Polaroid scientist still believes in the thrill of the instant print
Steve Herchen has become a link to a European project to carry on the company’s legacy
I n the 1960s, it was estimated that half the households in the US had a Polaroid camera. Used by families, professional photographers, police and fire fighters, and for passports and ID cards, the technology was all the rage for its instant prints.
But in 2008, the Cambridge-based company shut its doors, killed off by digital cameras and smartphones that offered their own instant images, if not in physical form. Polaroids went into attics, basements, or the trash. The film that popped out of them was discontinued.
Yet a remnant of Polaroid remains. In Germany, a company aptly called the Impossible Project has reengineered instant film, which it’s selling alongside restored Polaroid cameras and a printer that produces instant prints from iPhones. Next year, the company says it will launch a one-step camera modeled on the old Polaroid. And it is doing all this with the help of a cross-pollinating member from the old Polaroid team: a lone American named Steve Herchen.
Herchen, a chemist and Boston boy who spent nearly 30 years at Polaroid, is the chief technology officer of the Impossible Project. Since December 2013, he has been living in Dusseldorf and working with the Europeans out of plants in Germany and the Netherlands.
Their unusual family course has been steered by Herchen’s obsession; as he admits, he’s a fool for all things Polaroid. “It’s almost like a living thing,” he says. “You watch the picture as it evolves, as it comes to life. It’s radically different from digital.”
Herchen was recently back in the Boston area for three days of festivities around the naming of Edwin Land’s Cambridge laboratory as a National Historic Chemical Landmark. Land, an inventor, was the founder of Polaroid, which came out with the Polaroid Land Camera in 1948. When he died in 1991, the New York Times obituary stated that his instant camera “changed the picture-taking habits of millions of people around the world.”
Herchen started working at Polaroid in 1977, the day after he got his PhD in chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In Land’s lab, he toiled with the chemicals used in the instant film, ultimately working his way up to chief technology officer and vice president of research and development for Polaroid.
By the late 1970s, Polaroid, then one of Massachusetts’ leading corporations, employed about 15,000 in the state and thousands more throughout the world. But after a successful fight against a hostile takeover left the company in deep debt, it fell into bankruptcy. In 2005, Herchen left the company and joined Zink Imaging of Bedford, a Polaroid spinoff.
In 2013, the Impossible Project asked Herchen to consult in Germany for a few days. His advice was taken — and he was asked to join the company.
The challenge before them was significant: With many of the original chemicals Polaroid had used discontinued, the company needed to find a recipe for a modern instant film. “It was really going back to the drawing board,” says Herchen.
As he puts it: “Polaroid film is, in my estimation, the world’s most chemically complex completely man-made product ever.” He oversees the labs, which are using “brand new chemicals that have never been used before.”
In a way, joining the Impossible Project took Herchen back to his beloved Polaroid. When the company closed in 2008, employees at the factory in Enschede, the Netherlands, where the film was manufactured, gathered to say goodbye. The year before, the plant had produced 30 million packs of instant film.
The farewell party turned into a launch party after one of the guests, an Austrian entrepreneur and Polaroid enthusiast named Florian Kaps, asked what they could do to save it. The Impossible Project was born, with Kaps at the helm.
Polaroid agreed to sell the equipment to Kaps, who named the new company after an Edwin Land quote: “Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.” Ten longtime Polaroid employees, all European, stayed on to run the complex machinery and teach the next generation of workers how to use it. It took a few years, but last year the company, which has 120 employees, sold a million packs of instant film, for about $21 per eight-pack.
Above their quest floats an existential question: Why bring back a relic from the dead?
“There’s a demand for it,” Herchen says. And it’s not from nostalgic oldtimers like himself. “People 18 to 30 years old, they love it,” he says. “The magic of seeing a print develop before your eyes. . . . They’re not looking to replace digital with this, but they love it.”
The company’s CEO, Oskar Smolokowski — Kaps retired in 2013 — says that digital is a victim of its own success, or excess. “It turns out that the more digital photos you take on your phone, the less meaning they end up having,” Smolokowski says. “So it’s really the ones you can actually hold in your hand that end up being important, and the ones you actually look back on.”
Herchen agrees. “There’s something about the chemical process of waiting for it to develop. You’re left with a physical, tangible print, a one-of-a-kind thing.”
Peter Southwick, director of the photojournalism program at Boston University, says there’s something to that argument. “The entire world takes more than 1 trillion pictures a year,” he says. “People are just snapping away all the time. I think the challenge for this era is, do any of them have any lasting value? So many are just quick hits that are put up on Facebook and then vanish into the ozone.”
Southwick thinks the Impossible Project’s plans are interesting. “They might be tapping into the idea that you would value a photo enough to want it in some form other than existing on the cloud.”
Thus far, the Impossible Project is manufacturing instant film, but not instant cameras. So where are all the Polaroid cameras that can produce such prints? “We have pickers who go to yard sales and flea markets and we buy them and refurbish them and sell them with warranties,” Herchen says. “They look and perform just like they’re new.” They range in price, depending on the model, from about $120 to $450. Last year, the Impossible Project sold 30,000 of them, mostly through its website, the-impossible-project.com.
Next April, however, according to Smolokowski, the company will release its own camera, which will “look quite different from all Polaroid cameras released to date — especially the flash. It will also be capable of much more.” The Impossible I-1 Camera will be the first new instant camera developed in 15 years.
Today, Herchen spends long days at Impossible’s various offices, including the German factory that makes the chemical components for the film and the old Polaroid plant in Enschede. The company’s headquarters are in Berlin.
As for his own photo technology collection, he’s got it all: Polaroid cameras that take the instant pictures, and a smartphone with an Impossible-made printer that gives him hard copies of his digital photos. He pulls some of the 3-by-4-inch pictures from his briefcase, with the iconic white borders and the wide bottom margin.
There he is in front of the factory in Enschede. In his apartment. With his daughter in the Swiss Alps. At a Neil Young concert in Dusseldorf. Photos of him and his wife, traveling throughout Europe. In September, they’re going to Denmark.
What does he think Edwin Land would say about the Impossible Project? “I think he would love it,” says Herchen. “I think he would be thrilled to see that even in the age of digital photography, there’s still a niche of customers who want instant photographs.”