In fact, such an experiment is taking place on an even smaller scale in Massachusetts. A tech entrepreneur named Bob Crowley has been trying, with a small group of enthusiasts, to reproduce (and even improve upon) the specialized large-format instant film known as Polaroid Type 55. Type 55 was never in widespread consumer use — it was a product meant for big old-style view cameras that require a cloth over the photographer’s head — but those who bought it loved it, right up until it went away in 2009. (Today, a box of Type 55 that’s been stored properly in a refrigerator can sell for a couple of hundred dollars.) Ansel Adams was a particular aficionado, principally because Type 55 produced not only an instant print but also a big, luscious photographic negative.
If Crowley can start this business — he’s just now lining up funding — his New55 product is not going to be a huge profit-generator. (Nor will it be cheap. Six dollars a frame is, he said, his likely retail cost, a price that I doubt people at Kodak would ever deem sustainable.) But go to his Web site, new55project.blogspot.com, and read the comments. The enthusiasm level is palpable, and a market — of some indeterminate size — appears to be out there.
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4 The little yellow box is still golden.
The original Polaroid Corp. may be gone, but its name — once among the most rock-solid brands in America, one that still contains a lot of equity — is not. It’s owned today by a joint venture of Hilco and Gordon Brothers, two private-equity firms that bought it after Polaroid’s second bankruptcy. To their credit, the firms know what they’ve got, and they have been able, through licensing, to introduce some interesting products (small digital printers and printing cameras, mostly) that fit nicely with Polaroid’s brand equity. They’ve also got a lot of more commodified deals going, whereby the name appears on inexpensive TVs and video-game controllers and, yes, digital cameras.
Polaroid has also entered into a deal with Impossible to relabel some of its products “Polaroid Classic,” which suggests that they understand the warm feelings still emanating from Polaroid’s illustrious past.
That, itself, is a lesson to the buyers of Kodak’s film business: Don’t neglect the equity in that box. The amount of name recognition — a sign behind the counter of every convenience store in the world — is staggering. “You know,” a friend in the photo business recently said to me, “it does seem that all people want from Kodak is little yellow boxes of film.” That’s not the whole story, but you can see what he means, and nearly everyone who cares about the photographic arts is hoping that someone generous and deep-pocketed is feeling the need for a Kodak moment.
Bonanos, a senior editor at New York magazine, is author of “Instant: The Story of Polaroid,” from Princeton Architectural Press.