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Click! Polaroid Snaps Back On The Scene

Singer Lady Gaga during a January announcement of her long-term partnership with Polaroid as the brand's creative director.
David Becker
Getty Images
Singer Lady Gaga during a January announcement of her long-term partnership with Polaroid as the brand's creative director.

One of the most famous names in photography is trying to make a comeback.

Polaroid, the company that popularized instant photography, has struggled in recent years and even announced it would stop making its famous instant film. But starting Thursday, a partner of Polaroid is selling instant film and Polaroid is selling a new image.

When it comes to image, it's hard to top Lady Gaga: singer, fashion maven and self-marketing dynamo. She's been recruited by Polaroid to helps spice things up.

A Polaroid instant camera makes a strategically placed cameo in Lady Gaga's latest music video for the song "Telephone"; Lady Gaga snaps a photo of Beyonce with it.

Earlier this year, Lady Gaga signed a deal to be a "creative director" for the company. She also reportedly has an equity share in the company. It's a good deal for both sides. Lady Gaga might get some money, and Polaroid gets a big boost in its effort to be cool again.

History Of Polaroid

In the 1960s and '70s Polaroid was the height of cool. It was the Apple of its day. The company was known as a creative innovator and its founder, Edwin Land, is often compared to Apple's CEO Steve Jobs. When Land debuted his first instant camera in 1948, people thought it was a miracle.

"It completely changed the relationship between people and photography and cameras. The impact of something like that, I think, is difficult to understand today," says David Bushman of the Paley Center for Media in New York.

When digital photography came along, Polaroid struggled to keep up. It came up with its own digital camera, but the camera wasn't very good, according to Mark McClusky, a senior editor at Wired magazine.

"When you think about digital cameras you think about Canon and Nikon, and then you think Sony and Panasonic and Kodak. Polaroid sort of never enters the conversation. They aren't a player," he says.

In 2001 Polaroid went bankrupt. The company was sold only to go bankrupt again. The biggest blow to Polaroid fans came in 2008 when the company stopped making instant film. By then, Polaroid was little more than a name. But in business, names have value, and the right to that name was purchased by a holding company, which licenses the Polaroid name to manufacturers that make things like TVs, picture frames and digital cameras.

Polaroid Revival

But instant film was not dead yet. A group of Polaroid fans and ex-employees formed a company called "The Impossible Project." They took over an old Polaroid factory in the Netherlands and started making instant film again, using a different process because the original Polaroid chemicals were no longer available.

"I'm sure if you made a phone call to some of the old research people from Polaroid, they would assure you that we were mad," says Andre Bosman, who heads The Impossible Project.

New black-and-white film is now on sale, and color film is coming soon. Bosman says the new film is clearer and crisper than its original film. But that may not be what Polaroid enthusiasts want. Photo historian Claude Cookman says part of the appeal of the classic Polaroid film is its less-than-perfect images.

"The colors feel quite different," Cookman says. "They are not crisp and clear and [it] has a certain retro feel to it in terms of its color and its size. And I think this is a really important dimension of it."

Bushman of the Paley Center for Media agrees. He says in this day of HDTVs and digital photography, there's something quaint, otherworldly to traditional Polaroid film.

"It has a very nostalgic value to it for that reason," he says.

Eking Out A Market

Polaroid's Scott Hardy says there is a market for instant film — even if it's a small one. But the company's not banking on film alone. It sells other products, including a digital camera with a built-in instant printer. But McClusky is skeptical that Polaroid will become a household name again.

"It seems unlikely to me that Polaroid's going to regain that status in the marketplace. You know, stranger things have happened in this world but they have a long road ahead of them," he says.

Whatever happens with Polaroid, at least it's got Lady Gaga along for the ride.

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Barry Gordemer
Barry Gordemer is an award-winning producer, editor, and director for NPR's Morning Edition. He's helped produce and direct NPR coverage of two Persian Gulf wars, eight presidential elections, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and hurricanes Katrina and Harvey. He's also produced numerous profiles of actors, musicians, and writers.
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