the company’s base. “Eight years after saving the factory, we finally feel able to have a product and camera to give us a chance,” he says.
The stress of the upcoming launch is visible on Smolokowski’s face. He claims to have no social life or romantic life. “He’s 180 percent dedicated,” says Kaps, who retains his shares in the business but is no longer involved in day-to-day management. “He wants to prove to the world that he can do it.”
When we’ve finished talking, Smolokowski unzips his backpack and pulls out an I-1 and a fresh pack of black-and-white film. He pops it into the camera, and the motor buzzes to life. He hands me the machine, and I aim at his face and press the shutter. After a burst of flash followed by that trademark Polaroid sound, a photograph rolls out. We wait to see how it develops.
(In the ninth graph, updates figures on annual sales of Instax cameras and removes reference to film pack sales, which the manufacturer would not confirm.)