MiNT engineers a revolution in instant photography

My first encounter with Gary Ho was purely serendipitous. It was December 2010. We were in the hip Nakameguro neighborhood in Tokyo, of all places, waiting to attend the opening exhibition of the Impossible Project Space. We struck up a conversation, and I quickly learned that Gary was the Founder of MiNT, an online shop turned physical space that repairs and refurbishes used Polaroid cameras for use with the newly launched Impossible photographic materials. It was a relatively good time for instant photography. A hopeful time.

Over the years, Gary and his team have saved thousands of Polaroid SX-70 & SLR670 cameras from the scrapheap. MiNT extended not only the useful life of these models, but also enhanced their functionality, by designing accessories such as flash bars, timers, filters, and lens sets that offered more possibilities for creative expression. Then in 2015, MiNT invented the world’s first twin lens instant camera, the InstantFlex TL 70, followed by a 2.0 version a year later. Quietly, and patiently, MiNT is revolutionizing the instant photography landscape.

© Johnny Gin

© Johnny Gin

Polagraphy: Can you tell us a little bit about your background, and how you got started with MiNT?

GH: I was always interested in photography, engineering, and business. My university training was in engineering. Photography is interesting to an engineer because the device used by the photographer is mechanical, but the result is artistic in nature. We set out to make tools for artists. Not many industries are exposed to the diversity that we have. You've got to deal with the engineers and scientists on one side, and the artists and photographers on the other. I've always considered myself a generalist in the engineering field, and a specialist outside of it. MiNT was just the natural thing to do.

Polagraphy: I saw on your website that you’ve made Edwin Land the Godfather of MiNT. How has he influenced your thinking in terms of your products and your strategy?

GH: If you look at the products that Polaroid invented when Edwin Land was still in charge, you can sense a touch of magic in them. The magic is what we're trying to recreate, with these ingredients: simplicity, sophistication, and surprise.

It is easy to complicate things, but difficult to make things simple. Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler. But simplicity does not mean unsophisticated. We are constantly trying to walk the fine line between sophisticated features and ease of use.

Consider the SX-70. It is a very sophisticated machine that can do many things. It can shoot close-ups, portraits, landscapes. It can operate under a wide range of lighting conditions. It has very good lenses and produces mesmerizing images with its chemical film. Yet, it is very simple to use. Basically it only has one button and two knobs, one of which you almost never need to use. And it folds flat when you don't use it. Just like a magic box.

Sophistication also means attention to detail. There are a lot of details in Edwin Land's inventions if you look closely.

I think one reason Edwin Land did not approve of the OneStep box-type Polaroid cameras is that although it was simple to use, it lacked sophistication and surprise.

© Johnny Gin

© Johnny Gin

Polagraphy: In the beginning, MiNT refurbished Polaroid cameras for new users. Then it started developing very useful accessories such as flashes, timers, etc, giving photographers more and more control. Then a couple of years ago, you created the InstantFlex TL70, a new instant camera, from scratch. What was the concept behind that? Why was it important to develop an instant camera that gave the photographer so much manual control over the final image?

© Johnny Gin

© Johnny Gin

GH: Instant cameras used to be the dominant way of taking pictures. Then came 1-hour processing and digital cameras. The role of instant cameras has changed throughout the years. Right now, there are mainly two types of people who use instant cameras. People who enjoy the spur of the moment, and people who enjoy the photographic process. Some people use instant cameras for both. I don't believe many people use instant cameras to record an event anymore.

There was a time when Polaroid cameras were the main instruments used to record events. This has become outmoded. We now think of how to design a product to maximize enjoyment of the photographic process, and the answer happens to be more control over the final image.

The concept behind InstantFlex TL70 was to make an instant camera that Polaroid might have invented if Dr. Land were still here today.

Polagraphy: Edwin Land invited different photographers to test and write reports on Polaroid cameras and instant film. Ansel Adams was said to be one of the staunchest proponents of Polaroid. There was a long list of artists such as David Hockney, Andy Warhol, Lucas Samaras, David Levinthal, and Chuck Close, who made creative use of instant cameras and materials to great effect. Do you work with any local or international artists who create images with MiNT cameras and provide constructive feedback?

GH: A significant difference between now and the old Polaroid days is the ubiquity of digital cameras and the widespread adoption of the Internet. I would even argue that digital cameras and social media have changed the way we define "photographers". In the old days, the line was clear between "famous" and "anonymous". The advent of social media has given rise to a lot of "not-the-most-famous-but-promising" artists and photographers in whom I am actually more interested. It can be an ordinary person with a day job or even an old lady. Of course, they are not as good as Ansel Adams or David Hockney, but then we have a more diverse pool of talent and we can watch them grow.

Actually I don't mind working with famous artists as long as there is no conflict of interest (such as having a contract with another company).

Polagraphy: Analog photography seems to be staging a strong comeback over the past few years, why do you think analog processes have such an enduring appeal?

GH: Analog photography has always existed, but then came digital photography which made recording and sharing events much easier. It has also made photography more popular than ever before. I think the more people understand photography, the more they realize the benefits of analog.

For instant photography, there's something magical about holding a tangible photo in your hands. It's something we crave for and I would even say that it is a human need, just like coffee.

© Johnny Gin

© Johnny Gin

Polagraphy: The Holga is another well-known camera that was invented in Hong Kong in the 1980s. Do you see any parallels between Holga and MiNT?

GH: We are two very different companies. Holga has their own factory to manufacture cameras. We don't own any factories. Holga sells plastic cameras for cheap. We are definitely not going down that path. The only similarity I see is that we're both enthusiastic about cameras and both from the same city. I respect them a lot.

Polagraphy: What were some of the challenges you faced in the beginning, whether they be technical, strategic, or financial?

GH: It was easier in the beginning and things got harder as we challenged higher grounds. For example, in the beginning we only sought out to provide the best refurbished cameras. Now we are trying to design the best instant cameras and manufacture them on scale. 

I will say that MiNT invented the SX-70 repair and refurbishment business. We were the first one to introduce a one-year warranty for vintage cameras. So everything was new. We had to figure out how to repair the cameras on our own.

Financially, we've been staying private with my own money because I always wanted to try out-of-the-box ideas (such as giving out unlimited free film to our users). But as we grow, I'm open to the idea of bringing in new funding partners as long as they understand the vision.

Polagraphy: Would you be doing anything differently if you were starting the company today?

GH: Probably many things. But I try not to waste time and look back.

Polagraphy: What’s next for MiNT?

GH: I envision MiNT to be a world–renowned company. We'll keep delivering surprises. Good ones I mean.