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

"The trade-mark 'KODAK' was first applied, in 1888, to a camera manufactured by us and intended for amateur use," one advertisement explained. "It was simply invented -- made up from letters of the alphabet to meet our trade-mark requirements. It was short and euphonious and likely to stick in the public mind, and therefore seemed to us to be admirably adapted to use in exploiting our new product."

The fear that people might mistake some no-name camera for the Kodak is palpable. And for good reason. The company was not trying to promote photography generally -- though it did -- but Kodak's cameras and film and developing machines specifically, which were grouped under the heading, "Kodakery."

West explains that Kodak was not just a photography company. Rather, it promoted notions about what should (and should not) be recorded that were sometimes in sync with the times and sometimes helped to push certain ideas into the culture. West notes that before Kodak, photographs of death and other somber themes were far more common than in the snapshot era that followed. Kodak pitched its cameras, through a series of different ad campaigns, as vehicles for capturing good times, good memories, good stories. Not war, but the letter a soldier would read to comfort himself while in the trenches.


Kodak's themes resonated with a newly wealthy, pre-Depression American population that liked to go on vacation and camping. It said to them: you can capture the good life with the press of a button. It also said to them: if you don't take a picture, it's not as authentic as if you did. Kodak positioned itself -- and photography, by extension -- as the arbiter of reality with the slogan, "Prove it with a Kodak." This particular bit of Kodakery lives on in the Internet dictum, "Pics or it didn't happen."

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Photographs came to represent something more than a portrait. They became extensions of our minds; they replaced our memories. And within all that abundance, some order became necessary. Takers of many photographs had to figure out what was worth including. Kodak offered advice in the form of pamphlets and "little books" and ads, West argues, that pushed photographers into nostalgic modes of thinking.

"[Kodak] taught amateur photographers to apprehend their experiences and memories as objects of nostalgia," West writes, "for the easy availability of snapshots allowed people for the first time in history to arrange their lives in such a way that painful or unpleasant aspects were systematically erased."

Snapshots were a kind of social media: they were designed to be shared in the once-ubiquitous albums of yesteryear. As with Facebook Timeline, the photo album was supposed to begin as soon as one was born and should continue until they day one died.

While Mark Zuckerberg called Timeline "an important next step to help you tell the story of your life" that would allow you to "highlight and curate all your stories so you can express who you really are." John Updike reminds us in a 2007 essay that Kodak once had the slogan, "Let Kodak keep the story."  

"The camera both exalted and invaded domestic privacy," Updike writes, crediting a 1938 pundit with the line, "Candid photography is making us human goldfish." I recalled the stories of gyms banning "Letting Kodak keep the story constituted one more formerly human operation delegated to machines," Updike continues. "Our anniversaries and children's birthdays were remembered for us, in caches of snapshots."


While the chemistry and technology in Kodak cameras were important, it was the Kodak life that people were buying -- even using Kodak as a verb, as in, "I Kodak." Perhaps that looks more familiar in today's marketing syntax: iKodak.

"No matter what your hobby may be, a Kodak will help you enjoy it the more," one advertisement held. You'll enjoy it more because unlike the lived experience, you'll be able to "highlight and curate" just the good stuff.

Combine Apple's with-you-everywhere gadgets with Facebook's new auto-autobiographical tools and these gadgets are like autotune for personal history. You record your off-key voice and when you play it back, every note is perfect. That's the triumph of Kodakery.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of 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, 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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