A Polaroid type 55 negative
Interviews, Photography

An enduring appeal – the resurrection of Polaroid 55 film

What’s the point of remaking a discontinued photographic film from 1961? Viviane Li spoke to the New55 Project which received six-figure funding to set up production from scratch.

An eagerly awaited cutting edge technology got its first beta public release on 15 April 2014. Previously only available to inside developers, Google Glass (an augmented reality headset with camera and voice command) was for sale for one day only to the American public via the product development’s Explorer Program. Reportedly ((5 things to know about today’s Google Glass sale, The Washington Post)) still full of bugs and glitches, the final stable versions won’t be available commercially until around the end of this year.

No one will be seriously campaigning for black and white televisions to be brought back to market.

A day after the beta Glasses came on sale, I interviewed Bob Crowley who wore a pair throughout our conversation. Together with Sam Hiser and other collaborators of the New55 Project, they are working to bring a discontinued analogue photographic film back into production. After about four years of beta development of their own, the Project launched an initiative at the end of March to raise funds for production by crowd sourcing US$400,000 on the Kickstarter website.

It doesn’t appear to make sense for an early adopter of this latest gadget to be the instigator and key driving force behind resurrecting a forgotten technology that originated in 1939. ((Black and white diffusion transfer, Encyclopedia Britannica)) Not only would film photography seem obsolete to many in a digital world, this product can’t even produce a colour image!

No one will be seriously campaigning for black and white televisions to be brought back to market. So why is a monochrome film still relevant today? There has to be something rather special to be worth the bother.

The uniqueness of fifty-five

The product in question is Polaroid type 55 – launched in 1961, it was the first film of its kind to produce an image instantaneously on both paper and film.

A Polaroid type 55 negative

Close up of a white Begonia, photographed on Polaroid type 55 negative (coloured digitally). © 2009 Viviane Li

Created in conjunction with legendary photographer Ansel Adams, this particular film had developed cult status amongst the professionals. However, no amount of dead celebrity endorsement today would sufficiently convince its key target market of experienced photographers who are serious about their craft to open their wallets generously. After all, this is not a crowd who gives a damn about retro hipness. The only thing that matters is the unique image they can achieve using this material. Bob revealed a snag, “I realised early on that we weren’t going to be able to duplicate what [type] 55 did, because the materials are no longer available. For instance, the negative that was supplied to Polaroid by Kodak is no longer made. So we had to find a new negative material, new chemicals and we had to find new receiver sheets and processing criteria, and steps and dimensions that resulted in a different look.” The reincarnation – called ‘New55’ – will not be an exact reproduction, but is expected to share similar key characteristics:

  • Processing method – black and white films typically require a three-part processing method comprised of developer, stop bath and fixer; the film material is agitated in each solution to achieve homogenous development. Polaroid photographs (a type of ‘instant film’) used a different set of chemical reactions with fewer separate steps and no agitation. Bob explained the significance to image quality, “it doesn’t agitate, it just does it very locally on each molecule of film. This preserves the detail, it doesn’t spread it out and it produces these wonderful artistic edge effects, very fine, that you may not see right away in the pictures. But then as you look at it or if you zoom in close… you can see these highly detailed, very pleasing shapes and forms that come of it.” This subtle effect on a small scale contributes to a noticeable improvement to the visual quality as a whole.
  • Many shades of grey – type 55 film produced an image with a wide range of grey colours, in between the two extremes of black and white. The more intermediate shades present, the more three-dimensional a photograph looks, giving more realism.
  • Large surface area for image capture – a photograph is taken when a real-time moving image, projected onto a flat surface, gets frozen as a moment in time. To capture this moment, the surface has to be able to record light, such as a camera’s digital sensor or an analogue film. A larger surface area means higher resolution, but more importantly, it produces a better image quality (with more depth and realism) independent of resolution.
    The camera in the current iPhone 5 has an image capture area of 15.5mm2 (4.54 × 3.42 mm), whereas a high-end DSLR camera has 864mm2 (36 × 24 mm). This film has a surface area of 12,903.2mm2 (127 × 101.6 mm), which produces a far superior image quality than any digital camera is capable of to date. ((The current closest equivalent size digital sensor works like a flatbed document scanner, which fits separately onto the back of a large camera. However this has limited applications because the subject needs to be stationary for a period of time to produce an undistorted image.))
  • A physical photograph and a negative film – physical analogue prints still resonate with a young demographic in a digital world, as a Fujifilm representative had told me in a past interview ((Interview with Bernd Gansohr (Deputy General Manager, Fujifilm Imaging Systems in Germany) at Photokina 2012, Film Photography Podcast, audio 44:22)) about the unexpected growth of their ‘Instax’ consumer instant film. With Polaroid type 55 film, photographers theoretically got the best of both worlds – within minutes and without a photography dark room, they have a photo in hand and a high-resolution negative for making further refined prints from. In practice, the two counterparts of photograph and negative needed different amounts of light to record an image correctly. So you ended up with either: a nice image on the photograph, but another one that was too dark from the negative; or a nice image on the negative, but too bright on the photograph. The New55 Project has improved upon this feature so the two parts are now balanced.

When considered independently, not every one of these qualities are necessarily unique to the New55 film, but the combination of properties creates a special product still sought-after by keen photographers in pursuit of excellence and a sublime image. And they will pay good money to get it too…

Fad or longevity?

In 2008, the Polaroid company announced its intention to terminate all film production. At the same time, there was an economic recession in many parts of the world and a corresponding rise in gold prices, which fuelled a mini gold rush. What the gold bullion speculators didn’t know, was that type 55 film was probably a better investment, yielding a higher return within a shorter time. Unwilling to accept the finite end of supply, photographers desperately tried to delay the inevitable by buying up any remaining stocks. Even expired films swiftly sold at about three times their retail price on the second-hand market.

What the gold bullion speculators didn’t know, was that type 55 film was probably a better investment, yielding a higher return within a shorter time.

This desirability hints at a business opportunity, if only this niche product could be freed from the burden of operation associated with a giant international company. “Before, you had very large companies selling a hundred million units of one thing. And now the long-tail principle tells us that little enterprises can sell a few things to their very clearly defined communities, but overall you can still get your hundred million there. I think you can still do it profitably and I think that’s what we are trying to accomplish,” said Sam, the Project’s CEO. Their entry may be timely, because New55 will be the only instant film for its format size; all the established manufacturers have already discontinued their equivalent offerings, leaving a gap in the market. Bob astutely revealed that their primary goal with Kickstarter was not necessarily to raise funds, “…we are trying to show market viability. We have to show market strength and we have to show that there is enough of a demand for new materials like this in order to create the infrastructure and then continue production on beyond that. It’s not a one-time thing. It’s sort of like setting up a restaurant and then you have to continue to offer meals day after day. We want to be able to do it for a very long period of time.”

Before meeting its financial goal, the New55 film had already picked up a few living celebrity endorsements of its own ((New55 Film, update 11, Kickstarter)), from British fashion and portrait photographer David Bailey to American photojournalist David Burnett. The funding initiative ended on 6 May and the Project successfully achieved in excess of its target amount. Whether New55 film becomes a long-term player with the ability to match an almost fifty-year production run of its predecessor is unknown. Very much hinges on whether the first batch delivers to expectations and the Project’s subsequent management.

If there are no serious set-backs in the next stages of development, the first batch of films is expected in January 2015 – around the same time as Google Glass for consumers. But New55 film will be able to record a photograph with qualities unmatchable by any images taken with the futuristic Google Glass any time soon.


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