The biologist who wanted to save the last Polaroid factory | Babelia


“One should never undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and almost impossible,” Edwin H. Land warned in 1987. It was four decades since the invention of this American visionary had revolutionized the photographic medium through a system capable of producing a photograph. In the seconds immediately after the click of the shutter: the iconic Polaroid camera. Having then the latest model of the brand was like having the latest iPhone today. An innovation that had arisen from the impatience of a girl, the inventor’s daughter, who, at the age of three and after being portrayed with a Rolleiflex by her father, asked her: “Why can’t I see the photograph now?”

Such a craving for immediacy would seem somewhat more typical of our days, used to focusing and shooting everywhere with mobile phones. However, while these images are blurred in the sea of ​​snapshots that make up our digital archives and feed social networks, the Polaroid camera allows its users to have a unique piece in their hands; warm, emotional and personal. A machine that dazzled Andy Warhol, Ansel Andams, David Hockney, Helmut Newton and Sarah Moon, among many others. An experience that would not go unnoticed by Austrian Florian Kaps, known as Doc, a biologist who soon realized that the way to become the best at something is to do things that no one else does. For this reason, Kaps’s doctoral thesis dealt with the eyeball muscles of an eight-eyed spider and, when the world began to be seduced by the advantages of digital, he fell madly in love with Land’s invention, captivated by the “ chemical adventure ”that each one of the snapshots implies. Hence, in 2008, he set out to save the last remaining factory of the brand in the world, located in Enschede, the main city in the east of the Netherlands.

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A 'polaroid' from Jens Meurer, the director of the documentary.
A ‘polaroid’ from Jens Meurer, the director of the documentary.

Doc’s quixotic exploits inspire the latest documentary by German filmmaker Jens Meurer (Nuremberg, 1963), An Impossible Project (2020), available on the Filmin platform. It is a film that invites us to recover the materiality and sensory experience of the analog, not from a nostalgic perspective but with the aim of “discovering the true value of things; its authenticity ”, as expressed by Meurer by videoconference. “I met Doc 10 years ago and what attracted me the most about him was that he went totally against the current of the moment.”

– “Are you upset?”

– “Technology of the forties in the XXI century!”.

Hearing comments like those was the most common thing for the Austrian every time he explained his plan: to buy the Enschede factory for 180,000 euros. While we all yearned for a smartphone and the digital world presented itself as something easier, more convenient and cheaper (and even free, with all the not always beneficial consequences that this would imply), he proclaimed himself a patron of analog. “The main difference between digital and analog is that digital tickles only two of your senses,” says Doc. “I can see it and I can hear it, but I can’t touch it, I can’t smell it, I can’t lick it. There is nothing real. That is why generations that have grown up digitally yearn for the real. That thing that he can touch, caress and hold with his hand ”.

“The difference between digital and analog is that digital tickles only two of your senses. I can see it and I can hear it, but I can’t touch it, smell it, or lick it. “

The documentary began filming in 2013 and, how could it have been otherwise, in 35mm. “I am not someone who is opposed to technological advances, but as a director I liked the idea of ​​reflecting what I film. Furthermore, this type of technology is there so that we can continue to make use of it ”, underlines the filmmaker, who paradoxically in 2002 produced The Russian Ark, one of the first films shot on digital, directed by Alexander Sokurov.

Together with some friends, Doc bought the factory. He could not use the name Polaroid but christened it Impossible and life returned to the factory. He moved his headquarters to Berlin and expanded to New York, where he recruited a group of digital natives who shared his enthusiasm for analog. But soon the problems began: the chemical components needed to make the formula no longer existed, and the first images not only required 45 minutes of development but were technically flawed. This did not discourage Doc, willing to argue that “photography is not about the perfection of the material that composes it but about emotion.”

Doc at the headquarters of Facebook, a company with which he established links after being fired from his own project.
Doc at the headquarters of Facebook, a company with which he established links after being fired from his own project.

In 2013, the young Oskar Smolokowski joined the team as a fellow, destined to become a key figure in the project. He soon understood the magic the Polaroid wielded on his generation, in need of detoxification from digital. But he also saw the need for a more technically effective product as well as more financially viable. His mind, more pragmatic, prevailed over the dreamy mood of the Austrian. “Doc put in place a rule in the workplace that prohibited the use of the digital word, something quite outrageous given the era we live in,” Meurer recalls. “And, as Oskar gained power in the company and his father, clarinetist Slava Smolokowski, entered as an investor, it seemed clear that it was not a good idea to kill the digital but to integrate the analog into the digital applications that the new generations use. In this the young man was more visionary than Doc. Without the effort and the combination of these two personalities, Polaroid would not exist today ”.

In the end, the same thing happened to Doc as Steve Jobs: he was fired from the company he had created. But not even this eventuality prevented him from continuing to dream and embarking on new analogue adventures, which led him to associate with the Italian brand Moleskine, to rehabilitate a hotel built at the dawn of the 20th century in Vienna and to establish links with Facebook’s analog research laboratory. . “It is not always easy to be a dreamer,” Meurer emphasizes. “As a rule we are not strong enough to be. If so, the world would be different. But the dreamers are very necessary, even if they are not the ones who are present when the dream is fulfilled. They inspire others to take small steps. I have recovered my typewriter myself and am writing thank you notes by hand again. One should never stop dreaming ”. The final touch of Doc’s journey is a dinner that he had always dreamed of, in which he manages to bring together all the people he considers important interlocutors to be able to continue dreaming.

Do you think that in 40 years she will find the love letter you sent her on WhatsApp in the attic?
Do you think that in 40 years she will find the love letter you sent her on WhatsApp in the attic?

In one scene, the director records the Sascha Peres and Haley Reihart orchestra live performing the film’s soundtrack. It is a wink with which he tries to pay his own tribute to the analog world, as was his idea of ​​using candles during the filming of the dinner. “Stanley Kubrick did it during the recording of Barry Lyndon, and he found the problem that he did not have enough candles ”, explains the director. “The opposite happened to us, we had to do without half. The technique has improved a lot, which shows that it is possible to continue shooting with film ”.

Like Mr. Hulot, the film character created by Jacques Tati, Doc almost always appears in the same outfit: a fake Polaroid jacket, which he had himself made in Hong Kong. “Both characters share a special warmth and a way of walking through the world away from reality,” Meurer emphasizes. “Doc invites us to appreciate the most sensory and human touch of things as a way of dealing with the populism that invades us today, and the marked gap between different identities and ideologies. The most analogical act that can exist is to gather people around a bonfire, and for me, in this sense, this film has a political message. It is a reminder that we can still be a community. And it offers clues on how to do it: don’t use your mobile so much and look at the world around you; try cooking instead of uploading images of food dishes to the networks; And, if you need to send a love message to someone, don’t do it on WhatsApp. In 40 years, when your recipient looks for it, they will not find it. “

‘An Impossible Project’. Jens Meurer. Available in of the movie.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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