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The Impossible Project’s New CEO on Rescuing Polaroid

The Impossible Project is the sole surviving manufacturer of Polaroid instant film.

Fred Vinolas

In February, 2008, the Polaroid Corporation announced that it was ceasing all production of its unique and beloved instant film stock, first introduced to the general public in 1947. Later that year, three enthusiasts — Dr. Florian “Doc” Kaps, André Bosman and Marwan Saba — purchased original machinery from Polaroid and also leased a former manufacturing facility in Enschede, Netherlands, with the intention of manufacturing instant film that could be used in Polaroid cameras. The purchase would lay the foundation for the trio’s new startup company, The Impossible Project, the name of which comes from a quote by Edwin Land, Polaroid’s original founder: “Don’t undertake a project unless it’s manifestly important and nearly impossible.” Kaps, Bosman and Saba took Land’s words to heart, and in 2010 they successfully became the sole surviving manufacturers of Polaroid instant film, saving millions of Polaroid cameras from becoming utterly defunct. Today, The Impossible Project has grown to house offices across the world and has diversified its brand into a sustainable and expanding venture that retails over 30 unique film stocks, refurbished Polaroid models, camera accessories, and also includes an online social networking site, The Impossible Gallery.

We sat down with the newly appointed CEO of Impossible, Oskar Smolokowski, 25, who first arrived at the company in 2012 as Kaps’s assistant. After proving himself vital to expanding vision of the company, Smolokowski soon became managing director of Impossible’s Instant Lab (a smartphone attachment that converts digital photography to analog film) and the upcoming Impossible Camera, which will launch in September 2015. Now as chief executive officer, Smolokowski spends what little free time he has experimenting with different analog cameras and paving new creative directions, beyond film, for the company he steers.

Q. What’s one thing every man should know?
A. Himself.

Q: Who or what influences you?
A: I love physical products, so the people and companies that really created some great “things” influence me — Dieter Rams (Braun), Ettore Sottsass (Olivetti), Steve Jobs (Apple).

Q. What are you reading right now?
A. I recently got a really great book with black-and-white photography called Portrait Mode Architektur, Retrospective 1930-1970. It’s in German, unfortunately for me, but the photos are amazing. (The photography is by H. Landshoff.) I’m also reading Superintelligence, Paths, Dangers, Strategies, a book by Nick Bostrom about AI and how it could end up being dangerous rather than helpful.

Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A. Working at The Impossible Project, although it’s by far the most fun I’ve had as well.

I love that we work on products you can really get your hands on and that challenge you to be creative.

Q. What is the company’s biggest obstacle?
A. Complexity. Everything we do really is complex. The chemistry of the films, the mechanics of the camera, the supply chain of the factories and everything being very spread out adds to that. 

Q. What do you shoot on?
A. I use my Polaroid SLR 690 and have been experimenting with 35mm on a Nikon F3 and recently a Canon A-1 to find out the difference between the two systems. For digital, I mostly use my iPhone, but got a Canon G16 recently to see what a good point-and-shoot feels like nowadays. 

A polaroid from The Impossible Gallery, a site dedicated to showing off polaroids from Impossible Project users.

Q. What draws you to Polaroid film?
A. For me it’s the challenge to create and be creative. There’s something about having a separate camera and analog film that brings you to think and care more about what you’re shooting. The choices about what you create end up being more considered, but at the same time you get the results quickly, developing in the palm of your hand. It’s one of the rare bits of magic that happen outside of our phone screens.

Q. Are there any differences between original Polaroid film and the film that Impossible is currently manufacturing?
A. The whole chemical system is different — we really had to reinvent it from scratch. The only thing that stayed is the frame. Our film is even a little thicker so it feels a little bit different if you compare both in your hands. 

Q. Where is Impossible film manufactured?
A. The film assembly plant is in Enschede, Holland. It’s an incredible place — giant, fully analog machines that only a few people in the world know how to operate are at the heart of it. Operators need to know how to run the machines in the dark so the negative isn’t exposed — it takes two years to train someone to do that.

Then there’s a paste manufacturing area. It’s like the Breaking Bad dream lab. That’s where the paste that’s stored at the bottom of each photo is made. We run a second factory in Monheim [in Germany] where the negative and positive are coated — also running production fully in the dark. We still do a ton of R&D to improve the film and that’s done both in Monheim and Enschede. 

Smartphone cameras take away all the magic from photography; people are really excited to get that back.

Q. Are the worlds of film and digital photography competing?
A. I think analog versus digital isn’t what we’re seeing — at least not any more. The two mediums coexist peacefully and we use them for different things. For the everyday, digital does a great job of recording what we want recorded, or sharing information. Instant analog film is something you don’t really use every day, but when you do, it definitely takes on more meaning. I think there will always be room for both, and both do a very different job. For me it’s clear that people want to get their hands on photography in the real world again — or for a lot of our new users, for the first time. 

Q. What changes are you seeing in the market for analog film?
A. The user base is definitely growing and the demographic is shifting toward a younger generation. I think it’s mainly because smartphone cameras take away all the magic from photography; people are really excited to get that back. Analog film really encourages you to do that.

Q. How are current film users sharing their photography?
A. Well first you always share it with everyone around you. You have your creation right there in your hand, and somehow there’s always an urge to show it to everyone present in the moment. The next step is (usually) online — Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, our own Impossible Gallery — whichever online forums people are involved in.

Q. Where do you see The Impossible Project in five years?
A. I love that we work on products you can really get your hands on and that challenge you to be creative. That’s the direction we’re going to keep heading, even if we go beyond film.

Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. By the products I’ve helped create.

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