A Brief History of Polaroid

Innovation, Success, Luck, Persistence, a Ponzi Scheme, and Family Fortunes

12 min read by Dmitri ☕️.

Photography and the brands that service it change constantly, like living organisms. To survive the competition, they must take chances and adapt, yet many still fail — despite their previous successes.

The business of photography was never an easy one. In its infancy, during the late 1800s, a flurry of manufacturers competed for the growing market ferociously, only to have a large swath of them go extinct during the financial crises and the World Wars. In the 1950s, consolidation and increased competition for new customers threatened and destroyed many long-standing brands. Around the 1970s, Japanese manufacturing began to dwarf the established European and American brands.

Behind the Iron Curtain, Soviet film and cameras were produced in huge quantities without any competition or meaningful changes to that ecosystem since the early 1900s. But their reign would end abruptly, shortly after the Berlin Wall fell.

The 2000s brought another wave of enormous changes, arguably the most disruptive. The Digital Revolution erased billions of dollars worth of market shares of household brands (like Polaroid) and made the unlikeliest tech (smartphone camera) the dominant way we captured images.

Polaroid lived through most of that to become one of the best-known brands of all time. But like Ship of Theseus, today’s Polaroid is no longer a Land company; it was rebuilt and re-invented by the artists, scientists, and entrepreneurs who could not stand seeing it fade.

This is the story of Polaroid’s incredible survival.

Edwin Land’s Polaroid (1937-2001).

In its heyday decades (1970s-1990s), Polaroid had a reputation similar to what Apple enjoys today. In fact, Steve Jobs met Edwin Land. He described their rendezvous as “like visiting a shrine.”

The “shrine” began construction when young Edwin dropped out of Harvard to develop his polarizer technology. His invention filtered partial light wavelengths, allowing the viewer or the camera to peer through reflective surfaces.

Several years later, Land Cameras began its production of instant film cameras. It was his way of realizing his daughter’s desire to see the picture as soon as it was taken.

Edwin Land presenting his new Polaroid camera. Wikimedia Commons.

Polarizing glass was revolutionary. It is still irreplaceable for modern vision, photography, and LCD applications. But the rocketship that took Land’s company to the moon was instant film. Film may not be in as much use today as polarizer technology, but just like his first invention, it is unparalleled:

There is still no digital camera with an integral printer in 2023 that can create prints as quickly and as well as an instant film camera.

But Land’s most ambitious project was yet to come. And like the others, it still has no modern analog:

Polaroid SX-70, the first and only foldable SLR instant camera, which debuted in 1972. The camera, along with the first integrated instant film, had a very complex supply chain. There were a number of factories working at once on various components across the world, exchanging materials and coordinating the assembly.

The camera’s name came from Land’s military background. It stood for “Secret Experiment 70,” abbreviated in the same fashion as his classified work during the Second World War.

Edwin’s experiment 70 was his most ambitious project, virtually free of compromise and incredibly complex by nature. Up until the day of its release, no one could be sure that it would be possible, even for a multi-billion dollar company Polaroid was.

The camera was to include revolutionary optics and a complete set of photonic controls, some of which had not yet been invented. Three Polaroid factories were being built simultaneously: a negative plant in New Bedford, a film assembly plant in Waltham, and the new camera assembly plant in Norwood… Each required process machinery that was yet to be conceived, built, and installed by Polaroid engineers. Many of the most important manufacturing issues had not been solved, since the specifications of the camera and film were still changing. The SX-70 program was so complex and so extended the boundaries of half a dozen technologies that those who worked on it had difficulty in stretching their faith and their optimism beyond the piece of the whole on which their own energies were concentrated. Land was virtually the only person in the company who knew in details all the difficulties that had to be surmounted. The rest of us could only guess.

— Peter C. Wensberg, Polaroid Executive in The Guardian.

But once it happened, SX-70 created a truly unique experience, unsurpassed even today.

The art world reacted instantly. The likes of Andy Warhol, Ansel Adams, Helmut Newton, and Walker Evans took it everywhere. The camera became a fashion statement, an artist’s tool, and an expensive toy for the masses.

Tagged with $180, or approximately $1,320 dollars today, it wasn’t cheap.

Unfortunately, its release coincided with an economic recession, leading to disappointing sales — barely half the expected million+ units. Alas, one of the greatest photography products in history marked the start of the company’s decline.

The company tried to adapt by releasing progressively cheaper models with plastic glass and rigid bodies until discontinuing the SX-70 line in 1981.

However, the eventual bankruptcy of Polaroid was largely brought on by a brutal lawsuit with one of its former business partners in 1988-1990. Kodak, Polaroid’s supplier of essential chemical components, has infringed on Land’s copyrights by creating similar cameras to compete in the US market. The resulting legal battle took a year off Edwin’s schedule and inflicted a devastating blow to the overall morale.

Winning the lawsuit did not help. Soon after Land left the company, Polaroid was crippled by the setbacks, vulnerable to Fujifilm’s instant film invasion.

Polaroid film was discontinued in 2008.

Impossible Project.

The last remaining Polaroid factory is a large building. Every floor of it is filled with people and machines making film. The story of the company’s recent revival can not be attributed to any one person. But a few names stand out.

Florian “Doc” Kaps started shooting instant film in 2003 after picking up a camera at a flea market; he founded a business that sold instant film equipment in 2005.

Looking back, things seem to have moved very quickly for Florian as three years later, or five years after snapping his first Polaroid picture, he, André Bosman, and Marwan Saba raised $3.1 million to buy the production machinery from the last remaining factory in October 2008.

They had a plan for keeping Polaroid alive (as it was in the process of crushing the last of its film-making machines and disbanding its workforce).

Years earlier, he [André Bosman] had drawn up a survival plan for a smaller-scale operation. The factory was equipped to crank out 100 million film packs a year, but Bosman had a strategy for profitably producing ten million.

Mic Wright for Wired.

I’m responsible for destroying the machines, and the destruction team arrives on Monday.” — André Bosman recalls his initial meeting with Florian Kaps as the former Polaroid relentlessly inched towards self-destruction.

I told him that I was selling the films and that there was demand. We agreed there and then: he had to stop the machines being destroyed and I had to contact the management and get them to talk to us… I said, “Please talk to us - or we’ll have to tell the press that there is a chance to keep Polaroid instant film alive, but you prefer to destroy it.”

Florian Kaps in Wired.

The above conversations took place during a shutting-down party Polaroid held at their last plant. The men found a way to stop the inevitable — but it wasn’t just the money or talk that could make it work again.

How they made new Polaroid film.

In the 2009 Wired article, which I quote above and below (because it’s very good), the story continues with the management succumbing to Florian’s advances and forfeiting their plans of destroying all equipment and calling it quits. They give the keys for the factory machines to the small team of future film producers in a building that they do not own and a broken supply chain of materials that can no longer make film.

Shortly after, it was Martin Steinmeijer, a chemical engineer of 27 years at Polaroid, whose job was to take what they could — some components from the black-and-white peel-apart film — to try and make more integral film.

It worked. Using the negatives and the metal frame layer made by Harman (a.k.a Ilford) — sourced by another former Polaroid employee, Henk Minnen — the team created the first Impossible Project integrated film. It was a new black and white film, different from anything Polaroid made earlier.

But the team didn’t want to stop there. The new Impossible colour film was to be released shortly after. It was to have many more layers and a lot more complexity. Not all of that complexity was technical; they had to re-invent the Polaroid tones.

Colour film is a human experience.

André Bosman had many years of experience working for quality assurance at Polaroid. What he said about colour grading in an interview with Wired is logical, perhaps even obvious to some photographers. But it’s the first time I’ve read an explanation of why colour films may look different from someone who’s directly responsible for making them.

It’s an insight into the human experience that lies at the base of every film emulsion ever created and the validation for everyone who saw a clear difference between all Fujifilm and Kodak emulsions:

Polaroid measured the numbers but we’d take a whole picture series of test shots and see what looked right. There is a personal judgment involved in what looks right, although people tend to agree on certain colours. Cyan and magenta are not usually favoured, while reddish and yellow tones are usually fine… A blueish tint on people's faces makes them look like chickens in a freezer… But if you ship film to Japan, looking reddish suggests you're drunk, so they prefer skin tones to look more blue than red.

— André Bosman in Wired.

This measured evidence of strong cultural and personal preference for colour and the companies’ understanding/catering to those preferences reveals the body images that are ingrained deeply in this technology.

However, it is also important to remember that not everyone’s body image has been included in photographic innovation, which is similar to how things are going with racial discrimination in face recognition technology today.

A failed Polaroid frame. Most likely, the result of the chemicals drying due to expiration. Nevertheless, there’s something appealing about this image precisely because it broke down.

Becoming “Polaroid Originals” (2012-2020).

The Wired profile of Impossible Project ended with lots of question marks. Back in 2009, when it was published, there was no colour instant film — just the black and white stuff. The finances were still on shaky ground: Kaps was selling between 30 and 50 thousand packs of film a year, which is a fraction of the capacity Bosman proposed to downsize the factory to. And the film had many issues — from fading to failures to mix the chemicals properly in the process and more.

Next year, the Impossible released some numbers about their progress:

2010 is the year that will go down in the history of photography as the year when millions of Polaroid cameras were prevented from becoming obsolete and analog instant photography made a comeback… In the course of the year, 4 different instant film materials for Polaroid SX 70, 600 and Image cameras were released and constantly improved. Currently Impossible provides analog photographers with the second generation of the monochrome Silver Shade films and the first experimental generation of the colorful Color Shade films. These new films consist of 31 newly assembled components, produced in cooperation with partners like Ilford Photo or InovisCoat. In the course of 2010, more than 500.000 Impossible film packs were sold, carefully manufactured by a team of initially 10 and now 30 former Polaroid employees.

Despite the hardships, things the outlook was fantastic.

The sales increased tenfold, the team was growing, and despite the mind-numbing complexity of instant film manufacturing, the team managed to rebuild the product and set sights on releasing colour film, 8x10, and 20x24 formats.

But to get to the place where you’ll find Polaroid today, change had to come. And that change came in the form of a major investment from the Smołokowski family. The father, Sławomir, who made his fortunes in Russia and Poland around the time when the Soviet Union collapsed, brought in the cash and his son, Oskar, became the CEO at 25.

Oskar worked as an assistant to Florian Kaps since 2012, getting increasingly involved over the years until he took the boss chair in 2015. With his privilege came lots of responsibilities.

He [Florian Kaps] fought very hard to save the last factory and managed to pull it off at the last second. The next chapter was harder. Reinventing the film took more time, effort, knowledge and money than anyone could have predicted. Almost no one knows this, but instant film is one of the most chemically complex manmade products. Recreating the magic and complexity of Polaroid’s chemistry at a much smaller scale was no small feat.

— Oskar Smołokowski in The Irish Times.

A year later, Florian left Impossible and founded a coffee house and photo studio, SUPERSENSE. He sometimes sells hand-assembled peel-apart film from his new shop.

The work continued on the main floor as the company known as Impossible Project added new films, and even a new camera: the I-1. As of this writing, you can still see the ads for it on their website, which hasn’t been updated in many years.

The I-1 sold for $299 in 2016, which in today’s money is about $380.

Around the time the camera dropped, the Smołokowski family completed the circle by purchasing the Polaroid brand from the Pohlad family, who owned the brand since 2014. Pohlands bought the Polaroid name from Knightsbridge Capital Partners, who owned it since 2009. And before them, it was Petters Group Worldwide, who held Polaroid since 2005.

Peters’ ownership (of anything) ended abruptly when its CEO, Tom, got 50 years in prison for running a $3.65 billion Ponzi scheme. Knightsbridge, who got it after the proceedings, also went bankrupt. But both Pohlands and Smołokowski are doing well.

Back on Earth, the Polaroid brand spent the following years where it truly belonged: on the packages of instant film.

Polaroid (2020-).

When Smołokowski bought the Polaroid brand in 2016, Impossible Project was renamed into Polaroid Originals. And in 2020, another rebrand had finally shortened the name to Polaroid. You might’ve also noticed that this year, the logo has changed slightly to use a bubblier font and a lowercase “p.”

Today’s Polaroid seems calmer and saner than it has ever been. The most controversy you’ll hear of is their attempt to venture into music and a plastic lens on a $600 film camera. These are non-issues compared to the existential crisis the company went through a decade ago.

This relative calm is great news for anyone who loves this film. To run, businesses need money and people willing to make sacrifices for them to continue existing. And that Polaroid got in spades.