Saturday, February 11, 2012

"The Impossible Project" . . . Perhaps Too Aptly Named?

This is a post about giving up on a good idea.

My old, super cool SX-70 camera and some "re-imagined" instant film from The Impossible Project. Such a good idea, going nowhere fast. (Panasonic GF-1, 20mm f/1.7)

I really, really wanted the people over at The Impossible Project to succeed. I bought a decent amount of their early attempts, knowing that what I was actually doing was subsidizing their research, rather than purchasing a viable film format at that time. And the initial progress was hopeful - the films got better. Unfortunately, they never got "good."

"Gotham" (September 2010, SX-70, TIP PX 100 film)
This is one of my early attempts with TIP film, and still probably my favorite result. Temperature sensitivity has made the TIP films very difficult to work with out of doors here in Chicago, where the temps tend to reside at either end of the extreme and are rarely settled into the 60-70 degree range where the film seems to work best.

As TIP has gone forward, it seems that the emphasis has shifted. From my perspective, it seems like TIP has essentially abandoned the idea of developing a true replacement for the Polaroid integral films, and are now just intent on milking the hipsters for every red cent they can before the fad fades.
"K Playing Scrabble" (above), "J & C At The Ballpark" (below) (May 2011, Polaroid Spectra, TIP  PZ 600 film)
You can see the marked temperature effect between the two shots above. Both were from the same pack of PZ 600 film. The top shot was taken in an air conditioned hotel room, the bottom shot was taken outdoors on a hot and humid day.
The first few iterations of the TIP films showed decent improvement - the "Silver Shade" product got closer to providing a neutral black and white, and the "Color Shade" product, while remaining washed out and very soft, was actually getting to the point where it was differentiating colors and not just a wash of muddy blue tones. You were still having to shield the prints immediately upon leaving the camera, but the UV protection was at least getting better.
"Ye Olde Ball Game" (May 2011, Polaroid Spectra, TIP PZ 600 film)
Another shot from the ballpark. In this case, the strong sepia/yellow cast actually works, making the picture seem old and giving it a nostalgic feel.

But then things seemed to stall. The email updates from TIP became less and less about advances to the film, and more and more about marketing gimmicks - "limited editions," different color image frames, accessories and refurbished Polaroid cameras priced for hipsters living in trust fund lofts rather than tip jar apartments. And as actual improvements to the product appeared to get fewer and farther between, the cost of the product got higher and higher - including the need to sometimes buy additional products to make up for deficiencies in the film itself. Right now, TIP film will run you approximately $3.00 per shot, not including shipping. Pretty steep rate for an unstable, unpredictable and (let's face it) still highly flawed product.

"Summer Garden" (June 2011, Polaroid 600, TIP PX 600 UV+ Black Frame film)
Case in point as to the gimmicks - the shot above is a special edition of the PX 600 UV+ film. Still has the same temperature sensitivity problems, still too sensitive to light during development, still a problem with uneven distribution of developer chemicals (see the cutout in the center top of the frame), but hey the enclosure is black, isn't that cool? (Of course, if you just scan the image without the "way cool" black frame - as above - you are just left with a finicky, over-priced film product.)

I don't know why the research seems to have stalled. Perhaps the technical hurdles are just too steep to overcome at the scale that TIP is able to fund. Perhaps the partial re-introduction of integral Polaroid/Fuji films has killed off some of the demand - and therefore the funding base - for TIP films. I have not used the Fuji Instax or the Polaroid 300 (which is essentially a rebranded Fuji Mini 25), but from what I've heard the quality is heads and tails above the TIP films at less than a third the cost per shot. True, the newer cameras leave a lot to be desired in the cool-factor category. Frankly, they are just plain ugly, at least in my opinion. But having an attractive box to run your film through only gets you so far if the film itself fails to deliver.

Supposedly, there are even more improved versions of the TIP films coming down the pike later this year. Indeed, the last email that I got from TIP was a bundling sale, that appears to be trying to clear out all of the old (and now for much of it, expired) film stock. However, even at the "super sale" price the per shot cost is still more than $1, which is where to my mind the cost should be in general. The new "improved" versions of the films will almost certainly be more in the $2 to $3+ per shot cost range, and if the most recent updates are any guide, improvements will likely be incremental, at best.

Perhaps I would think differently if I was more of a studio shooter. (There is some very cool work being done with these films, but almost all of it is studio work where the important factors - temperature, lighting, etc. can be controlled to optimize the result.) However, I'm not, and given the ongoing disappointment with the TIP films (not to mention the expense), I have reluctantly decided to give up on integral films altogether. The quality is just not there for the production of traditional photographic images, even in the Fuji/Polaroid integral films, and I simply don't think in the artistic way needed to elevate the types of images you can get with TIP films to get something that is worth clicking the shutter.

I sold off my second SX-70 body some time ago, and will be putting the other one up on the fleaBay this weekend. I still dream of TIP (or perhaps Fuji, Polaroid or ?????) resurrecting the SX-70 with a quality film product to run through it, I don't think the chances are at all likely, and I would rather use my time and money to subsidize other aspects of the (still shrinking) film market that provide me with the quality and usage experience that make them worthwhile now, rather than those that dangle the chance of that on some ill-defined future date while expecting me to pay premium rates for an inferior product.

Sorry TIP . . . it's not me, it's you. Later.

"Wake Me Up When You Get Your S#*t Together" (June 2011, Polaroid 600, TIP PX 600 UV+ film)

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