These days, it’s hard to find black-and-white photographic film, much less the self-developing kind made famous decades ago by Polaroid Corp. of Cambridge. Indeed, Polaroid itself doesn’t make the film still sold under its name.
But now, backed by more than $400,000 in donations raised on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, Ashland entrepreneur Robert Crowley plans to start making a Polaroid-type black-and-white film by early next year.
The film, will be called New55, is modeled after Polaroid’s Type 55, a large-format film renowned for its rich, subtle shades of gray. Famed photographer Ansel Adams used four-by-five sheets of Type 55 to shoot many well-known images of Yosemite National Park.
“We knew there was demand for the product,” Crowley said. “We didn’t know how much.”
But once Crowley began blogging about the idea of producing New55, photographers around the nation rallied to his aid. Zoe Wiseman, an art photographer in Los Angeles, donated $750 to the Kickstarter campaign. “It’s going to be great for everybody who cried when Polaroid went out of business,” Wiseman said.
When she learned of the shutdown, Wiseman bought eight cases of Type 55. She has only three left.
“I don’t have to use it, but it’s my favorite,” said Wiseman, who has little use for digital photography because “it never gives me that punch my work usually had.”
For her donation, Wiseman got a sample of New55, and she was impressed. “It’s not the same as Type 55,” she said, “but you get more little quirks and happy accidents with it, which is what I love.”
Polly Chandler, a photographer and teacher in Texas, is still working through $11,000 worth of Type 55 film she purchased in 2008. She and her mother contributed $200 each to Crowley’s New55 project.
“I think there’s a resurgence,” Chandler said. “It’s like there’s a thousand voices saying we still want to use film.”
Chandler said the differences between Crowley’s film and the original Type 55 are significant, but easy to manage. “It’s sort of like a brother and a sister,” she said.
Crowley, a veteran inventor with more than 100 patents under his belt, has no formal scientific training. He has an art degree from Bridgewater State University and had planned to teach. But he had a knack for advanced math and a natural affinity for technical subjects. “I just suck it all up like a sponge,” he said.
Crowley has taught college physics and was a director of research and development at Boston Scientific Corp. Among his inventions is a ribbon microphone that uses a membrane made of nanoparticles; he sold the technology to Shure Corp., the giant microphone company.
In 2010, Crowley learned about the Impossible Project, an organization in the Netherlands that was making film for smaller Polaroid cameras, the kind millions of consumers once used. But the people at Impossible had no interest in resurrecting Polaroid’s large-format film — bigger sheets designed for bigger cameras.
Perhaps the most famous of these is Type 55, a black-and-white film made to fit 4- by 5-inch cameras. Ansel Adams goaded Polaroid founder Edwin Land into making a large-format film suitable for professionals — one that could be developed instantly.
But there were other benefits. Type 55 had such high resolution that its images can be greatly enlarged without losing their sharpness. And while most Polaroid films produced only a finished print, Type 55 produces both a print and a negative that can be used to make additional prints. This made it more practical for commercial photographers than other Polaroid films.
Crowley’s research convinced him there was a small but significant market for a revived Type 55 film. He just had to learn how to make it.
That was the hard part. Polaroid hadn’t left a recipe.
“It turned into an industrial detective story,” Crowley said.
He spent months tracking down former Polaroid employees, poring over patent applications, and studying a book by Edith Weyde, a German woman who discovered some of the basic principles of instant photography in the 1930s.
By 2011, Crowley had tested some handmade samples of his new film, and he posted the results online.
“People were seeing the results and saying, ‘I want it too,’ ” he recalled. “I would hand make five, and I’d send them out, and they’d get great results, too.”
Crowley got the message: There was a small but avid market for the film.
Failing to raise money the conventional way, he launched his Kickstarter initiative in March, asking investors for $400,000. Money arrived slowly at first, then surged later in the campaign. When the Kickstarter round ended this month, New55 had $415,000 in the bank.
Crowley hopes to price the film at about $6 per sheet. Polaroid’s Type 55 film came in 20-sheet packages, so a similar package of New55 would cost $120.
Crowley bristles at the idea that he’s simply reviving old-school Polaroid film. New55, he said, will be a better product. For instance, the positive print film in the original Polaroid Type 55 was more light-sensitive than the negative, which tended to produce inconsistent results. New55 is supposed to fix that problem.
Polaroid Corp., which went bankrupt in 2001, was reorganized under new management but went bankrupt again in 2008. A Minnesota holding company, PLR IP Holdings LLC, currently owns the Polaroid name, and instant cameras and film made by the Impossible Project and by Fujifilm Holdings Corp., of Japan, are sold under the Polaroid brand.
Crowley believes the New55 project is attracting the right kind of investors — not just old-time photo buffs on a nostalgia kick, but young people who have grown bored with digital photography.
“People 30 and under [are] really the primary source of encouragement,” Crowley said, “because it’s all new to them — the desire for people to see and to see in new ways is insatiable.”