By MICHAEL PERKINS
AS I WRITE THIS, I’M EXPERIENCING WHAT I CALL AN EXQUISITE TORTURE, a feeling I associate with my very first days as a photographer. The term recalls the period between when someone shoots with film and when that film comes back, and both words in the phrase are of equal power. Exquisite— because, as long as the film is in the hands of the processors, I may have made the greatest pictures of my life—and torture, because, in this waiting period, I no longer trust the choices in exposure and technique that I felt so strongly about just days ago. In short, until the mailman arrives, my little roll of film is teetering between Everything and Nothing. It’s a feeling I recall deeply, a feeling I no longer experience with regularity in the digital age.
And beyond a certain perverse nostalgia, I haven’t missed it.
Why do I even have a roll of film at the lab in 2020? Idle curiosity, mostly, sparked by the fact that, several years ago, Kodak decided to revive one of its old slide films, Ektachrome, an emulsion that accompanied me on many a key journey along the road to making pictures, and an event that intrigued me just because of its Quixotic hopelessness. I don’t miss the uncertain waiting for film because I frankly don’t miss film itself, as either a process or a tool. Of course, I can call forth specific memories of what it felt like to work that way. The mechanical moves and calculations. The limits, the frustrations. The rituals.
And the expense. Oy, the expense.
I can’t imagine teaching myself everything I’d need to learn with a new camera today, hamstrung by the economics of film. Every shot, hit or miss, costs you money. You actually pay three times for every shot; for the film itself, for making an attempt at a picture, and for paying to have your picture, hit or miss, processed. All to have the entire enterprise fail, which has happened more than a few times to many of us over a lifetime. Technology’s only essential role in the development of photography is to make processes reliable and invisible, to ensure that the machinery will get out of the way of making a picture, not ensure that a higher percentage of those pictures never get made.
Film in the hands of a master (which I sadly never was) is a crap shoot….a well-calculated, educated guess of a crapshoot, but a crapshoot nonetheless. So no, beyond the ache of memory (a phrase which is the linguistic origin of the word nostalgia), I don’t miss film, any more than I long for watering and shoeing my horse before climbing into the saddle to amble into town. It was necessary for us all to go through that evolutionary layer in order to get to where we are, with film occupying an honorable place in the same long time line that includes tintypes and glass plates. However, we don’t primarily use these formats anymore because we have learned better. I’m not disrespecting any part of that journey….but it is a journey, not a destination. You either move forward, or you nail one foot to the ground and forever walk in a circle. It’s fun to put your old Army uniform for five minutes, but you’re not going to wear it to dinner.
That said, I sure hope my slides come out good (damn you, inner child)….
Fiat Lux, Michael Perkins’ newest collection of images, is now available from NormalEye Books.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
COMBINE THE ANTICIPATION OF CHRISTMAS with a severe lesson in humility and you’ve described the process involved in exposing a roll of film in an old camera that may or may not operate properly. The “Christmas” part, that deliciously torturous anticipation that came, in analog days, from sending one’s film away to a lab, for up to a week before reviewing your results, is something that everyone of a certain, ahem, age can relate to. The humility (humiliation?) part comes when the package of finished prints arrives in the mail and your dreams crash up against the Great Wall Of Reality…delineating that ugly gap between what you saw and what you managed to capture.
I always collect older cameras that are at least technically “operational”. They click and clack the way they’re supposed to. Frequently, they spend their time as lovely museum pieces, but, on occasion, I will invest a little money to see if they are truly functional and if I can make them make pictures of any degree of quality. It’s a fairly costly operation, since older film sizes can be expensive (if they can be found at all) , and the list of qualified practitioners of the filmic lab arts is shorter with every passing year. As to how I evaluate the results, that can depend on the camera. If it’s an old Brownie and the images aren’t too good, I can’t really fault myself, since there wasn’t a lot of control I could bring to the process of a one-button box. In the most recent case, however, I was testing a Kodak Bantam Special, a fairly deluxe device that cost nearly $90 dollars in 1936 and featured a rangefinder, widely variable shutter speeds and a fairly fast f/2 lens. So in shoving a roll of extremely scarce 828 film (a bygone size with a negative slightly larger than 35mm) through the works, there were two things to determine: whether I could master the camera with a test base of only eight exposures and whether the camera was still able to perform.
One of the dozens of designs created by Walter Dorwin Teague during his time with Eastman Kodak, the Bantam Special has been called by many the most beautiful camera ever made. Now, while that may be aesthetically true, it’s an ergonomic nightmare, with controls jammed very, very close together, making it easy for ham-fisted users like me to fumble, lose their grip, even adjust one control when they think they’re working on another. In the case of this particular Bantam, most of the test roll revealed that the collapsible bellows on the camera leaks light like a sieve, producing wispy streaks across most of the frames. In other good news, the color rendition was very low contrast, with most hues having a decidedly bluish cast. Underexposure was also extremely easy, even with 400 speed film and wider apertures. And while that’s probably a mixture of old mechanics and my own poor calculation, the only way I could make the frame at left (one of the “keepers”) passable was to artificially tweak the contrast and convert it to monochrome after the fact. And that, again, is the “humility” part of our program, innit?
Moral of the story: If you ever find yourself getting cocky with the utterly cheap comfort of the digital age, take a time trip to the era when even the best laid-plans of mice and men often resulted in “what the hell?” pictures. Maybe the most enjoyable thing about shooting film, at this stage of the game, is knowing you can stop shooting film any time you want to.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE IDEA OF AMATEUR PHOTOGRAPHY, the once-revolutionary notion that anyone could own a camera and produce good results with it, came about at the exact point in history as the birth of mass-market advertising. Inventors made it possible for the average man to operate the magic machine; marketing made him want to own one, and, by owning, adopt a lifetime habit of documenting more and more moments of his life with it. Some companies in the early days of photography excelled in the technical innovations that ushered in the amateur era. Some others specialized in engineering desire for the amazing new toy. But no company on earth combined both these arts as effectively as the Eastman Kodak Company.
Every December since 2014, The Normal Eye has resurrected advertisements from Kodak’s legendary seasonal campaigns, promotional efforts that portrayed their cameras and films as essential to a happy Christmas. From the beginning of the 20th century, the company’s print ads used key words like “capture”, “keep”, “treasure”, “preserve”, and, most importantly, “remember”, teaching generations that memories were somehow insufficient for recalling good times, less “real” without photographs to document them. The ads didn’t just depict ideal seasonal tableaux: they made sure the scene included someone recording it all with a Kodak. Technically, as is the case with today’s cel phones, the company’s aim was to make it progressively easier to take pictures; unlike today, the long-term goal was to make the lifelong purchasing of film irresistible.
Kodak’s greatest pitch for traveling the world (and clicking off tons of film while doing so) came from 1950 to 1990, with the creation of its massive Colorama transparencies, the biggest and most technically advanced enlargements of their time. Imagine a backlit 18 foot high, 60 foot wide color slide mounted along the east balcony of Grand Central Terminal. Talk about “exposure”(sorry).
Coloramas, sporting the earliest and often best color work by Ansel Adams and other world-class pros, were hardly “candids”: they were, in fact, masterfully staged idealizations of the lives of the new, post-war American middle class. The giant images showed groups of friends, young couples and family members trekking through (and photographing) dream destinations from the American West to snow-sculpted ski resorts in Vermont, creating perfectly exposed panoramas of boat rides, county fairs, beach parties, and, without fail, Christmas traditions that were so rich in wholesome warmth that they made Hallmark seem jaded and cynical. It was a kind of emotional propaganda, a suggestion that, if you only took more pictures, you’d have memories like these, too.
Half a century on, consumers no longer need to be nudged to make them crank out endless snaps of every life event. But when photography was a novelty, they did indeed need to be taught the habit, and advertisers where happy to create one dreamy demonstration after another on how we were to capture, preserve, and remember. The company that put a Brownie in everyone’s hand has largely passed from the world stage, but the concept of that elusive, perfect photo, once coined “the Kodak Moment”, yet persists.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
GEORGE EASTMAN’S INTRODUCTION OF ROLL FILM onto the world camera market in 1884 became the biggest single factor in the mass popularization of photography. But it was not the first process to make pictures fast, easy, portable, or affordable. That honor must go to the humble tintype.
All of photography’s earliest processes were slow, inefficient in their use of light, and extremely perishable. Daguerreotypes, which recorded pictures as a positive developed on a chemically treated glass slide, created crisp, almost three-dimensional images, but they produced no negatives and were fragile, expensive one-of-a-kinds.Their long exposure times kept photography a prisoner of the studio, as well as pricing it out of the average person’s technical and financial reach.
The 1850’s saw the first appearance of the tintype, a process which recorded pictures on treated steel (no tin was ever used, ironically). This was something else again: itinerant shutterbugs at fairs and festivals could be trained to make them with a minimum of technical skill, and at a fraction of the time per exposure, with a finished portrait delivered to the customer within minutes. Better still for the tintype was its durability and portability. Thousands of servicemen posed for them before enlisting for the Civil War, and thousands more carried “counterfeits” of their sweethearts into battle. Tintypes became the everyman’s first personal photographic keepsake. They were Polaroids before Polaroid.
Like the daguerreotype, the tintype was irreplaceable, since it also produced no negative. Each image was also marked by its own visual tattoos, as uneven application of emulsion on the metal or surface irregularities in the plates”baking” errors into the pictures. Like diamonds, tintypes were beautiful partly because of their flaws: their imperfections lent them an unworldly quality, an unspoken time machine cue to the brain, an airy something that purely digital emulations have now brought back, as they have many other classic looks.
Hipstamatic, the most widespread lens and film simulator of the cell phone age, sells its own dedicated Tintype app, a cute faker that generates artificial plate grain, the random edges that occur with well-worn souvenirs, the random sharpness, even the option of decorating the conversion of your full-color original photo with the appearance of the hand-tinting of the early 1900’s. A useless toy? Perhaps, if all you do with it is to make a snap of your lunch look “retro”. But this is the world we live in: that which was once the leading edge of an art has become our plaything. Or, more precisely, tintype technique can only become either toy or tool, goldmine or gimmick, depending on whoever’s at the helm.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
FOR THE TWENTIETH-CENTURY CONSUMER, Apple, Inc. seems to stand alone in its ability to define a market for a product, fill that market before anyone else can, and engineer the very need for that product in its customers. Apple has not only wrought great things, it has convinced us that, even though we couldn’t have imagined them ourselves, we can no longer imagine life without them. That bond between provider and user seems unique in the history of the world.
But it’s been done before.
In the 1880’s, when George Eastman perfected the world’s first practical photographic roll film, the idea of owning one’s own camera was quaint at best. Early photo images were created by talented, rich tinkerers and the first few professionals, making photographers a small, select brotherhood. Even so, Eastman’s boldest idea was not his film but the affordable means to make a film user out of the average man. The new Eastman Kodak company, like Apple, conceived of a market, filled it almost exclusively with their own products, and closed the deal by proceeding to teach people not only how to use their Kodaks but how to link photography with a full and happy life.
Over the last few Decembers, I have dedicated pages of The Normal Eye to the decades-long love affair between Kodak and the world that it trained to treasure photographs. Its marketing reached its creative zenith with the “Open Me First” Christmas campaigns of the 1950’s and ’60’s, which posited the idea that nothing wonderful could happen in the life of your family, especially on The Big Day, if you failed to record even a moment of it on Kodak film.
However, Kodak’s mastery of emotional messaging was in full flower generations before the “Open Me First” pitches for Instamatic cameras and Carousel projectors. Long before television and radio, the company’s persuasive use of print carried much the same appeal: if it’s important, it’s worth preserving, and we have the tools and talent you need to do it. Kodak cameras quickly became positioned as The Ideal Christmas Present, as the company targeted newlyweds and young parents with their upscale models and cultivated the youth market with their $1 line of children’s cameras. In an early example of inspired branding, the kids’ models were marketed with the names and images of illustrator Palmer Cox’ runaway juvenile book characters, the Brownies, playful elves who were featured on Kodak packaging and ads for more than a decade, helping launch the world’s most successful lines of cameras, in continuous production from 1900 to 1980.
Not even Apple in all its marketing glory has managed to align itself so solidly with the emotional core of its customers in the same way that Kodak, for nearly a century, forged a bond between its users and the most emotionally charged time of the year. In so doing, they almost singlehandedly invented the amateur photographer, fueling a hunger for images in the average Joe that continues unabated.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
OUR GRADE SCHOOL HISTORY CLASSES DRUMMED CERTAIN NAMES INTO OUR HEADS AS THE “EXCLUSIVE” CREATORS of many of the wonders of the modern age. We can still bark back many of those names without any prompting, saluting the Edisons, Bells, and Fords of the early part of the 20th century and the Jobses and Gateses of its final years. However, as we grew older, we realized that the births of many of our favorite geegaws (television, for example) can’t be traced to a single auteur. And when it comes to photography, their are too many fathers and mothers in all ends of the medium to even enumerate.
Several tinkerer-wizards do deserve singling out, however, especially when it comes to the mindset that all of us in the present era share that photography ought to be immediate and easy. And, in a very real way, both of these luxuries were born in the mind of a single man, Dean Peterson, who presided over half a dozen revolutions in the technology of picture making, most of his own creation. As an engineer at Eastman Kodak in the early ’60’s, Dean created and developed the Instamatic camera, and, in so doing, changed the world’s attitude toward photography in a way every bit as dramatic as George Eastman’s introduction of cheap roll film in the late 1800’s. Peterson’s new wrinkle: get rid of the roll.
Or, more precisely, get rid of loose film’s imprecise process for being loaded into the camera, which frequently ruined either single exposures or entire rolls, depending on one’s fumble-fingered luck. Peterson’s answer was a self-contained drop-in cartridge, pre-loaded with film and sealed against light. Once inside the camera, it was the cartridge itself that largely advanced the film, eliminating unwanted double-exposures and making the engineering cost of the host camera body remarkably cheap. Peterson followed Eastman’s idea of a fixed-focus camera with a pre-set exposure designed for daylight film, and added a small module to fire a single flashbulb with the help of an internal battery. Follow-up models of the Instamatic would move to flashcubes, an internal flash that could operate without bulbs or batteries, a more streamlined “pocket Instamatic” body, and even an upgrade edition that would accept external lenses.
With sales of over 70 million units within ten years, the Instamatic created Kodak’s second golden age of market supremacy. As for Dean Peterson, he was just warming up. His second-generation insta-cameras, developed at Honeywell in the early ’70’s, incorporated auto-focus, off-the-film metering, auto-advance and built-in electronic flash into the world’s first higher-end point-and-shoots. His later work also included the invention of a 3d film camera for Nimslo, high-speed video units for Kodak, and, just before his death in 2004, early mechanical systems that later contributed to tablet computer design.
Along the way, Peterson made multiple millions for Kodak by amping up the worldwide numbers of amateur photographers, even as he slashed the costs of manufacturing, thereby maximizing the profit in his inventions. As with most forward leaps in photographic development, Dean Peterson’s work eliminated barriers to picture-taking, and when that is accomplished, the number of shooters and the sheer volume of their output rockets ahead the world over. George Eastman’s legendary boast that “you press the button and we do the rest” continues to resonate through our smartphones and iPads, because Dean Peterson, back in 1963, thought, what the heck, it ought to be simpler to load a camera.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
I AM AMAZINGLY BLESSED TO BE ENTERING OLD AGE, STILL TRAILING MY FATHER BY ABOUT TWENTY-THREE YEARS. Defying the odds, statistical probabilities, and luck, my personal North Star is still, at 84, providing me with a point of light to steer by. I cannot imagine a world in which he is not just a few miles ahead of me, gently insisting, “this way.” And, years after the worst the world has to offer has long since stopped generating any panic in me, the thought of life without him remains unimaginable, like trying to envision the world without gravity, or sunlight.
I can’t begin to catalogue the thousands of ways his wisdom and patience have tempered and shaped me, but it’s worth singling out his influence on my visual sense and curiosity as a photographer. I remember his intrepid search for beauty, armed with the simple tool of a Kodak Pony 828 camera, a device which both intrigued and frustrated him. During my childhood, the Pony was the official recorder of dreams, events, and possibility for the Perkins clan. We all cheered when it delivered what Dad saw in his mind’s eye. We all offered sympathy and encouragement when he asked it to see beyond its powers, when a set of Kodachrome slides entered the “better luck next time” category.
As a designer and illustrator for North American Aviation, then, later, as a fine arts teacher, he had a developed eye for beauty, a genuine instinct for how a visual story was framed and shown. Armed with my first cheap plastic camera, I only knew I wanted my images to be as good as his own. His eagerness became my ambition, and, half a lifetime later, I still regard a picture as “good” if the old man sees something in it.
Like many photographers major and minor, I am happy to make my father a subject in my own work. I am recording, interpreting and saluting his life all at once, and trying, in my halting way, to capture, in his face, all of the wisdom I have drawn from him over a lifetime. It’s a tall order, but he always taught me to go a little bit beyond what you think you can deliver. I remember him pushing the Kodak Pony to its limits, and beyond, in impossible situations. Some projects landed with a clunk, but it was always about the next frame, the coming opportunity.
There was…is….no bad photograph. Just mileage markers on the way, toward “gee, who knows?”
Thank you, Dad, for showing me that the journey is everything.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
KODAK’S SAD AND WOBBLY RE-EMERGENCE FROM BANKRUPTCY, announced this week, finalizes the process of “saving” a famous name, while annihilating the legacy of innovation that made that name great for over a century. Having already said goodbye to Kodachrome, most of its other trademark films, and camera production itself, Kodak will now concentrate on “imaging products”, which, for, most of us, means “printers”. Most of the news coverage of this corporate resurrection will “focus” (sorry) on what the new company stock will be worth, who goes, who stays, and a few scant mentions of the company’s original role as camera producer to the world.
That will leave a significant part of the story untold.
Certainly, George Eastman’s genius for marketing helped develop the first flexible roll films, then ingeniously created a market for them by putting a basic, usable camera in the hands of the Everyman. Nearly everyone has heard the slogan Kodak created to demonstrate how truly effortless its products had made photography: you press the button and we do the rest. But none of that would have guaranteed the company’s growth if Kodak has not also decided to become photography’s first great mass teacher, creating pro-active education programs to guarantee that, not only could Uncle Clem snap a photo easily, he could snap a good photo easily. What had once been a dark art for a select cabal of techno-wizards became, under Kodak’s outreach, something that could anybody could do.
And Kodak was going to show you how to do it.
Beginning before the end of the Victorian era, the company began to publish the first of an endless stream of practical guides on technique and simple theory aimed at the average shutterbug. Starting in 1898 with Picture Taking And Picture Making (115 pages of tips in a cardboard cover for fifty cents!), Eastman Kodak moved to 1905’s The Modern Way In Picture Making, and, finally, to the most successful photo instruction series in history, How To Make Good Pictures, introduced in 1912 and revised continually until finishing up with its 37th edition, in 1995. Over the years the “make” in the title had been changed to “take”, and its 1890’s essays on bromide paper, collodion matte, and ground-glass focusing had evolved, over the decades, to instructions on the use of flash, color, drop-in film cartridges, and “how to tell a picture story” with your Kodacolor slides. Hundreds of printings and millions of sales later, How To Make Good Pictures forged an ironclad link between consumer and company in a way no corporation before or since has done.
To everything there is a season. Kodak’s (now historically) tragic failure to see digital photography as a viable consumer revolution, until it was too late, is a matter of raw record. The company that taught the world to see had a blind spot, a fatal one, and the irony that nearly all of the rest of the industry developed digital technology by applying processes originated (and patented) by Kodak makes the story even sadder.
But, once upon a time, the Eastman Kodak Company not only knew what the future of photography was going to look like, it wrote a handy dandy little book that told everyone how to master that future.
Follow Michael Perkins on Twitter @MPnormaleye
- Kodak moments are just a memory as company exits bankruptcy (kansascity.com)