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

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.

"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.

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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."

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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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