Conservation: Impossible Project – Resurrecting Instant Photography

Friday, October 21, 2016

Do you yearn for the days when you could watch your snapshot appear magically before you, only moments after the exposure?  Do you still have a Polaroid camera collecting dust?  If so, you may be interested to learn about the Impossible Project. 

Camera parts
Camera parts

The Impossible Project was founded in 2008 by a group of investors and former Polaroid engineers who wanted to preserve the magic and wonder of the instantaneous photograph. The last Polaroid film plant had just closed, after a multi-year strategic shut down process. A small but dedicated group managed to purchase this last extant plant in the Netherlands, along with all of the coating, cutting and packaging machinery. They have performed a miracle!  - The resurrection of the instant photo (The Impossible Project).

Packaging room
Packaging room

Most of the machines in the factory appear to be well past their 50th birthday, but they are now running, in spite of many hurdles.  One particularly difficult obstacle is re-discovering the chemical compounds and processes.  Even with the expertise of chemists and engineers, they are working in the dark (literally and figuratively). Darkrooms necessary for manufacturing exist, but they don’t know the chemicals originally used to create the Polaroid process and the chemistry of the self-developing print is complex.

The Polaroid Company had their own chemical plants which closed before the film plant shuttered. The formulas are not published, yet it should still be possible to access them in the Polaroid Corporate Archives now at the Baker Library of the Harvard Business School.  All of the light sensitive chemicals, developers and stabilizers are retained in the final print, since there is no washing step. This makes it even more difficult to find a system that is stable enough to leave a lasting picture. 

Consider this.  The color process created by Edwin Land, first sold to the public in 1962, took 15 years to perfect, and he had other staple products to support research and development.  The earliest Polaroid products were polarizing film and lenses, used to reduce glare.  The instant black-and-white film product was also already on the market.



During a recent photographic conservators meeting in Amsterdam, I had a chance to see the Impossible Project facility. They were amazingly open and willing to share with those of us who signed up for the tour. They allowed us up-close views of their research, production, assembly, and packaging lines.  This group clearly has a love for the feel of an instant print in your hand and they want this to be an experience that is available into the future. For them, it seems to be less about money and more about perfecting the process.

The product that they now sell has a dreamy feel, with muted colors that look pre-aged. It should be popular with people who are nostalgic about faded old prints from their childhood. This is a bit of a dilemma for conservators who like to have a clear understanding of the original appearance of an object. Faded images are now intentional, and even some that have changed over time are considered desirable (having a “patina”).

So how will be able to tell in the future if a print has faded or if the original tone was pre-aged?  We will need to understand how to identify the type of photograph, know its history, and document the condition of images as they enter collections.  (Conservators already do this.) So rejoice! You can dust that camera off and start snapping away once more! Just don’t “shake it like a Polaroid Picture” (because it isn’t a Polaroid, rather, it is an Impossible Print!)

Stay tuned for more information on another Polaroid product “vectographs” in a future newsletter.


Laura Wahl is the Library Conservator at Hagley Museum and Library.