the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

OPEN ME FIRST

By MICHAEL PERKINS

NEAR THE END OF EVERY YEAR, SINCE ITS INCEPTION, The Normal Eye has cast a fond eye on the romance that persisted for nearly one hundred years between the Eastman Kodak Company and the worldwide market for amateur photography, a market it almost singlehandedly created. These posts have also included a nostalgic nod toward the firm’s famous Christmas advertising, which regularly instructed recipients of a new Kodak camera to “open me first” on the big day. Because before George Eastman could successfully put an easily operated and affordable camera into the world’s hands, he first had to answer the question, “but what will I use it for?”, a question with a very single answer: memory. 

Like every savvy marketer, Eastman knew that he not only had to teach people how to use his simple new device: he had to teach them to desire it as well. Memories were the bait. As the world first learned how to say “Kodak” (A nonsense word Eastman devised to stand for nothing but itself in any language), it also had to be sold on its most compelling use, that of a storage medium for humans’ most treasured experiences. Aided in the late nineteenth century by the infant art of mass market advertising, Eastman pitched the camera as the new, essential means of not just recording important events but conferring importance on them. A gathering, a party, a wedding, the family dog at play…these were not really memories at all, unless and until a Kodak anointed them as such. It was a new way for the world to regard its experiences, not as valuable by themselves alone, but valuable because a Kodak, one’s own Kodak, had captured them. Today, we still react to life with the same urgent need. This will make a great picture. I have to get a picture of this. 

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Advertise photography without using a photograph? Hey, welcome to 1900, folks.

And what could be a greater potential harvesting ground for these memories than Christmas Day? Almost from Kodak’s beginnings, Eastman mounted annual ad campaigns that emphasized how precious, how fleeting were the moments of joy and discovery that accompanied the opening of presents, certainly when those presents included a new Kodak camera. As seen in the above image, this sales pitch started even before most major newspapers could even reliably reproduce a photograph of any kind in their pages, leading to ads that touted the benefits of photography with only drawings or paintings of the product being used! Talk about the power of suggestion…..

The marketing of any product, from the automobile to the iPhone, starts with the engineering of desire, of convincing consumers they need a thing and then selling it to them. With luck, the buyer sees that they do, indeed, “need” that thing (even if they never knew it before), and come to think of it as indispensable. And so it was with the ability to freeze time in a box. As in Eastman’s time, we still see the value of those boxes, even as their functions have shifted and evolved. We still want the magic. And the trick is still enchanting. Every. Single. Time.    

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