Digiterati Discover Joys of Instant Film

An abundance of iPhones and digital cameras the size of a corn flake rule at parties in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, generally known as a haven of the hipster crowd. But when resident Lisa Rubin is hosting a party, she documents the evening with her 1990s Polaroid camera, and gives her guests a photo to take away as a memento.

“Digital pictures somehow feel lost in the camera/computer,” said Rubin, 33, an employee of the city’s Parks Department. “People like tangible items that you can feel and touch.”

In its heyday in the 1970s and ’80s, when Polaroid instant cameras were the must-have gadgets for picture-taking aficionados, its self-developing film sold for $20 for a pack of 20 exposures. Polaroid stopped making cameras in 2007, a victim of the popularity of digital photography, and ceased production of film two years later.

Yet today, Polaroid 4-by-5 instant film sells for as much as $400 for a pack of 20 exposures on eBay.com. The final stock of Polaroid 8-by-10 film  is on sale for $570 for a box of 15 exposures. Polaroid has gotten back on the bandwagon, producing a new analog camera and taking its old films, two years past its expiration dates, out of cold storage for sale to the public, for $39.95 a twin pack. “There is still a strong love and fascination with using instant film,” Scott Hardy, Polaroid’s president, said.

Enthusiasts say there is nothing quite like Polaroid instant film. “A lot of people liken it to audiophile vinyl,” said John Reuter, who once was a senior photographer at Polaroid. “The transitions between notes, the highs and lows, have a more natural sound.”  Today, he is a New York City-based photographer who runs 20×24 Studio, which specializes in large-format instant photography and charges $200 for each photo of that size. “Technically, it’s not a high resolution film, but it looks much sharper than that, there’s a realism to it.”

His studio has two of the last remaining six cameras that still take 20-by-24 Polaroid film. Reuter bought out the entire stock of remaining spools of the film from Polaroid before the company stopped making it five years ago. He and his associates are hoping to build a new camera — each weighs 235 pounds — and produce new film as their stock runs out.

The Polaroid company was founded in 1937 by Edwin Land, a Harvard dropout and inventor who ultimately held more than 500 patents. According to a Polaroid press release, Land created instant film after his young daughter asked “why can’t I see the picture now?” The first instant camera, the Land Model 45, was introduced  in 1948 and the company nearly cornered the instant film market by the 1960s. A patent war with Kodak in the 1970s ended in Polaroid’s favor in 1986, when Kodak dropped out of the market.

Its most popular camera may have been the 600, a mass-produced, cheap, small-format product aimed at proud parents, vacationers and not-so-serious photographers. It was also a favorite of artists, including Andy Warhol, who embraced its quirkiness. But the one-two punch of first one-hour photo shops and later digital photography hit the company hard, and Polaroid filed for bankruptcy protection in 2001. Its assets, including its name, were sold to a financial firm.

After Polaroid closed its last instant film production plant in Enschede, the Netherlands, in 2008, a group of film enthusiasts led by Austrian-born Florian “Doc” Kaps raised a reported $3.1 million from friends and family, bought the building and some remaining equipment to create the Impossible Project, so called because of the difficulty in making instant film. (Fujifilm also makes some instant film.) According to Kaps, Polaroid’s old developing formula had 35 components, and Impossible had to find replacements for 30 that were no longer available. “Our films have to be treated as something new,” he said. “The behavior is much different than Polaroid.” Impossible doesn’t use expiration dates, instead they have a production listed on the box, “much like a red wine,” Kaps noted.

Impossible’s main focus is a 600 film offshoot that sells for about $23 a pack, or about two bucks per white or black or blue-bordered exposure. The 600 film is integral film, meaning it does not peel apart or need manual processing like the larger formats; it glides out of the camera and develops on its own. It’s that square-shaped film where part of the magic is watching a ghostly image appear out of immaterial whiteness.

The Impossible Project claims to have turned a profit by 2010, produced 500,000 packs of film in 2011 and is aiming to sell 1 million this year. Kaps is investigating the feasibility of manufacturing instant film in larger formats . He knows there is a baseline of photographers committed to instant film, but “the question is how big is the niche?”  “It used to be the McDonald’s birthday party ‘don’t think, just shoot,’” he said. “Now, it’s the opposite.”

The allure of the instant developing process takes on the feel of a religious rite, according to Sam Grant, a photographer living in Mountain View, Calif. “It slows us down, if just for a second, and puts soul back into the art as well as the process,” Grant, 33, said. “It forces us to step outside of the ever-consuming digital-chip world that seems to endorse standardization.”

Some photographers, like New York City’s Ed Haas, aren’t nostalgic about instant film’s glory days.  “I want as good and clean an image as I can get and then I’ll screw it up in PhotoShop,” Haas said. “I don’t get a 50 percent vision today with digital, now I get a 100 percent vision.”

But Kaps has seen increased interest from the young crowd that grew up on digital and want something else — evidence, he said, that non-digital is built into our biology. “Humans are still analog,” he said.