Impossible’s Improbable Polaroid Mission


Vienna-based Impossible embarked upon its mission to save Polaroid in 2008, by leasing a factory that once belonged to the manufacturer. Polaroid filed for bankruptcy in 2001 and again in 2008, and stopped manufacturing film that year; Impossible’s improbable goal is to develop and promote a new brand of instant film to be used with Polaroid cameras. Forian Kaps, a biologist, and André Bosman, the engineering manager at the plant, treat their role as Polaroid’s savior with urgency: Impossible already sells three versions of monochrome “silver shade” (black and white) film and one version of color.

Recently, Impossible brokered a deal so that WestLicht, a photography museum, auction house and library in Vienna, could buy a collection of 4,400 vintage Polaroids by 800 artists, for $705,000. The cache includes well-known images by Marina AbramoviÄ? and Ulay, Ansel Adams, Walker Evans, Helmut Newton and Andy Warhol, among others. More than 300 of these photos will be on view at the museum, along with contemporary works shot on newly manufactured Impossible film, from June 17 to Aug. 21, 2011.

The purchase was a steal for the small Austrian museum. In a controversial sale last summer, Sotheby’s sold 1,200 Polaroids (including 400 by Adams alone) owned by the bankrupt corporation for a total of $12.47 million. The lot included works by artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Chuck Close, Robert Rauschenberg and William Wegman. Many of the artists were upset that the collection was being sold for parts, as they’d given their photos to Polaroid with the understanding that the collection would be kept together and eventually purchased by a museum. “It’s an amazing body of work,” said Close, quoted in an article published in the New York Times soon after the auction. “There’s really nothing like it in the history of photography.” But, he added, “to sell it is criminal.”

The photos in the Sotheby’s sale and the ones now owned by WestLicht entered Polaroid’s collection via founder Edwin H. Land’s long-running Artists Support Program. Over the course of decades, Land consulted with famous artists and provided them with custom equipment, like a large-format camera and film not available for purchase. 1400 of these 20-by-24-inch Polaroids are included WestLicht’s collection.

These days, vintage Polaroid cameras and film are hard to come by, though they can be found on eBay and in certain stores that stocked up before manufacturing ceased. Not surprisingly, the analog look of instant photography has become ever more popular now that the materials are scarce. Thanks to a bevy of iPhone apps-Hipstamatic, Polarize and ShakeItPhoto are three of the most popular; with the latter you can shake your phone and watch the photo “develop” more quickly-Polaroid-style images are ubiquitous. Will Impossible be able to stay in business and continue developing new instant-photo technology? Hipstamatic’s tagline—”digital photography never looked so analog”—makes it seem like an uphill battle.

Above: Ansel Adams, Yosemite Falls & Flowers 1979, 3 1/4 x 3 1/4 in. / WestLicht Collection.