“We want to rediscover the magic of the instant camera.” Florian Kaps, founder of the Impossible Project
Florian was upset we’d started serving the guests before his speech. He ran back into the kitchen, his face a little red and flustered, saying, “No, no, no. If they eat now, they will leave. They will not stay for the presentation.”
Florian–Dr. Florian Kaps, that is–is the founder and CMO of the Impossible Project. Before I knew who he was, he’d been in and out of the kitchen all afternoon, correcting my assemblage of the raw-meat sandwiches. “You do not put enough meat on there,” he said, taking a roll out of my hand and smothering it with meat. I apologized, “I don’t know what I’m doing.” I had merely thought he was a concerned German connoisseur of such refreshments. Instead, he had greater concerns on his mind–well-fed guests bailing before his keynote speech.
Soon Marlene and several other women were bringing all of our hard work back into the kitchen–the trays of cheese, plates of sandwiches and cut-up baguettes. The beer, of course, was still flowing, but then again–this was Germany.
The upside of Florian’s command meant that Erin and I were able to sneak into the back of the event hall to hear his speech. I felt a little like a child allowed to stay up late for mum and dad’s dinner party, given access to something exclusive and typically “off-limits.”
Thankfully, the speech was not in German. Florian began his welcome. “This is a celebration party. You are a carefully selected crowd of the most interesting people in the photography industry.” I was flattered, obviously. Looking around at the faces in the room, though, it was possible to pick out those who were perhaps slightly more significant than yours truly–notably several important investors from Tokyo–and you had to wonder just how big their bank accounts were.
As Florian walked us through the history of the company, a slideshow supporting his words with pictures, you couldn’t help but be inspired. “Analog instant photography is not over,” he said like a general leading us into battle. “The mission of Impossible is to re-position and re-present it. We want to rediscover the magic of the instant camera.” And by rethinking this magic, the company has saved 300,000,000 instant cameras in the world from extinction. Now that’s something worth fighting for.
When he finished, the spotlight was turned over to a Czech photographer named Jan Hnizdo. Jan began working for Polaroid in 1982, when he moved to Germany to be the curator of their International Polaroid Collection. He’s now known as one of the few photographers in the world who work with the incredibly rare 20” x 24” Polaroid cameras. He had set up one such camera in the room to show us all how it’s done. We crowded around him, forming a tight half-moon on the ground and some climbing up on the stage for a bird’s eye view (okay, that was just me…). The photographs were enormous and the sepia-toned detail stunning. As he revealed each photograph with the flourish of a magician, I knew exactly who he was–the Ansel Adams of the Polaroid world.
After the speech and demonstration, our meager refreshments seemed like nothing more than an afterthought. Erin and I returned to the kitchen, amazed at how fast the guests went through the meat sandwiches–everyone but the Asian investors, of course. But in between keeping the snacks stocked up, we had another chance to slip out and view an exhibition of Polaroids displayed upstairs.
We’d poked our heads in the room earlier that afternoon and I’d never seen so many Polaroids in one place at one time. Some were laid out as if in order, some were thrown into boxes in no order at all. Marlene picked up a handful and shuffled through them like a deck of cards. In that moment, I returned to the question my friend had asked me earlier–what is it about them? And as I viewed the hundreds of Polaroids scattered around the room, it hit me–it’s like holding a memory. Especially with the film Impossible is still developing, still playing around with, you see the product of their experimentation–the discoloration, the fading, the streaks, and you think–only a Polaroid captures life like this.
Sometime since the afternoon, the exhibition had been transformed. Gone was the dishevelment. Gone were the piles. What I found instead was a brightly lit room, its white walls neatly featuring various artists’ Polaroids. They’d been framed in triplets and hung in groups of three frames as well, all of it displaying a symmetry that hadn’t been there earlier. It was beautiful.
Soon thereafter the event began to wind down. Marlene told Erin and me that we were free to go, but not before receiving several packs of film as “payment” and having a picture taken with Florian. When we’d managed to track him down, we congratulated him on his speech. “Thank you, but next time I’ll try to speak in English.” When Marlene held up her Polaroid camera for the picture, Florian asked, “Are you using good film or is it Impossible?” in that forever-self-deprecating manner he seemed to love.
I left the event with my hands smelling distinctly of onions and cheese that night, but immensely grateful, too–not only for the horde of Polaroid film I’d made out with, but simply for the opportunity itself. Ever since WWOOFing on the pearl farm in French Polynesia, I realized again how much I am gravitating towards the practice of active travel. I love to be on the move, on planes or trains or journeys of almost any description, but once I get somewhere, please–give me something to do. Give me some task and I’ll happily do it, even for free. I am a terrible sight-seer.
And so the chance to be a part of Impossible’s “exceptional soiree” that Tuesday evening in Cologne was meaningful on more than one level. It was a chance to be a part of something, even if I myself didn’t feel my role to be quite as integral as Marlene insisted. But it also introduced me to this world of artists and photographers and people to whom Polaroids matter–dare I say–almost more than they do to me. This is their life’s work, whether as production engineers or professional photographers or deep-pocketed investors.
There are others, too, like my good friend from university, Ben Fey, who besides being an incredible digital photographer, is also developing a website to showcase his Polaroids. It’s in the works, but still take a second to check out his sweet teaser page for the site, The Rest is Yet to Come.
I also recently discovered the work of Parker Fitzgerald. Aside from his other freelance work, one of his projects for 2010 is to take one Polaroid a day, placing quotes on each photo that never fail to inspire you. I’m in awe of his project, while at the same time incredibly jealous.
And so, despite Polaroid’s discontinued production of their instant film two years ago, thanks to the Impossible Project, the death of instant photography was averted. In fact, you might say it’s more alive than ever.