Instant Dreams, director Willem Baptist’s documentary ode to the Polaroid, is as enchanting and magical as its subject. Like photography, Instant Dreams’ story inhabits the real, the hyperreal and the unreal. It chronicles the origin and rise of Edwin Land’s history-changing invention, hailed in 1937 as the future. It observes the instant camera’s contemporary after-effects, following a young woman in Japan as she takes phone-camera shots of Tokyo’s dazzling metropolis lights. It luxuriates in photography’s explosive, hallucinogenic chemical reactions. And ultimately, it roots the science and magic in the lives of a few individuals—scientists, writers, artists—who revive and preserve instant film as art and artifact.
Instant Dreams peers into these lives post-2008, the year that Polaroid Corporation announced its end to instant film production. The documentary introduces us to retired scientist Stephen Herchen, who is part of the small group of enthusiasts who bought the last working instant film factory. We meet Christopher Bonanos, a New York Magazine editor, author of the book Instant: The Story of Polaroid and a father who captures his son’s childhood with his own instant camera. We experience the day-to-day of German artist Stefanie Schneider, who lives and works in the expansive California desert. Her work specializes in expired instant film, which she keeps stored in a dedicated vintage refrigerator (in Instant Dreams, she’s shooting with the last of her original Polaroid film stock).
Baptist’s undertaking is ambitious, but Instant Dreams maintains a quietness and tenderness in its immensity. Herchen approaches his instant-film research with seriousness and focus, a labor of love. Bonanos attentively and fastidiously photographs his son, documenting his growing-up and their relationship. Schneider’s filmic storyline is especially packed with visual eye-candy and curiosities: the open sky of the remote American West; the freestanding outdoor tub she bathes in, long hair grazing the sand; the chicken that Schneider has one of her models hold for a particular shoot. As Schneider flips and sorts through photographs from her archive, we see snapshots of the vision that so distinguishes Schneider’s artistic career: washed-out edges, auroral colors, illusive characters and sunny dreamscapes. It’s the result of her work with expired Polaroid film, the chemical mutations and happenstances made into photo series, experimental films and phantasmic narratives. (It was Schneider’s work that inspired Florian Kapps to found The Impossible Project—now Polaroid Originals—a Dutch manufacturer of instant film and cameras.)
In this visual essay, Baptist mirrors the power of photography, fixating on the Polaroid as not only an artistic medium, but also a decisive technology and cultural document, a record of time that continually develops and evolves with the contemporary world. Through each impeccable shot, Instant Dreams is a journal of the rebirth of the instant photograph, of what it conveys and preserves. And most of all, it captures and highlights the human stories behind each spellbinding image. –Kathy Rong Zhou