polaroid cameras

The Berlin startup bringing a 70s icon back

Oskar Smolokowski
Instant portrait: Oskar Smolokowski, CEO of Polaroid Originals. Source: Marc-Steffen Unger for Handelsblatt

The place looks like your typical Berlin startup. A factory floor, complete with a vintage leather sofa and a DJ booth, collectible, retro cameras on the shelves and Polaroids everywhere. The latter show pictures of the Berlin sky, the plants on the office shelves and snapshots of hip, young guests at a company party.

And in many ways, the headquarters of Polaroid Originals is much like a startup, argues the company’s CEO, Oskar Smolokowski. “It took [Polaroid’s founder, Edwin] Land 40 years of fine-tuning to achieve the great quality that Polaroid had. We had to start from the very beginning,” Mr. Smolokowski, 28, says. “We really are a startup.”

The current incarnation of Polaroid, based in the German capital, has been a long time coming – 80 years in fact. At the height of its success, Polaroid was one of the most admired tech companies around. Based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, it had turnover of around $2 billion and 50,000 staff. The brand was known around the world for its distinctively designed instant cameras, the film that came with them and the photos they made. But years of mismanagement drove the company into the ground, with its first bankruptcy declared in 2001.

“Each picture is one-of-a-kind and has value, as opposed to cell phone photos, which are infinitely available and don’t cost anything.”

Andreas Kesberger, photographer

But by then, the cameras had also gained cachet with a new generation, a charming retro throwback in the Instagram age. At this stage Florian Kaps, an Austrian who had been working for a company called Lomography, producing a new generation of Soviet-era-style cameras, had a bright idea: He started buying up old Polaroid cameras and film, renovating the cameras and then re-selling them. When the last Polaroid factory was due to close in the Netherlands, Mr. Kaps approached the ailing company, took over the lease, sold the remaining film stock and renovated the factory.

The plan was to start Polaroid producing again. But, as Mr. Smolokowski, has noted, it wasn’t that easy. “Everything has to be in perfect harmony,” he says. “The camera is like a miniature dark room.”

The US company had spent years refining their processes and cameras and the Dutch factory was only one cog in a long production line. In addition, many of the chemicals that Polaroid used to make its distinctive-looking snapshots were either no longer available, illegal or outdated. When the new owners finally had a product to sell a few years later, it couldn’t really be called “instant” – a picture took around 40 minutes to develop and looked nothing like the original snapshots. Even today, the pictures take between 15 and 20 minutes to fully develop their colors and photographic reviewers say the quality is still not the same as the original.

0200382437 polaroid camera pr cut
Introducing the son of the One Step. Source: PR

Mr. Smolokowski got involved in 2012 when a friend suggested he visit the Polaroid store in New York; he had just finished studying there and had his first job with a music label. At the time, Mr. Kaps had renamed the whole Polaroid project “the Impossible Project” because of something the original founder, Mr. Land, had said about a project not being worth doing unless it’s “manifestly important and nearly impossible.”

Mr. Smolokowski bought a camera and was fascinated by the imperfect pictures that emerged. “I knew I wanted to be involved,” he says today. So he started working there as an intern before eventually convincing his father, Slava Smolokowski, one of Poland’s richest men, who earned his fortune in oil trading, to back the company.

In 2014 Mr. Smolokowski became CEO and in 2017, on the 80th birthday of the founding of Polaroid, he changed the name of the company back, from the Impossible Project to Polaroid Originals.

And in September last year, he introduced the modern version of the One Step camera, an old favorite, called the OneStep2. Polaroid Originals is also responsible for the I-1, another instant camera but with a very different, and less retro, design. The latter can also be connected to your digital phone.

A woman takes a picture with the Impossible I-1 analog instant camera on the Photokina fair for imaging in Cologne
Mr. Smolokowski's other baby, the I-1. Source: Reuters

 

According to the CEO, the aim isn’t to compete with digital. “Our photos are for very special moments – weddings, vacations,” Mr. Smolokowski said. At $16, a pack of film doesn’t run cheap, but photographer and industry insider Andreas Kesberger argues that there’s sufficient demand. “The strategy can succeed,” he says. “It’s something to hold. Each picture is one-of-a-kind and has value, as opposed to cell phone photos, which are infinitely available and don’t cost anything.”

Polaroid used to produce more than a million cameras a year before it declared insolvency a decade ago. From then on, Japan’s Fuji was the only company making instant cameras, selling more than five million in 2016. Mr. Kesberger believes that there’s an appetite for more than just those mass-produced devices, particularly if the Polaroid name is involved. “It was extremely smart to buy the trademark rights, too, after buying the factory and to bring those together,” he told Handelsblatt.

Other fans have said that just like vinyl records in the music industry and independent bookstores, there’s a certain charm to the unpredictability of it all and the low-fi aesthetic, as well as to the hands-on nature of a Polaroid picture.

When it comes to Polaroid’s financials, Mr. Smolokowski won’t give a lot away but one might assume that his strategy is working. He does confirm that sales of the instant film have grown about 20 percent annually over the years. As for the cameras themselves, this year Polaroid has had trouble keeping up with the Christmas demand, especially in China. In the run-up to the holiday season, its new model quickly sold out in stores, and online buyers had to wait weeks for delivery.

Corinna Nohn is a staff writer at Handelsblatt. This story was adapted into English for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the author: nohn@handelsblatt.com

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