Before everyone had a digital camera tucked inside their mobile phone, before the duck-faced selfies and sepia-toned filters of Instagram, before Flickr and Periscope and Snapchat, there was Polaroid.
From 1948 to the early 2000s, that name was synonymous with “instant visual gratification”. Wait 60 seconds, and the photo you just snapped would appear magically before your eyes.
Now a pair of British entrepreneurs, Tommy Stadlen and Frederick Blackford, are hoping to bring some of that magic back, this time as an iPhone app. Polaroid Swing, available Tuesday from the iTunes App Store, allows users to take “moving photos” with their phone, creating 3D images that appear to move as you swipe your fingers across them.
The Guardian previewed the app at Swing’s San Francisco R&D lab, a former coal storage facility in the heart of the city’s Hayes Valley neighborhood, with a vaulted brick ceiling and the feel of a secret catacomb.
There, a handful of employees sit at wide tables in front of 43-inch displays amongst disassembled circuit boards, hipster couches, $9 bottles of artisanal juice, and a mini-museum of a dozen Polaroid cameras, from the original Land Camera Model 95a to the Polaroid Spectra 1200 FF, circa 2001.
The decision to create a start-up built around the Polaroid name stems from a deep reverence for the history and significance of the brand, said Stadlen. The Polaroid One-Step Camera, made in 1977, is number 27 on Time’s Most Influential Gadgets of All Time. At one point, the company estimated that half of all US households owned a camera made by Polaroid.
Inventor Edwin Land registered more than 500 US patents in his lifetime – second only to Thomas Edison – and provided free cameras, film, and studio space to photographers like Ansel Adams, Mary Ellen Mark, and Andy Warhol.
The result: the Polaroid Artists Collection, containing more than 16,000 photos from 120 of the world’s greatest shutterbugs.
“Polaroid was the Apple of its time and Edwin Land was its Steve Jobs,” Stadlen added.
Neither Stadlen nor Blackford, boyhood friends who grew up on the same street in Notting Hill, London, have a background in photography or technology. Yet when they were looking to dive into the world of tech start-ups they were drawn to the story of Polaroid, the technological innovations it created, and the nostalgic pull the brand continues to have. So in 2014 they obtained the rights to the name from its current owner, PLR Inc, and set out to create something both old and new.
“In its heyday, Polaroid was Andy Warhol, buzzing around Manhattan taking pictures,” said Blackford. “We felt if we could connect the design heritage and the specialness of the brand with cutting-edge technology, and make Polaroid a forward-thinking innovation brand again, we could do something really special.”
Lazarus on film
This is not the first time Polaroid has risen from the grave.
In 2001, ten years after Edwin Land’s death and unable to compete with the explosion of digital cameras and one-hour-film labs, Polaroid filed for bankruptcy. A group of investors bought the company’s assets and licensed the name for use with a series of digital products. In 2008, the “new” Polaroid declared bankruptcy, and announced it would no longer make film for the cameras.
Shortly thereafter, a group of former employees purchased a Polaroid factory in the Netherlands to create film for the millions of cameras still in existence. Dubbed The Impossible Project, it continues to sell five kinds of Polaroid film and the I-1 Analog Instant Camera, a reinvention of the classic SX-70. In 2009, another investment group bought the Polaroid assets at auction and began licensing the name to makers of digital cameras, smart phones, and other products. It continues to this day.
Blackford said he and Stadlen have “a unique partnership with the rights holders of the Polaroid brand” , obtained in exchange for shares in the parent company, Swing. (In other words, they have the rights to use the Polaroid name for an app that Blackford calls “the first downloadable Polaroid camera”.)
Their digital Polaroid borrows a bit from both Instagram and Apple’s Live Photos app, which captures three seconds of images and audio with each still picture.
Hold the shutter button inside Swing and the app captures 60 frames in a single second; it then adds more frames in-between those, creating a smoothly flowing image with an amazing depth of field. Photographers can apply one of four Instagram-like filters to each image (Polavision, Ansel, Land, and Santa Fe), add a label, then share the image on Twitter, Facebook, or via email.
Because the app captures so many frames, users can then move around inside it using their fingers or by tilting the phone – bringing to life, for example, a rushing waterfall, a crackling fire, or someone leaping into the air.
When you share moving images on social media, they link back to the Polavision Web site, so others can see the full range of motion without having to install the app. Users can follow and be followed by other Polaroid Swing users. Unlike Instagram, however, there’s no way to comment on each other’s images – yet.
“Human beings see the world in these short moments,” said Stadlen. “So when you think about your first kiss, or a home run, or the way your mom smiled – it’s a flash, a little moment. It’s not a still, it’s not a video. So we thought, how do we get technology to catch up with the way the human brain sees the world?”
A crowded market
Like a lot of Silicon Valley startups, Swing boasts an impressive pedigree. Its roster of 10 employees includes former denizens of Apple, Google, and Airbnb; Matthew Rothenberg, one of the early people behind Flickr, is the company’s “embedded advisor”. Polaroid Swing’s chair (and one of its primary investors) is Biz Stone of Twitter fame.
Stadlen and Blackford have further plans for the fairly minimalist app – to add more filters and more ways to share images, as well as an Android version; Stadlen also says “some pretty cool stuff in hardware” is coming down the road. But in a world where Instagram boasts half a billion active users and the mobile stores are stuffed with hundreds of photo apps, the pair face a steep uphill climb to gain anything close to the popularity of the famous brand.
How can they hope to succeed when so many others have failed?
“It goes back to the original purpose of Polaroid,” said Blackford. “This isn’t a new idea for a startup. We’re trying to understand what was the core vision of Land and Polaroid, then surrounding that with fantastic backers, fantastic engineers and designers, and connecting with that core DNA.”
Despite the challenges, the pair remain undeterred.
“We are on a mission to re-imagine photography for the mobile era,” said Stadlen. “We are trying to answer the question, ‘If Edwin Land were alive, what would he do to smartphone photography today?’”