When the Polaroid film factory in the Dutch town of Enschede shut down in June 2008, it seemed to signal the end for one of the most ingenious and iconic innovations of the 20th century. Almost 60 years after American inventor Edwin H. Land sold the first Model 95 of his new instant-picture camera in Boston in November 1948, the troubled Polaroid Corp. halted its cassette-film production for good. Demand was still relatively high — the plant churned out 30 million cassettes in 2007 and 24 million in the first half of 2008 — but the plant had run out of its allocated amount of the chemical components needed to make its famous instant film, and Polaroid's decision to move to digital meant there was no point in ordering more. The film stocks will last a little while longer. When they run out, though, the Polaroid camera — once the world's most popular, with about 1 billion sold — could be history.
But two men attending the factory's closing ceremony had other ideas. Florian Kaps, an Austrian entrepreneur and Polaroid enthusiast, and André Bosman, until then the engineering manager of the Enschede plant, met by chance on that fateful day. Together they decided to find a way to bring instant photography back to life. (See "Who We Were: America in Snapshots.")
"We quickly agreed that there was a great market opportunity for a new instant film," remembers Kaps, who switched tracks after getting a biology Ph.D. to enter the retro-photography business. First he worked as an executive with the Lomographical Society, founded in Vienna in 1992 to celebrate the Russian Lomo camera, a very basic snapper that conquered some bohemian corners of the West after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Then, four years ago, Kaps fell in love with Polaroid and founded a company specializing in selling equipment for analog instant photography. An official partner of Polaroid, the company still operates via the website Polapremium.com, where enthusiasts can buy the camera, related equipment and some of the remaining film stock. (See pictures of historical photos on Google Earth.)
In October 2008, Kaps, 39, and Bosman, 55, took $2.6 million in private capital and started what they endearingly called the Impossible Project, with a view to reinventing the traditional Polaroid film. They founded a company named Impossible, leased a small building on the site of the closed Enschede plant, secured some key production machinery and hired nine former Polaroid employees to come up with new formulas for both a monochrome and a color version of the instant film. The new films would have unique characteristics but still maintain some of the best bits of Polaroid, like the square shape, the white frame and that familiar warm chemical smell. Since then, the impossible has become the highly likely. "Two weeks ago, we cleared the last of about five major road blocks," Kaps tells TIME. "We have now proven that it is possible."
Still in the experimental stage, Impossible's instant pictures have a look that's reminiscent of the early days of photography, "but this will be part of their charm," says Kaps. While the company is still in negotiations with Polaroid over the use of the Polaroid name, it has been given permission to make film that will work in Polaroid cameras. The trial monochrome version of the film will go into production at the end of October and, if all goes according to plan, should be available to the masses in time for Christmas, "before people start to throw away their old Polaroid cameras," says Kaps. In 2010, when the color version should hit the shelves, Impossible hopes to sell 1 million new films, with prices likely to range from $23 to $28 for a 10-shot cassette. The company predicts worldwide demand will eventually reach up to 10 million films a year. (See pictures by the acclaimed Richard Avedon.)
Building on his growing empire — Kaps also runs Polanoid.net, the Web's biggest Polaroid community, and the Polanoir gallery Polanoir.com in Vienna — Kaps is hoping a new instant camera will go on the market in 2010, to be built by a partner company (he won't reveal which just yet). "It will be high quality rather than a mass product, with a good lens and manual focusing," he says.
Despite the dominance of digital, Kaps sees a bright future for old-fashioned photography. "More and more people are rediscovering the fascination of Polaroid," he says. "They are seeking the analog adventure. Just opening a film packet — the smell alone has something sensual to it. And the pictures have a certain worth, unlike digital images, where one takes 10,000 pictures of the same event."
And it seems there's still a market for instant pictures. "Polaroid cameras and film were becoming more and more popular with our customers, and we were disappointed when we found out last year that Polaroid was to cease manufacturing film," says John Buckle, bookshop manager at the Photographers' Gallery in London. "People like the look and feel of Polaroid analog photography. They have a retro look with lovely colors compared with the often bland look of digital photography. [Instant pictures are] also sociable, allowing for the sharing of a real photograph rather than just a small image on a screen." (See pictures of Barack Obama on Flickr.)
So far, the Impossible Project has been greeted with enthusiasm from Polaroid fans, art photographers and the international media. "It has been unbelievable," Kaps says of the response. "If we are successful, then this has wider implications. We are no art project, not a venture of some madmen — we want to be a thriving business for at least 10 years." Which should give instant-photography lovers plenty to smile about.