Out of Focus

The rise of snapshot culture


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In January, Eastman Kodak filed Chapter 11 documents in U.S. bankruptcy court. Its debts exceeded its assets by approximately $1.7 billion. The New York Stock Exchange delisted it. Three weeks later, the company announced that it will stop making digital cameras, camcorders, and digital picture frames some time this year in an effort to cut costs and further reduce its workforce. Apparently Kodak believes there are people somewhere who will still buy whatever it will still be selling at that point, but according to all the experts, the company that created a mass market for personal photography has officially morphed from viable commercial enterprise into picturesque curio, another victim of the Internet’s punishing economies.


Like many other media behemoths that fell before it, Kodak had trouble embracing the notion that the products it had sold effortlessly and profitably for so long would become worthless so quickly. So a few horny geeks had started trading 256-color images of old porn mags on CompuServe. So what? So digital cameras were getting cheaper and more powerful. Who cares? Hundreds of millions of people around the world weren’t going to just stop buying film overnight. “You come back in 10 years, there will be a film business here,” a Kodak executive told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in 2009. Six months later, the company discontinued the last remaining version of its iconic Kodachrome line.

“They were a company stuck in time,” Ryerson University professor Robert Burley explained to Bloomberg News. But if any company should have recognized what 2012 would be like in, say, 1988, Kodak should have. After all, it pretty much invented 2012 in 1888. That was the year that company founder George Eastman introduced the Kodak No. 1, catalyzing a new way of looking at the world, a new mode of existence that would make Kim Kardashian a millionaire and Mark Zuckerberg a billionaire.

As Alexis Madrigal explains at The Atlantic, Kodak referred to this new mode of existence — in which a camera or some other recording device is ever-present; in which making images, consuming images, and other forms of self-documentation and self-curation are major aspects of one’s life — as Kodakery. Unfortunately for Kodak, it wasn’t able to maintain the sort of proprietary hold on this mode of existence that the name suggests. Even in 1888, Kodakery (or as we might more generally call it, snapshot culture) was too big an idea for just one company to control.

The first production camera model, the Daguerrotype, was manufactured in Paris 50 years earlier. It cost 400 francs or approximately $50 at the time —  the equivalent of $1,190 in current U.S. dollars. It and all the accompanying equipment it required weighed 120 pounds. The cameras that followed in its wake were similarly expensive, heavy, and hard to operate. Film didn’t exist yet. Images were made on glass plates inserted in the back of the camera after they’d been dipped in a bath of chemicals in a nearby darkroom. Once a plate was exposed, it had to be developed in a matter of minutes. The chemicals involved were toxic and messy, the process exacting.

All of this meant that photography was limited to a narrow sector of humanity — wealthy and meticulous he-men, essentially, who could afford the necessary equipment and had the strength and patience to make it work. The Kodak No. 1 changed things. At $25, it wasn’t cheap but at least it was cheaper. The camera weighed just under 2 pounds. Most profound, it did away with glass plates and messy chemicals and came pre-loaded with enough film for 100 exposures, which the camera’s operator would not have to develop or print himself. The Eastman Dry Plate and Film Co., as Eastman Kodak was then known, would take care of all that. “A division of labor is offered, whereby all the work of finishing the pictures is done at the factory, where the camera can be sent to be reloaded,” an 1888 Kodak advertisement exclaimed. “The operator need not learn anything about photography. He can ‘Press the button’ — we do the rest.

In her book Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia, Nancy West, an English professor at the University of Missouri, explains that the Kodak No. 1’s 100 pre-loaded exposures represented “probably over 10 times as many photographs as the average middle-class American family owned at the time.” Photography may have been an extraordinary technology, but its scope was mainly limited to whatever could be shot in a dedicated photography studio. Its output was limited by the fact that only a relatively small number of practitioners possessed the skill and equipment to produce images. 

But the studio portrait was about to give way to the snapshot. The studio portrait was deliberate, posed, static. The snapshot was casual, spontaneous, improvisational, panoptic. Even in a controlled environment like a studio, taking 100 images in a single session with a camera that used glass plates was a virtually impossible feat. The Kodak made it a routine matter, even in the harshest environments. In 1892, for example, explorer Robert Peary took three Kodak cameras and 23 rolls of film with him on his 1892 expedition to Greenland; he managed to produce more than 2000 photographs of what the New York Sun described as “superior excellence.” In a letter to W.P. Buchanan, the vice-president of the Columbia Photographic Society in Philadelphia, Peary explained that he had never before used a Kodak, “knew nothing of practical photography,” and attributed the success of his picture-making efforts to Kodak rather than his own talent. (If it sounds like he was angling for a spokesperson’s gig, he might have been: Kodak would incorporate his story into future ads.)

Did the Kodak’s capacity to document the world so exhaustively create mankind’s desire to take 2,000 pictures of snow? Or did it merely allow mankind to finally realize a dream that had always existed inside him? Either way, 19th-century consumers loved the Kodak. In the wake of the No. 1, George Eastman marketed a series of follow-up models in rapid succession, and each one was cheaper and easier to use than the one that had preceded it. In 1900, Kodak introduced the Brownie, a camera so simple the company claimed that it could be “operated by any school boy or girl.” It cost $1. Six-exposure film cartridges, which could be loaded into the camera in broad daylight, cost as little as 10 cents.

By 1905, Kodak had sold more than 1.2 million cameras. During this period, Nancy West writes in Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia, the company’s advertising focused on “the sheer pleasure and adventure of taking photographs…capturing subjects in candid moments…recording travel to exotic places.” Many ads focused on outdoor leisure activities: hunting, fishing, hiking, exploring a lake in a canoe. “Take a Kodak with you,” these ads insisted. On a one-off basis, these ads seem pleasant enough, with their pastoral imagery and mild, folksy imperatives. In aggregate, however, they begin to seem comically oppressive in their insistence that the Kodak should play a central role in every American’s life: “Make Kodak your family historian.” “A vacation without a Kodak is a vacation wasted.” “Let Kodak keep a picture record of your every outing.”

In 1888, the Hartford Courant lamented the new ethos Kodak and its customers were pioneering. “The Kodak has added a new terror to the picnic,” it opined.  “The sedate citizen can’t indulge in any hilariousness without incurring the risk of being caught in the act and having his photograph passed around among his Sunday-school children. And the young fellow who wishes to spoon with his best girl while sailing down the river must keep himself constantly sheltered by his umbrella.”

To a certain degree, there was pushback against the new breed of camera snoops and their new power to document the world. In 1893, for example, the organizers of Chicago’s World Columbian Exposition imposed a $2 fee on amateur photographers who wanted to bring their Kodaks to the Fair. In 1898, two American tourists were arrested for taking photos in Cuba. The first roused the ire of authorities when he took a snapshot of the wreckage of the U.S.S. Maine, which, earlier that year, had suffered an explosion of famously undetermined cause and sank in a Havana harbor. The second photographed a group of local children outside his hotel. He was jailed, his film confiscated to prevent the publication of images that would illustrate the abject conditions under which the subjects of Spain were living in Cuba.

But if one or two people were jailed, if thousands more were unfairly taxed, well, that still left millions more. Armed with portable and unobtrusive cameras and an infinite supply of film, they weren’t all just going to take charming snapshots of baby elephants and frowning toddlers. A new culture of surveillance began to evolve in America. In 1899, for example, a New Jersey laborer sued a woman who’d hired him to work on her farm but allegedly failed to pay the wage she’d promised. Things were going well for the laborer in court until the defendant produced a photograph of the laborer that had captured the true nature of his work habits: He was husking corn in the middle of a cornfield while sitting in an armchair! In 1900, a Republican politician in Baltimore recruited a team of 12 volunteers armed with Kodaks to discourage illegal voter registration tactics by the Democrats. The same year in Corning, New York, Kodak-wielding prohibitionists began compiling photographic evidence of hotels and saloons that were illegally selling liquor on Sundays.

In courtrooms, on the front pages of newspapers, in family living rooms, the snapshot established itself as the ultimate form of truth-telling. Ostensibly snapshots caught life as it happened. A studio portrait may have produced a startling likeness of its subject, but it was an obvious artificial construct. Individuals wore their best clothes in portraits. Their postures and expressions were deliberately chosen to convey specific qualities and values. Multiple exposures were made to increase the chances of capturing a person in his or her best possible light. Cropping, retouching, and other forms of manipulation might be applied to the final image.

Snapshots, in contrast, were spontaneous and informal, produced with no apparent forethought or calculation. And they  were thought to be natural, true, revelatory even. In his 1991 essay, Kodakers Lying in Wait: Amateur Photography and the Right of Privacy in New York, 1885-1915, law professor Robert Mensel explains how photography journals advised the era’s aspiring paparazzi that newspapers paid “fully twice as much” for candid snapshots of famous people as they did for studio portraits. “A photograph of a person’s facial expression, taken while that person was unaware and consequently not that self-conscious, was thought to be the surest way to capture the subject’s ‘real’ feelings, character, and personality,” Mensel writes.

As the 20th century progressed, a Kodak was the presumed antidote to a rising tide of Hollywood cowboys and corporate hamburgers, a populist defense against press agents, Madison Avenue, and all the other shills of mass-produced image-crafting. It could penetrate veils of publicity and marketing. It could slip behind the scenes and expose the real story. Because it was so closely aligned with notions of authenticity and truth-telling, the Kodak helped establish gawking as a legitimate activity. An inveterate ogler who might have once been challenged with an aggressive “What are you staring at?” could now confidently answer, “What have you got to hide?”

The Kodak turned millions of people into amateur ethnologists and investigative reporters. In 1902, an American expatriate opining in the pages of the Mexican Herald complained that tourists “armed with Kodaks” were wandering through a local cathedral and taking snapshots of worshipers engaged in prayer. “Oh, isn’t she a sight?” one of them reportedly exclaimed to another upon spying a withered old Indian woman dressed in rags. “You bet she is,” the other replied. “You don’t see things like that in the States. Wait and I will get her.”

The hunt for the authentic turned the world into a giant stage set and its inhabitants into props. Ironically, what began as a participatory, user-driven phenomenon helped pave the way for the passive voyeurism that would characterize 20th-century American culture. Kodak got us used to a life of media abundance, a life of looking. And while amateur “camera fiends” may have pioneered the new ethos of intrusiveness in the late 1880s, professional media practitioners ultimately proved at least as adept at delivering the authenticity the public demanded. Think of Weegee racing around Manhattan in the 1930s to snap photos of murder victims with his Speed Graphic before the police even managed to arrive. Think of the mid-century tabloid Confidential, which published unflattering snapshots of celebrities on its covers and promised “uncensored and off the record” tell-alls about Frank Sinatra’s fling with a call girl or the time that an already-sauced Robert Mitchum stripped naked at a Hollywood dinner party and “sprinkled himself” with a bottle of ketchup.

In the early days of snapshot culture, unwitting models often protested when their images were appropriated by entrepreneurial photographers and enterprising corporations. In one example that Robert Mensel recounts in Kodakers Lying in Wait, a teenage girl named Abigail Roberson “suffered a severe nervous shock” (and then filed a lawsuit) after discovering that the Franklin Mills Company had printed her portrait on 25,000 sacks of flour it was selling in stores, warehouses, and saloons in the area where she lived.

Over time, however, America’s capacity for exhibitionism began to match its capacity for voyeurism. And then to exceed it. There were so many two-timing hermaphrodites and racist nudists eager to expose the intimate details of their lives that not even Oprah, Phil, and Jerry could accommodate them all. In literary memoirs and gonzo porn tapes alike, the unrelenting candor of our overmediated era grew so commonplace that it began to seem simulated even when it wasn’t. To compensate for this glut of self-revelation, extraordinary measures were necessary to deliver moments that delivered the charge of the convincingly authentic. People began to eat hissing cockroaches for cash prizes on network TV. Convenience store assaults caught on surveillance cameras were presented as prime-time entertainment. Private sex tapes featuring famous or at least semi-famous individuals were leaked on the Internet.

How did the company that made it OK for 19th-century peeping-toms to gape at “half nude and innocent bathers” at Coney Island not figure out how to capitalize on all of this? Why, after teaching America that “a holiday without a Kodak is only half a holiday” in 1908, did it leave it to Mark Zuckerberg to teach America that lunch without a status update is only half a lunch? Ultimately, Kodak’s problem wasn’t that it was stuck in the past. Its problem was that it wasn’t paying enough attention to the past. Had history’s greatest peddler of memories and nostalgia utilized more hindsight, it might still have a future to contemplate. • 10 February 2012