The Triumph of Kodakery: The Camera Maker May Die, But the Culture It Created Survives

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The popularizer of photography is on its corporate deathbed, but the culture it created is stronger than ever

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Think about what we mean when we talk about a gadget. They are technological objects that are personal, primarily used for entertainment, branded, and planned to obsolesce. The companies that sell them often make some small amount of money on the gadget itself and a large amount of money on the purchases you make using the gadget.

This core gadget business, which makes its annual pilgrimage to Las Vegas next week for the Consumer Electronics Show, has multiple roots in the 19th century. One could argue that Edison began it or that Singer's sewing machines should be seen as its most important precursor or that Remington mastered the art of selling the gadget to profit from the accessories. Maybe pistols, or pocket watches or even, as historian Yoni Applebaum suggested, Eli Terry's fashionable clocks, which debuted in 1816, deserve spots in the gadget family tree.

But Kodak may be the most direct ancestor of the gadget business as we now recognize it and certainly of the mobile, social variety that now has such currency. The power of the company's brand in the early 20th century presages the power of Apple at the beginning of the 21st. Kodak sold a certain kind of life that people were eager to lead just as the Cupertino's outfit does today.

Despite Kodak's century of successes, the Wall Street Journal reports the company is likely to file for bankruptcy in the coming weeks. Even if it doesn't, the corporate grandfather of the gadgets business is now struggling along with a market capitalization that looks more fitting for a penny stock than an industrial giant.

This is one of the sadder corporate endings in recent memory. Kodak is the company responsible for the popularization of taking photographs and the creation of a culture of life recording that has never been stronger. Kodak may not survive, but Kodakery lives on.

Before George Eastman founded Kodak, photography -- or any way of capturing an image -- was the province of experts. Here's one preposterously long sentence on Kodak's significance from an 1890 article that appeared in the popular technical journal Manufacturer and Builder:

Most of our readers, whether photographers or not, know enough of the subject to be aware of the fact that the very general popularity of this fascinating scientific recreation is due almost entirely to the adoption, by the Eastman Company, of Rochester NY, of the ingenious idea of combining with a camera, of such small dimensions and weight as to be readily portable, an endless strip of sensitized photographic film, so adjusted within the box of the camera, in connection with a simple feeding device, that a succession of pictures may be made -- as many as a hundred -- without further trouble than simply pressing a button.

The magazine is describing Kodak's use of a roll of film instead of plates. This effectively "shrunk the memory" of the camera, so that many more exposures could be made. The Kodak No. 1 came loaded with film, making it a ready-to-use device. In fact, it came with 100 exposures, which University of Missouri scholar Nancy Martha West estimated was 10 times more photographs than an average middle-class family owned in 1888, the year the camera debuted.

"Simply by 'pressing a button,' ads assured the American public, amateur photographers could realize what had been a dominant hope of American culture since the early nineteenth century: the hope of effortless abundance," West wrote in her 2000 book, Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia.

Effortless abundance, you say? What could describe our current world of shareable digital photography better than effortless abundance? Our social, mobile moment is the realization of the original Kodak vision.

So, let's take a trip back to that time. During George Eastman's tenure, Kodak was a blanket advertiser, placing ads in many, many magazines from the 1890s onward. Kodak was such a household word that the company struggled to keep it from becoming generic.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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