Enschede, The Netherlands: In this small town just across the border from Germany, a small group of Dutch scientists and one irrepressible Austrian salesman have dedicated themselves to the task of reinventing one of the great inventions of the 20th century—Polaroid’s instant film.
Digital cameras are ubiquitous, cheap and easy to use—the reasons Polaroid stopped making the film last year—so what this group in Enschede is attempting may seem hopelessly retrograde.
But to them, that is exactly the point. They want to recast an outdated production process in an abandoned Polaroid factory for an age that has fallen for digital pictures because they think people still have room in their hearts for retro photography that eschews airbrushing or Photoshop.
Eager market: Two former Polaroid workers, Henkry Minnen (left) and Marin Steinmeijer, check some tests in Enschede, the Netherlands. A small group of Dutch scientists and an Austrian salesman have dedicated themselves to reinventing one of the great inventions of the 20th century—Polaroid’s instant film. Rolf Oeser / NYT
“This project is about building a very interesting business to last for at least another decade,” said Florian Kaps, the Austrian entrepreneur behind the effort. “It is about the importance of analog aspects in a more and more digital world.”
No one said it would be easy. Chemical processes and the chemicals themselves must be reinvented in a factory that, though littered with Polaroid detritus of yore, lacks the necessary materials to restart production. Crucial equipment nearly landed in a Dutch dump. But the group got a break when prosecutors in the US arrested the private equity investor who owned Polaroid’s assets.
Kaps is, if anything, enthusiastic despite the hurdles he faces. He hopes to start production later this year for distribution in the US, Europe and Asia and is convinced there is still an eager market for Polaroid film packs.
He estimates the number of Polaroid instant cameras in circulation at one billion. That number is probably fanciful, or at the very least includes a lot of cameras in the back of closets. But 30 million film packs in 2007, and 24 million in the first half of 2008 were produced at the Enschede factory for sale worldwide.
The digital storm, Kaps says, has left analog opportunity in its wake. “If everyone runs in one direction, it creates a niche market in the other,” he said.
Marta Bukowska, a partner in Basic Model Management in New York, said that digital cameras had entirely displaced Polaroid for the workaday tasks of scouting talent, pitching clients, and beginning a photo shoot. About 18 months ago, the agency stopped using Polaroids regularly because digital is much less expensive, but still gets requests to capture that “high-quality, old-fashioned look” with a genuine instant photo.
“It used to be something you use for a lighting test,” Bukowska said. “Now it is the art itself.”
Kaps, 38, was already tapping the artist market in 2005 with an online shop devoted to selling Polaroid products, and a website, Polanoid.net, where people can upload scanned Polaroid pictures. Kaps, a biologist with the tiniest of ponytails who trots around the Enschede factory in sneakers, had been an Internet project manager for a group dedicated to preserving analog photography.
The experience left him firm in the conviction that his calling and his training were not in sync. “I wrote a very interesting thesis about spider eyes, but I was always a salesman,” Kaps said.
Kaps, who lives in Vienna, was on hand in June 2008 for the ceremony when Polaroid shut down its factory in Enschede, which had manufactured film cassettes for the SX-70—the signature Polaroid camera that folds into a squat rectangle.
There he met Andre Bosman, the engineering manager at the Enschede plant, a sprawling complex in the middle of the town of 150,000 people. Bosman tipped off Kaps to the fact that the machines for making Polaroid film cassettes, whose replacement cost Bosman estimates at about $130 million, still worked but would be cleared out in a matter of days. “So we stopped drinking beer—which is a pity because Dutch beer is good—and started talking business,” Kaps said.
They managed to stave off destruction of the equipment by peppering Polaroid with requests to surrender it. They might have failed had federal prosecutors last October not arrested Tom Petters, head of the Petters Group Worldwide, a private equity firm based in Minnesota, that had bought Polaroid’s name and assets in 2005. He was accused of running a Ponzi scheme. (The charges are unrelated to the Polaroid investment.)
Petters had driven an aggressively digital strategy for Polaroid, and his downfall—though the case is still pending—made Polaroid receptive to Kaps’ pleas. The machinery was saved.
Polaroid’s last assets, including the name, its intellectual property and its inventory, were sold this month. It did not respond to requests for comment.
The Dutch owner of the factory leased the building to the company created by Kaps, who had since raised $2.6 million in capital from friends and family.
The task at hand is resurrecting production of Polaroid instant film.
Each film cassette that slips into a camera contains all the things that would normally be in a darkroom: photographic paper, a negative, a substance to fix the image and one to stop the photo from developing further. Rollers inside a Polaroid camera explode chemical packs in the cassette to set off the process.
Unfortunately for Bosman, the former head engineer, Polaroid itself once manufactured the chemicals integral to the process in the US but dismantled that production years ago after stockpiling what it needed.
So they are now seeking, or reinventing, chemicals that can mimic what Polaroid’s own once did. For example, they are searching for a form of latex that can be easily coated onto a gelatin base to recreate the “timing layer” of Polaroid film, which controls the developing process.
“We have a total of about 300 years of experience here,” Bosman said. “That is the key to reinventing this process.”