This Photographer Captures the Fragile Beauty of Expired Instant Film
In 2008, when Polaroid rang its death knell, German artist Stefanie Schneider began hoarding its instant film. The company had failed to adapt to the digital era and had already declared bankruptcy. In 2004, Polaroid’s team estimated that the company had enough raw materials to continue film production for another decade, but they had miscalculated. The last remaining factory in the Netherlands was to be shut down.
Schneider has long appreciated the fragile chemistry of Polaroids, invented by the late physicist Edwin Land in 1948. In fact, it’s the medium’s decay that exclusively interests her: Once past its expiration date, the capricious film reveals its inner beauty through wild colors and deteriorating edges. She began shooting with expired film in 1996 and has shot over 25,000 sheets to date. Losing Polaroid would mean a major upheaval of her practice. When Schneider began amassing the film, she didn’t know that she would play an integral role in its revival.
An Austrian entrepreneur, Florian Kaps, had traveled to Enschede in the eastern Netherlands to Polaroid’s closing party and met André Bosman, the factory head tasked with breaking down and selling the machinery. Kaps had an ambitious dream to save the factory. Inspired, Bosman suggested they might be able to create a new type of instant film that could work with existing Polaroid cameras.
Soon after, Kaps visited Schneider’s studio in Berlin, and their meeting galvanized Kaps’s mission to save Polaroid. Kaps recognized the renewed interest in the analog medium, much like the resurgence of vinyl records, especially among the younger generation.
The original chemistry had been lost when Polaroid’s production chain ceased, but Bosman believed they could put a team together to reproduce it using different raw materials. Kaps brought a third partner, Marwan Saba, on board, and together they raised €1.2 million ($1.7 million) from private investors. They bought the factory, and The Impossible Project was born.
Schneider formed a long-standing working relationship with The Impossible Project, testing its film as the team worked to perfect the recipe. In return, The Impossible Project—which has since been renamed Polaroid Originals—has supported her artmaking. Schneider is known for her dreamy photography and filmmaking narratives that explore desire and loneliness against the warm, light-filled backdrop of the American West. She uses Polaroid film because of its “beauty, spontaneity, and its appeal to our inner lives,” she explained.
There’s an inherent emotional quality triggered by instant film. The ritualistic, tactile quality of the medium can evoke a strong sense of nostalgia. Schneider recognizes its enchanting nature—“the magic moment of witnessing the image appear,” she said. “It captures a moment, which becomes the past so instantly that the decay of time is even more apparent. It gives the image a certain sentimentality.”
Yet Schneider doesn’t lean into the sentimentality of the medium. In her films 29 Palms and Sidewinder (both 2005), she explores “the impermanence of love: love lost; love unrequited,” she said. “Both pieces project the intensity of love, the pain of losing love, futile attempts to hold onto it, and the destructive acts we engage in to avoid abandonment.”
The ever-present character in Schneider’s work is the backdrop of the desert—the limitless land rendered through bleeding, psychedelic hues and light leaks that provoke existentialist questions. “The American West has wide, open spaces that gives us perspective on the meaning of our life,” she said. The imperfections of her expired film hint at decay and the passage of time—within Schneider’s light-saturated images is a darker undertone that speaks to the decline of the American Dream. “These imperfections illustrate that the dream is a myth that has lost relevance in today’s world,” she said.
California called to her, as she came of age in the overcast winters of northern Germany. The desert’s distinctive quality of light and complex visual history resonated with her. “Since childhood I was fascinated by America, primarily through the Hollywood films I saw that portrayed characters pursuing lofty goals, starring in rags-to-riches stories, often set in the vast expansiveness of the land,” Schneider said.
She left for San Francisco just after she graduated high school, with no money or resources to her name, working three jobs and saving up for a motorcycle. After a hit-and-run that left her leg shattered and required 30 surgeries, she moved back to Germany to heal. After studying photography and film at the Folkwang University of the Arts in Essen, Schneider moved to Los Angeles in 1996 as the city was becoming a creative magnet for artists. She met gallerist Susanne Vielmetter, who exhibited Schneider’s work at art fairs and galleries overseas, before opening her own gallery in 2000.
Today, Schneider is based out of a ranch in Morongo Valley, in the mountains near Joshua Tree National Park, where she can build her film sets, grow organic produce, and raise chickens with her husband. But she is anything but isolated, operating her Southern California and Berlin studios, and committed to aiding emerging artists working with instant film. She represents them through her own gallery, Instantdreams, which functions as an online gallery with exhibition spaces in both of her studios.
“It’s impossible to deny how different everything is when the internet’s changed the playing field so completely. Art galleries have changed, and the way artists exhibit their work has changed too,” Schneider said. Kaps saw the potential for millennials and Gen Z to embrace their parents’ medium, and Schneider sees it within the art world, too. “There’s a new generation embracing the tactile passion of working with analog film,” she said.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Kodak closed their doors in 2004 instead of Polaroid. The text has been updated to reflect this change.