Bridging the Gap Between Digital and Analog with the Impossible Project

There are thousands of things to do and see during the annual SXSW conference in Austin, Texas, not the least of which is exploring the massive trade-show floor. Sprawled throughout a large chunk of the Austin Convention Center, you’ll find booths and displays staffed by companies from around the world. It’s easy to get lost in the shuffle, but one setup that quickly caught our eye during last week’s event was that of the Impossible Project, where the folks responsible for saving instant film were showing off their latest achievement: The Impossible Instant Lab.

Supported by the Impossible Project App, the ingenious device — first unveiled last year — allows you to mount your iPhone to its top, then convert your digital photos to instant analog ones. And by getting creative with how you use the film and the app, you can do a lot more than that, as UK artist Andrew Millar makes wonderfully clear in his new exhibition in Berlin.

The Instant Lab, pictured next to a vintage Polaroid camera.
The Instant Lab, pictured next to a vintage Polaroid camera.

While folks from the Impossible Project demoed the technology to intrigued onlookers, we pulled aside Wendy Strauss from the Netherlands-based company’s New York Project Space to talk about Impossible’s first trip to SXSW, the history of the Project, and what’s up next for these analog-photography heroes.

Shutterstock: Can you give us some background on the Impossible Project?

Strauss: Impossible goes back to 2008, when Polaroid stopped production on all of their analog instant integral film. Our awesome founders took over and bought the factory before they could destroy it. As soon as that happened, we went into production making the new film, and it’s now Impossible film. Impossible makes around 12 — and continuing all the time — different generations of film. We’re constantly coming out with new frames and things like that.

What attracted you to SXSW this year?

We haven’t been to SXSW before, and it’s awesome that it’s Interactive, because the Instant Lab is really interactive. It’s been out since summer of last year. You can buy it all over the world; Impossible’s a very international company. Our factory’s in the Netherlands, and we have offices and spaces in Berlin, Vienna, New York, and Tokyo.

Are you mainly focused on showing off the Instant Lab out here?

We’re also here to show off the film, because we have so many different types. Right now, we have rainbow frames, gold frames, silver frames. We’re coming out with animal-print frames, space frames, and neon frames with black-and-white film inside, so it’s going to be super fun. We just want to keep taking it to the next level.

What else are you doing to show off your products to SXSW attendees?

We’re doing the demos, and we’re having portraits taken on an event camera, which is a really vintage, giant contraption. It’s not an 8×10 camera, but we make 8×10 film, as well. We’ve invented a new type of 8×10 film. The difference between the old 8×10 film and ours is that you don’t need to peel it apart. You take the negative and the positive and it goes through the processor and it’s all one image, self-contained. It goes well with all the integral film that we make.

Is 8×10 photography having a renaissance from your perspective?

It’s actually huge. We have 8×10 portrait days, and we work with a lot of alternative photography places, and they love it. People love to come and get their portrait taken. Anyone who has an 8×10 camera can get into it. It’s coming back. I get calls from people all the time. The film’s also handmade, so it’s pretty special.

How about the standard Impossible film? What varieties do you offer?

There are different ASA’s on all the film. There’s 600 speed, 100 speed; we also make Spectra film, which is a rectangle format. We make black-and-white and color. We just had a limited-edition run of Cyanograph film, which was a blue color. We’re always open to making it new and keeping it creative. That’s a huge part of Impossible, having that creative feeling.

Where did the idea to name the company come from?

One reason was a famous Edwin Land quote: “Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.” Edwin Land was the founder of Polaroid. We’re trying to steer away from that though. We’re trying to be a separate entity, because it’s important to us to reach out to that whole new generation of people who don’t know what film is, and to show them that you can still be creative with it. It’s an alternative in photography. The Instant Lab camera is bridging that gap between analogue and digital.

Your app was designed to integrate with the Instant Lab. What can it do?

The app is really cool. It has a scanner; you can control the exposure; you can customize the exposure, so you can do double exposures; you can change the contrast, the gamma, or the hue on it. It controls the milliseconds of how long the image on your iPhone is exposed onto the film inside the camera. And the base of the Instant Lab is the FPU, the film processing unit, so that’s going to be our standardized base for all of the Impossible cameras that we’re going to come out with. It’s a totally revamped bottom of all the integral cameras.

Image by Andrew Millar
Image by Andrew Millar

What interesting things have you seen people doing with Impossible film?

Our new negative that we use behind the film, you can duplicate it. You can bleach it and reuse it. In the past, with all the integral film, you couldn’t do that, because an integral image is one of the most complicated chemical processes out there. It’s basically a whole darkroom. But now our friends at Snap It | See It — who are super huge Impossible fans — made this great tutorial about how to bleach your negatives and reuse them. So that’s a pretty popular thing now.

How about with the Instant Lab specifically?

Tons of people are making giant collages. You can manipulate the colors more easily because you can control them with the app. You can also do double exposures, which is something that’s always been hard with a lot of the vintage Polaroid cameras, and our camera makes that a lot easier. It makes duplicating a huge, fun process, so if you section out parts of images and print them as collages, I think that’s one of the biggest fun things people are doing with it.

Cloudy with a Chance of Colour by purpelhayze
Cloudy with a Chance of Colour by purpelhayze

So what’s next for the Impossible Project?

We’re going to come out with another Impossible camera. It’s more of a real camera. You don’t need an iPhone or anything. It will have bluetooth capabilities, it will be the next level. That should come out this year, probably winter at the latest. We’re working on it right now. We’re working with Teenage Engineering to make it. They’re a really cool Swedish development company. There’s also an Android version of the Instant Lab in the works. We’re developing the app for it as we speak, and the cradle will be compatible with Android phones.

You’ve published some books as well. Which is your favorite?

Most of our project spaces are also exhibition galleries. The books that we’ve developed are mainly partnerships for exhibitions we’ve done in the past. We also have a great book called 101 Ways to Do Something Impossible. It’s a crowd-sourced creative-technique book of things you can do differently with the film, like play with the emulsion inside of it, heat it up, microwave it — it’s endless. The unlimited amount of creative things people do with it is crazy.

Photo collage by Andrew Millar
Photo collage by Andrew Millar

For more on the Impossible Project, visit their website, where you can explore all of their projects, find out about upcoming events, and enter their monthly photo competition.