the photoshooter's journey from taking to making

Posts tagged “Kodak



HOLLYWOOD LOVES STILL CAMERAS, exploiting them for dramatic impact in thousands of films over the first one hundred years of the movies. Entire plots hinge on the ability of protagonists, from intrepid reporters to dogged private eyes, to save the day or solve the mystery with a judicious snap, images that spring up in the eleventh-hour of a murder case or point to the tough truths in a medical inquiry. Seems Our Hero (or Heroine) is always on hand with some photographic device that ties the story together and brings it in for a successful landing, ofttimes making his/her camera a key player in the story. Magical thinking regarding photography is a part of the collective movie myth.


HBO’s recent (and successful) re-boot of the old Perry Mason series is the latest case of a camera becoming a key agent of action in a teleplay, spawning scads of on-line theories about the make, model and performing properties of the sleuth/attorney’s chosen kit. The candidate with the most votes so far looks to be the Kodak Vollenda, a compact folding model (see original ad, above) created by German optical wunderkind and former Zeiss employee August Nagel in 1929 and marketed in the U.S. after he entered into a co-operative deal with Kodak in 1931, the year before the Mason stories are set. The early versions of the camera produced images of roughly 1.25 x 1.62 inches, each taking up half a frame on 127 roll film, giving the shooter better bang for his film buck in terms of picture count but also limiting the size of its negatives, and, in turn, how sharp enlargements (for those climactic courtroom scenes) could be. For your average superstar lawyer shooting a lot of medium and long shots in natural light (or even darkness) with a maximum aperture of f/3/5,  this could spell trouble, at least if you were counting on the results for critical evidence. Hooray for Hollywood.

The Vollenda in Perry Mason’s era would probably have fed on the old Verichrome Pan film, with a not-too-aggressive ASA (or ISO) of 125…again, pretty good in brightly lit situations, but not so great when skulking around dark alleys or spying on suspects misbehaving across nightlit streets. But, ah, well, the thing looks amazing in actor Matthew Rhys’ hands, and is historically consistent with the period, despite the fact that its original $33.50 list price would equate to well over $600 in today’s currency, a bit steep for a down-on-his-luck gumshoe in the middle of the Great Depression. But, ah, well, as Billy Shakes often said, the play’s the thing, and Hollywood’s greatest photographic illusion is in selling us all the fantasy of a super camera that save the day by the end of the final fadeout.


Print it.




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. 


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.    



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.


Book Loft Alley, 2014.

Book Loft Alley, 2014.


THIS IS THE TIME OF YEAR, IN THE DAYS OF FILM, WHEN THE EASTMAN KODAK COMPANY used to see a predictable surge in their annual sales, all tied to our ties to our loved ones. Each holiday season, the world’s biggest manufacturer of film reminded us that cameras were not only a great gift idea, they were the most important thing to be found under our respective Christmas trees. Their tremendously successful “Open Me First” ad campaign said it all: we couldn’t begin to truly experience all that family-centric holiday joy without a Kodak camera on hand to capture every giggle of surprise. The message was: shoot a lot of film. And if that doesn’t perfectly capture the perfect season, shoot more.

Ironically, it was the near death of film that finally freed us up from the single biggest constraint on our photographic freedom, that being the constraint of cost. Digital media, and the ease and ubiquity of cameras of all price points finally have freed the non-pros and the non-rich, making the admonition Always Be Shooting much more irresistibly urgent. We can afford  miscalculations. We can afford do-overs. We can fix our worst mistakes without converting a hall bathroom into Dad’s Wide, Weird World Of Chemicals. We can gradually develop a concept over many “takes”, and we can salvage more of those visions. We can win more often.

Kodak taught us that real holiday memories began after their cameras were unwrapped.

Kodak taught us that “real” holiday memories only began after their cameras were unwrapped.

The great photographer Ernest Haas once exhorted his students to “look for the ‘a-ha’ moment”, which meant not to be content with the first, or even the fifth framing of an idea in your viewfinder (okay, display screen). Asked in a lecture what the best wide-angle lens was, he quipped “two steps backward”, meaning that your best solution to a so-called technical problem is actually within yourself. Change your view, and change the outcome. The shot at the top of this post, as one example, only came at the end of ten other attempts at the same scene, all shot within a few minutes’ time. In the days of film, I would have had to settle for a much earlier version. I simply wouldn’t have kept clicking long enough to realize what I wanted from the subject.

Always Be Shooting doesn’t mean just clicking away madly, hoping that a jewel will magically emerge from a random batch of frames. It means keeping yourself in seeking mode long enough for ideas to emerge, then shooting beyond that to get those ideas right. Film made it possible to all of us to dream of capturing great memories. But it is the end of film that makes it possible for us to refine more of those memories before all those fleeting smiles have a chance to fade out of our reach.




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.

The Kodak Instamatic 100.

Yeah, you had one. The Kodak Instamatic 100.

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 imgresgolden 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.


Images that require little in the way of tweaking are good candidates for mobil phone cams. 1/30 sec., f/2.2, ISO 200, 4mm.

Images that require little in the way of tweaking are good candidates for mobil phone cams. 1/30 sec., f/2.2, ISO 200, 4mm.


OVER A HUNDRED YEARS AGO, WHEN EASTMAN KODAK’S AIM WAS TO PUT A CAMERA INTO THE HANDS OF THE AVERAGE EVERYMAN, their slogan, “You press the button, and we do the rest” was meant as an enticement. Not only had Kodak so simplified the processing of taking a snap as to make it irresistible, but they covered everything that happened next, allowing you to ship the camera, film inside, to them, at their cost, have them sweat the processing and printing, and ship back your photos, having also pre-loaded a fresh roll into your camera. You were covered at all ends, and this was a good thing. It was also an immensely successful thing for Kodak, which was, after all, not in the camera business, but in the film business (so shoot lots of it, hint hint).

Today’s camera phones are essentially the Kodak Brownies of the 21st century, with many refinements. Unlike the Brownie, the iPhone can intuit what you need in the way of light and aperture and supply it without troubling you with why or how it happens. Much like the box Kodaks of the Victorian era, today’s cameras are also bent on saving you the hassle of negotiating most decisions and choices. Again, this is a tremendously successful business plan, since it is safe to assume that most people would rather take the picture than think about how to take the picture.

But it is this very convenience that is a kind of strait jacket for photographers who were weaned on Pentaxes, Nikons and Canons, since, for us, the rules of engagement are lopsided. The camera is not meeting us in the middle as a co-creator or partner, but jamming us into a far corner, relegating us to the role of “the guy who hits the shutter”. Giving up all that active control can be freeing for some, but suffocating for others, and it speaks to the love-hate relationships many photogs have with their phones. On the one hand, Holy Hanna, looka these optics and ready-made tricks. On the other hand, you can feel that you’re just riding shotgun instead of steering.

With this in mind, I use an iPhone for the kind of street stuff where the concept or story is almost totally complete in itself, where I would only lose the moment or fiddle needlessly if carrying a more complex camera, or where the presence of a more obvious, “serious” camera would attract too much unwelcome attention. Damn ’em, phone cameras do buy you some invisibility and stealth, which is crazy, since much greater harm has been done by these ubiquitous little snoopercams than by all the “pro” cameras ever manufactured. Go figure.

When you take all the worry out of making a picture, you take all the responsibility and some of the joy out of it, too. My opinion, from my perch in the land of the dinosaurs. Cameras are not artists: they are tools, and when you give up the final say-so in what a picture will eventually be to a device, you get the recording of information, not the documentation of a soul.


How To Make Good Pictures, 28th Edition (1943-47). From the collection of the author.

The Long-Distance Runner: The Most Successful Photography Instruction Series In History, Eastman Kodak’s How To Make Good Pictures (28th Edition,1943-47). From the collection of the author.


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.

There was a time when this Kodak (    ) was truly intimidating. How To Make Good Pictures made it your friend.

There was a time when this Kodak Vest-Pocket Hawkeye was truly intimidating. How To Make Good Pictures made it your friend.

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