LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
One of the most famous names in photography is trying to for a comeback. Polaroid, the company that popularized instant photography, has struggled in recent years. It even announced it would stop making its famous instant film. But starting today, an upstart company is selling Polaroid-compatible film, and Polaroid is selling a new image.
NPR's Barry Gordemer reports.
(Soundbite of song, "Telephone")
LADY GAGA (Singer-songwriter): (Singing) Stop calling. Stop calling. I don't wanna think anymore.
BARRY GORDEMER: That's Lady Gaga - singer, fashion maven and marketing dynamo. Her new music video for the song "Telephone" is chock-full of strategically placed products, and Polaroid is among the most visible.
(Soundbite of song, "Telephone")
LADY GAGA: (Singing) ...but there's no one home and you dont get to reach my telephone.
GORDEMER: Lady Gaga isn't just a Polaroid fan. This year she signed a deal to become a creative director. Reportedly she also has an equity share in the company. It's a good deal for both sides. Gaga might get some money, and Polaroid gets a big boost in its effort to be cool again.
(Soundbite of Polaroid ad)
Unidentified People: (Singing) Meet the swinger, the Polaroid swinger. Meet the swinger, the Polaroid swinger.
GORDEMER: In the 1960s and '70s, Polaroid was the height of cool. It was the Apple of its day, a creative innovator whose founder, Edwin Land, is often compared to Apple's CEO Steve Jobs.
Mr. DAVID BUSHMAN (Paley Center for Media, New York): When people talk about him, they use words like dazzling or fascinating. Not so much his personality as his knowledge and his genius that kind of overwhelmed you.
GORDEMER: That's David Bushman of the Paley Center for Media in New York. He says when Land debuted his first instant camera in 1948, people thought it was a miracle.
Mr. BUSHMAN: It completely changed the relationship between people and photography and cameras. And the impact of something like that, I think, it's difficult to understand today.
GORDEMER: Polaroid was a household name, but then digital cameras got big and who needed instant film when you had digital? Polaroid came up with its own digital camera but it wasn't very good, says Mark McClusky, a senior editor at Wired magazine.
Mr. MARK MCCLUSKY (Wired Magazine): When you think about digital cameras, you think about Canon and Nikon, and then you think about Sony and Panasonic and Kodak. Polaroid sort of never enters the conversation. You dont even - they aren't a player.
GORDEMER: Polaroid's reputation shriveled. In 2001, the company went bankrupt. Then it was bought by a man who later would be convicted of running a multi-billion dollar Ponzi scheme. The biggest blow came in 2008 when Polaroid announced it would stop making its iconic instant film. The company went bankrupt again. By then Polaroid was little more than a name. But in business, names have value.
Mr. SCOTT HARDY (President, PLR IP Holdings): Polaroid is a global brand that has 100 percent recognition against the likes of companies like McDonalds, Nike, Disney.
GORDEMER: That's Scott Hardy, the president of PLR IP, the company that bought the Polaroid name and licenses it out to manufacturers. But instant film was not dead yet. A group of Polaroid fans and ex-employees formed a company called The Impossible Project. They took over an old Polaroid factory in the Netherlands and started making instant film again, using a different process though, because the original Polaroid chemicals were no longer available.
Andre Bosman headed up the project.
Mr. ANDRE BOSMAN (Director, The Impossible Project): I'm sure if you would make a phone call to some of the old research people from Polaroid, they would assure you that we were mad.
GORDEMER: It was an incredible risk, but last year The Impossible Project struck a licensing deal with PLR IP. New black-and-white film goes on sale today, color is coming soon. Bosman says it's clearer and crisper than the original film. But that may not be what Polaroid enthusiasts want. Photo historian Claude Cookman describes the appeal of the original film.
Professor CLAUDE COOKMAN (Indiana University): The colors feel quite different. They are not crisp and clear and it has a certain retro feel to it in terms of its color and its size. And I think this is a really important dimension of it.
GORDEMER: And here again is David Bushman of the Paley Center.
Mr. BUSHMAN: Today when we're used to looking at, you know, HDTV and digital photography and so on, there's something very quaint and very sort of, I dont know what the comparable word to otherworldly is, but it has a very nostalgic value to it for that reason.
GORDEMER: Polaroid's Scott Hardy says there is a market for instant film even if it's a small one. And the company's not banking on film alone. It also sells other products, including digital cameras, one with a built-in instant printer. But technology journalist Mark McClusky is skeptical that Polaroid will become a household name again.
Mr. MCCLUSKY: It seems unlikely to me that Polaroid's going to regain that status in the marketplace. You know, stranger things have certainly happened in this world but they have a long road ahead of them.
GORDEMER: Whatever happens with Polaroid, at least it's got Lady Gaga along for the ride.
Barry Gordemer, NPR News, Washington.
WERTHEIMER: You can read about how a team of Dutch scientists reinvented Polaroid's photographic process and see photos from The Impossible Project at our Web site, npr.org.
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