In our high-tech society, where the only constant is change, times are tough for the traditional gadget. Polaroid -- best known as the maker of iconic instamatic cameras -- has felt the sting of this. In December 2008, the world famous brand was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the US, driven out of the market by new digital photography products.
But now lovers of the cameras, first made in 1948, can look forward to another round of happy snapping, as a group of enthusiasts is planning to start manufacturing new film compatible with the old cameras. In addition to this, they have opened the only two shops in the world that sell Polaroid cameras and products -- one in Vienna and one in Berlin.
"The Instant Film Shop", situated on the edge of Berlin's trendy Prenzlauer Berg district is tucked away in the same building as an online book shop and a lawyers practice, no bigger than your average German bathroom. But it sells all the things any Polaroid fan ever dreamt of, including artistic snapshots featuring everything from naked women to doorways.
Simone Frignani, who has run the store since it opened in April of this year, has worked with Polaroid products for eight years. The 32-year-old Italian, who originally came to Berlin to open a café, seems to know everything about cameras, films and formats, and is eager to share his knowledge with anyone who enters. "We have anywhere between 30 and 60 customers per day," he explains proudly.
This week, one of Frignani's customers is 21-year-old Olle from Sweden. He's come to buy two films for his girlfriend's camera ahead of their holiday abroad. It sets him back more than €30 ($43) even though each film only provides 10 snapshots. "I'm a bit of a newcomer to Polaroid. My girlfriend recently bought a camera on eBay for €3," he says. "The films are a little bit expensive but the cameras have this retro feel to them and are just so cool!"
Unfortunately for Olle and Polaroid's many other fans, the film stock will only last until the end of the year. And that is worldwide. But luckily, behind the Instant Film Shop -- and that's figuratively rather than literally -- there is much more going on.
The Instant Film Shop is part of Austrian photographer Florian Kaps' analog photography empire-to-be. Kaps, 39, the owner of the biggest, Web-based instant photo gallery Polanoid.net and the first-ever Polaroid-only art gallery in Vienna, managed to raise enough financing from private donors to purchase the remainder of Polaroid's film-manufacturing equipment.
Massachusetts-based Polaroid had one of its main production plants in Enschede, Holland, where it produced 30 million film packs in 2007 and 24 million in the first half of 2008. After raising almost $2.6 million (€1.8 million), Kaps bought one the buildings in Enschede aswell as the necessary equipment, and launched what he has called "The Impossible Project."
His new company, manned by 11 former Polaroid employees and a number of computer technologists, aims to start production in 2010, producing three million films in the first year and then 10 million per year after that. Kaps hopes to have the new films -- although they will essentially be the same as the Polaroid films, Kaps' company is not able to use the brand name as it is trademarked -- ready by the time global supply of the old stock runs out. Last month the company produced the first high-quality instant picture using its new methods.
Last Chance To Keep Analog From Extinction
But while the film is scarce, the cameras are not. Prices for old Polaroid cameras range fom a couple of euros, or less, at your neighbourhood flemarket to several hundred euros, for pristine models, still in their original packaging. Nonetheless, Kaps also plans to produce new cameras to go with his new films. They will be delivered to the two shops and sell for anywhere between €50 ($71) and €1,000 ($1,427). In a press statement the company writes that the first new model will pay "homage to the high quality photographic cameras of the golden Polaroid years." No further details have been released so far as the design team is still fine tuning the new product, which they are hoping to have ready for sale by early next year.
And the new instant cameras will be different: Technology used by Polaroid to make pictures has been the same since 1972 but new production methods mean that it is now possible to make the cameras out of environmentally friendly materials that are also more durable. And that is Kaps' aim.
Kaps likens the growing popularity of analog film to that for vinyl records. "This is a last chance to keep another analog iconic medium from disappearing," he told the New York Times. "This is a unique medium and it deserves a second chance."
"We believe in Polaroid as a strong and unique counterpart to the digitalized world that we're living in," Marlene Kelnreiter, spokeswoman for The Impossible Project, told SPIEGEL ONLINE.
Kaps and his team are not the only ones eager to breathe life back into Polaroid. "There was nothing more exciting for me than taking Polaroid pictures," Japanese photographer Daido Moriyama wrote in a heartfelt statement prior to the opening of his Tokyo exhibition entitled "bye-bye Polaroid."
'That Very Distinct Clicking Sound'
For Frignani himself, the appeal is about "the typical colors and formats of Polaroid shots that make it special: silk, sepia, blue, charcoal. There's also that very distinct clicking sound when you take the shot." And, refering to the new film stock, he expains: "even if it is not branded 'Polaroid' in the future, we all know that it's that same old style that we trust and love."
Judging by the number of bloggers and snappers enthusing over Kaps' project so far, Frignani may not be the only one so enthusiastic. Kaps' company has also started selling the old Polaroid cameras and film through American fashion chain, Urban Outfitters. And although production of "Impossible" cameras may never reach the same heights as Polaroid did in its prime, the cult for instant analog pictures seems destined to live on, albeit a little further underground and under another name. Still as Shakespeare wrote, a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet. And, one hopes, look as good.