Revenge of the Polaroid: How instant film captured...
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May 10, 2014  |  Vote 0    0

Revenge of the Polaroid: How instant film captured a new generation

It's an analog technology that never really went away. Now Fujifilm is hoping a wifi-enabled instant film printer will bridge the Instagram gap.


Porter Hovey and her artsy New York friends are lounging on a rooftop in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, giddy to be outdoors. It’s spring’s first breath, and the gang passes around a camera to capture the moment in a way once thought extinct: Polaroids.

Well, not exactly. They’re using a Fujifilm Instax camera, one of the few remaining methods to capture the warm-edged, dreamlike quality of shoot-and-print photos ever since Polaroid closed its last instant film factory in 2008.

“It’s nostalgia,” said Hovey, 30, who remembers her parents snapping Polaroids of her growing up in Nebraska in the 1980s. “Holding a photo in your hands is something you just don’t do now . . . there is just no replacing that with Instagram.”

Only now, that nostalgia has come full circle. While Instagram became a hit by offering vintage filters for your smartphone photos, now you can develop those fake-vintage snapshots on instant film stock. Fujifilm’s Instax Share SP-1 printer started appearing on Canadian store shelves this past week. The wifi-enabled miniature device connects to your smartphone to develop credit card-sized prints from your photo stream.

Fujifilm is betting on the printer as a new way to cash in on instant film’s resurgence, led by a growing wave of enthusiasts such as Hovey and her friends. The analog art has been kept afloat by Fuji and Impossible, a German company that took over Polaroid’s shuttered film factory in the Netherlands. The two companies remain the world’s lone distributors of instant cameras and film.

But why invest in the retro art when user-friendly digital photography has eclipsed film?

“It was pretty simple,” explains Creed O’Hanlon, CEO of Impossible. “There are still 200 million Polaroid cameras in the world, all of which were rendered useless by the withdrawal of the factory.”

Impossible, which took its name from the far-fetched dream of keeping instant film alive, is now the sole company manufacturing film for Polaroid’s discontinued lines of 600, SX-70 and Spectra cameras. They also refurbish about 35,000 of the cameras each year, buying them from flea markets and eBay and reselling them for US$150 to $460. The film is equally pricey; eight exposures cost $23.49.

Still, the trend seems to be catching. Impossible sold 1.2 million units of film in 2013, up from 600,000 in 2012. It’s especially popular in France and Australia with a growing market in Canada.

“Tens of thousands of films over the last three months have been heading into Canada,” O’Hanlon said. “Canadians, like Americans, are beginning to discover it.”

Many of those buyers are young, O’Hanlon said, especially since the company started selling cameras and film in North American Urban Outfitters stores.

“For a younger generation who never understood the frustration of waiting a week for film to develop, it’s akin to magic,” he said.

Still, the company has a bit of an identity problem. When someone is handed an Impossible photo, they usually say, “Oh wow, a Polaroid!” O’Hanlon says.

“We call them ‘Impossibles,’” he corrected.

Fujifilm’s cameras are markedly different. Its film only works with Fuji’s own line of Instax cameras, which have been around for more than a decade, long before Polaroid shut down its film factory.

However, Fuji felt a spike in sales in the past two years, especially among teen girls and those between 18 and 30. The colourful plastic cameras (retailing at $80 to $100) seem tailored for that demographic, with sly product placement in current music videos by Lily Allen and Avril Lavigne. Recently, Fujifilm introduced the more serious-looking Neo Classic model, with “advanced” features and a higher price tag (about $180), aimed at an older audience.

“Polaroid leaving the market has left some business on the table,” said Paul Woodall, the director of sales and marketing for Fuji Canada.

The cameras became such a hit that Polaroid decided to re-enter the instant film game in 2010 by partnering with Fujifilm to launch its Polaroid Pic300 camera. The camera was essentially a rebranded version of Fujifilm’s Instax 7S, with a few minor design adjustments.

Still, instant film remains a novelty item, and we’re not about to give up the convenience of our smartphone lenses. Which is where Fujifilm’s Instax Share printer comes in.

The new device even comes with its own Instagram-like Android and iOS apps that allow users to snap their own masterpieces and apply filters. It retails for $200, plus about $10 for 10 sheets of Instax film.

The Star tested the inkless printer, which is surprisingly quick. It took 10 seconds for it to spit out a photo, which fully developed in about one minute.

As for the app, it’s a little limited. Users can only choose from two filters, black-and-white and sepia, and a handful of seasonal frames, such as “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Birthday.” It can be connected to a user’s Instagram and Facebook albums, unlocking the vast digital libraries.

Fuji is trying to market the product as a staple for big social events.

“The app allows multiple people to use the printer at once, which is ideal for parties,” Woodall explained. “If you want to get behind the scenes at a wedding . . . you could have everyone print them out and put them in a book as their keepsake.”

But in Porter Hovey’s eyes, the gap between the online world and instant photography is part of the appeal. A professional photographer herself, Hovey once used her Polaroid to snap a photo essay of Williamsburg.

“For some reason Polaroid film could capture the changes of the neighbourhood I lived in . . . that old-versus-new that I felt Williamsburg started to represent,” she said.

That past-versus-present theme came up again during the rooftop hangout as Hovey’s friends starting taking Instagram pictures of the Fuji instant photos. She couldn’t help but laugh.

“They were taking pictures of the pictures,” Hovey said. “It was the funniest thing.”

Toronto Star

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