Instant photography is having a moment. Brooklyn Beckham shared the backstage Polaroids he shot as a campaign photographer for Burberry on his Instagram page. The SS16 Boss womenswear advertisement featured the familiar instant, white-framed images, and London designers Marques’Almeida unveiled the casting of their AW16 show via a series of instant snaps.
Meanwhile, model boards and backstage mood boards continue to feature instant film: an easy format for designers and stylists organising their quick-changing collections.
Despite the shift towards digital, fashion photographers have long used the Polaroid as a vocational tool. Paolo Roversi, whose Polaroids were shown at Hamiltons Gallery in London last year, describes the colour and contrast of the final images as “enchanting”. Photographer Nick Knight was a devotee. Next week at London’s Lyndsey Ingram gallery, the exhibition Please Return Polaroid will feature two decades of Miles Aldridge’s test shots.
Yet the art of instant photography could easily have been lost. Polaroid stopped manufacturing cameras and film in 2008, and it was only thanks to Impossible Project, a Kickstarter-funded company founded in Berlin who bought the last remaining Polaroid factory, that ensured its survival. Rather than simply preserving the Polaroid legacy however, the factory — situated on an unassuming residential estate in a sleepy suburb of Enschede, two hours outside Amsterdam — has become a centre of innovation. This week sees the instant camera shoot into the 21st century with the launch of a new model: the Impossible Project’s I-1.
“The I-1 is the first new camera system for this format since 1981,” says the 26-year-old chief executive of Impossible, Oskar Smolokowski. “We started out to save instant film from extinction. But we really believe the analogue format makes sense in 2016. We wanted a new camera to push the medium forward and give it a future.”
The Impossible factory — a 1970s breeze-block building — is far from glamorous. Lab technicians in white coats perfect the formula of components used to create the colours in a strip of instant film. Others wearing gas masks and Ghostbuster-style spacesuits man vast reactor machines that mix the chemical compounds of the developing paste. One floor up, in the repair department, six operators sit silently dismantling vintage Polaroid cameras for cleaning and reconditioning, while man-operated machines produce the packs of Polaroid-compatible film, sales of which reached a million last year.
The I-1 camera, co-designed by Acne Studios co-founder Jesper Kouthoofd, is a distant cousin of the bulky 1970s models the brand restores and repackages (and which are sold on the Impossible app and in Colette, MoMA and Urban Outfitters for upwards of £96). The I-1 is light and angular, with a matt black exterior, pop-up viewfinder and LED ring flash that also acts as a counter for the number of photographs left in each cartridge.
The developers have worked hard to improve the quality of the film: the images are sharper, with improved colour saturation and tone, without losing the essentially nostalgic character of the prints. The new camera will retail for £229 and will be sold in the same outlets, as well as Selfridges. It comes with digital trappings too, connecting via Bluetooth to an iOS app that allows the user to experiment with photography tools such as remote triggering and double exposure.
“We take thousands of images on our smartphones, but we never really look at them,” says Steve Herchen, head of research and development who joined Polaroid in 1977, and who Smolokowski convinced to join Impossible in 2013. “Analogue images offer you the chance to really look. Polaroids physically exist in the real world — digital images will at some point get lost in the cloud, they can’t be passed on, or handed down, or properly shared,” he says.
“In the ‘90s, Polaroid was the biggest camera supplier, used by every industry from the FBI and the police to modelling agents. The format disappeared, but when smartphones are making photography so accessible, people are again realising the instant camera can offer something else.”
Smolokowski agrees. “I have around 50 instant photos that I really care about, and I bump into them every few weeks — in my bag, on the fridge, on my desk — they live in the real world. It makes you appreciate the act of taking a photo more, because of its limitations: fewer photos means you care more about each one you take.” And, unlike a selfie, you get just one attempt to take the shot, that will now take about 30 minutes to develop in daylight using the I-1. “It’s magic to see photos develop in the palm of your hand,” he concludes. Enchanting indeed.
Miles Aldridge’s Please Return Polaroid is at the Lyndsey Ingram gallery, 58 Jermyn Street, London SW1Y 6LX, 16-21 May