By MICHAEL PERKINS
EACH HOLIDAY SEASON OF EVERY YEAR since The Normal Eye was launched over a decade ago, we have had some nostalgic fun recalling the glory days of the Eastman Kodak Company, the people who first took photography from a science nerd’s hobby to a global pastime, and the unique way that they influenced Christmastime gifting habits for over a century. Through an incredible, sustained campaign of persuasion that equated good times with the photographic chronicling of every major human event, Kodak cemented its relationship with its customers in a way that gave all other advertisers a key lesson in what one marketer would dub “the engineering of desire”.
Kodak was a film company that chiefly succeeded by appearing to be a camera company. In effect, the constant refinements in their cameras were a mere investment in the film side of the firm. Better, easier devices removed any resistance to taking more pictures, and thus purchasing more film. And, at Christmas, the company made the most of its relationship with its customers, using the occasion to create more users and make existing users consume at an ever-higher rate. There were several names for this ingenious marriage of form and function, and one of its most illustrious monickers was “Instamatic”.
The introduction of the Instamatic camera line in the early 1960’s was as big a leap forward for Kodak as the debut of its first Everyman camera, the Brownie, had been in the 1890’s. Like the Brownie, the Instamatic was a major advance in ease of operation. Designers Dean Peterson and Alexander Gow’s new cartridge-loaded film(which was simply dropped intact into the camera body) eliminated users’ long-time aversion to threading, and potentially ruining, traditional roll film. Its slim design made it easier to stash and carry. Its eventual use of self-contained flash “cubes” got rid of the bulk and mess of extended add-on flash guns and red-hot bulbs. And its fixed-focus lens and single shutter speed made it the world’s first true point-and-shoot.
The only challenge that remained lay in selling the new design to the public, and when the Instamatic was introduced in 1963 at a price point of $16 dollars and made the star of its Christmas campaigns for the year, the deal was sealed, to the tune of over fifty million Instamatics sold in the camera’s first seven years of production. Positioned as a cute newborn chick “hatched” just in time for your “morning-of” memories (as seen in the above ad), the Instamatic made as major an impact on the amateur market as have the cellphone cameras of today, in that they took more uncertainty out of the process of making pictures by ensuring better and more consistent results. Which is still the way you sell a ton of cameras, as you allow more and more people to get on with getting their shot on. Or, to re-frame the old “fishing” adage: Take a man’s picture and he has one picture for one day. Teach him to make his own pictures, and you’ll keep selling him everything else associated with that process forever.
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.