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Could Polaroid’s Beloved Type 55 Film Return—Only Better? One Man Wants to Make It Happen

Shot on Polaroid's now-discontinued Type 55 film, by Joshua Black Wilkins.

In the mid-1950s, Ansel Adams was perhaps the most famous photographer alive, and he had a request. For the past several years, he’d been a consultant to the Polaroid Corporation, testing and analyzing the company’s new film and cameras. He loved instant film: If you were up in the mountains or out in the desert, how else would you know if you got your shot? He’d taken his consulting job seriously, too, shooting pictures all over the world and sending the results back to Polaroid’s headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with technical notes scribbled all over their white borders.

Like nearly all photographers, though, Adams used conventional black-and-white film, not Polaroid, for his major work. So his request was simple: How about an instant film that also produced a real, high-quality, reuseable negative? He asked the question of Edwin Land, Polaroid’s founder and creative force, and in 1961, he got his wish, under the bare-bones name of Type 55. It was a four-by-five-inch packet of film that fit in any view camera — the big old-fashioned wooden kind Adams used, with the cloth that flipped over the back of the photographer’s head — and it could be processed on the spot in 30 seconds or so. Suddenly, and for the first time, you could be a serious photographer without a darkroom.

Type 55 was never a high-volume product, but Adams used it for the rest of his life, using it to make some of his greatest photos, including El Capitan, Winter, Sunrise, Yosemite National Park, California, from 1968. Literally thousands of other great photographers, from Robert Mapplethorpe to Edward Burtynsky, adopted it too. Type 55 had a true cult status. Its pictures are instantly recognizable by an odd perforated border that (as the years went on) many people began to leave on the print for its ring of authenticity, particularly as the digital age began to arrive. It looked extremely non-digital, that was for sure.

That shift, of course, was what finished off Type 55, and Polaroid film in general: Production ceased in 2009. The remaining people using it — the holdouts, who were the most enthusiastic about this analog way of making pictures — were, as you usually hear in these situations, devastated. (Today, a single box of film from the last batch — now several years past its use-by date, and of iffy reliability — can top $200 on eBay.) The product seemed irreproducible, and certainly nobody was going to start making it again. Polaroid’s factory equipment had been scrapped. Never mind that film enthusiasts — a group that is not so tiny as it might seem, and one that appears to be growing again, in a small-scale revolt against digital hegemony — were clamoring for it. Without the manufacturing gear, the start-up costs would be hard to justify for a niche product. 

Except not to Robert Crowley, an entrepreneur in Massachusetts, just a few miles from Polaroid’s old factory. A product-development guy with a track record in the high-end-microphone business, he had closely followed the small-scale success of the Impossible Product, a company that had picked up production of Polaroid’s more familiar consumer films but wasn’t working on the professional stuff. In 2010, Crowley started tinkering with the components of old Type 55, and began to believe that a similar and in fact improved version could be produced on a small scale, even without the old machinery. 

Crowley's New55 Project has been through a few stop-start periods (investors in and out, supplies located then discontinued) but has gained momentum, and last month, he took it to the people. In place of Ansel Adams’s direct appeal to Edwin Land, Crowley went wide, to the users of old Type 55 via Kickstarter. We are being realistic, he said firmly. We need $400,000 to get this show on the road, and that’s not all preorders: You’ll essentially be donating money for us to tool up the factory, in exchange for a bit of film from the first run. And — perhaps shocking, perhaps not — the Kickstarter campaign is within striking distance of its goal. It’s in its final week, and yesterday zoomed past the $300,000 mark.

Test image, shot on a hand-assembled sample of New55 film, by Jason Edwards.

Is small-batch analog film a real and growing thing? It could be. If vacuum tubes and turntables each have their obsessive followings, and Eastman Kodak is reporting that film sales have bottomed out and perhaps turned up slightly, the market may have settled at a small specialized size that can be self-sustaining. Film will have become an art supply rather than a mass medium, and the manufacturers will be like those who make sable brushes or oboe reeds: specialty craft producers, aimed at a small but stable and profitable niche. Chris Anderson’s “long tail,” describing the lingering success of things like books and music, may turn out to apply not only to the contents of media but to the actual media themselves. The process of making them will be anything but instant, but they definitely deliver gratification.