Why the Kodak moment will never die

An American icon flirts with bankruptcy at a time when we're more obsessed with taking pictures than ever

Topics: Photography, Nostalgia,

The death knell for film has been ringing for a long time. But the news this week that Kodak appears close to going belly up stirred a particularly poignant surge. Kodak, after all, isn’t simply a business that’s been recently downgraded by Moody’s, one that’s reportedly on the verge of bankruptcy. It’s isn’t just another humbled corporation that, as one former employee told the Wall Street Journal, once viewed itself as “undefeatable.” For almost anyone born before 2000, it’s the brand most closely associated with life and memory itself. Kodak is the company that, for decades, made its name synonymous with “moments.”

Our children will never understand what that Paul Simon song is about. Those theme park “picture spots” may soon be as obsolete as Burma-Shave signs. But photography itself is more robust than ever. There was a time when you got your picture taken on your birthday and standing in front of Mount Rushmore. Now, just try to get through dinner without someone documenting how beautiful those hot wings look tonight. I routinely see parents at the playground with cameras that cost more than the down payment on my home, snapping their children’s idle nose pickings like they’re the next Vanity Fair cover. And then I think of Robert Capa, advancing his film manually on Omaha Beach. I think of how different “a decisive moment” would have been for a photographer who had the expense of film and the hours of effort that go into developing to consider.

The rise of digital and the slow death of film have radically altered how we approach photography, but they haven’t made us value it less. They’ve just put it in more hands. Neither the simplicity of digital nor the cleverness of Photoshop can make a person a good photographer – though they can make it easier for someone to appear to be one. Just take 100 shots, crank up the vignetting on the best one, and voila! That sunset is atmospheric as hell, man. Of course, on the flip side, all the expensive gear in the world won’t make a great picture. It can just make a really, clear one.



But no matter who goes Chapter 11, our love of the magic an image can evoke doesn’t change. Neither does the way we associate pictures with the grandeur of awe and the intimacy of love. And it’s a strange kind of synchronicity that the brand so synonymous with the history of photography should be floundering just as we find ourselves playfully lapping up tools that recreate its vintage glory. The Hipstamatic app became an explosive success on the promise that “digital photography never looked so analog,” with retro pics that mimic the effects of old toy cameras and grainy, black-and-white film. Instagram became Apple’s 2011 app of the year for its similarly clever effects.

The ersatz old-school photo apps appeal because they can make just about anything look arty and cool. They’re also huge because they lend themselves to sharing across social platforms. But they also represent a new incarnation of  things that are rapidly becoming extinct — the smell of developer, the sound of film winding. They’re a new mutation of our abiding affection for things that are dinged up and cracked and scratched around the edges. Things that are a little imperfect and fuzzy. Like our memories themselves. Like our Kodak moments.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Burger King Japan

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Burger King's black cheeseburger: Made with squid ink and bamboo charcoal, arguably a symbol of meat's destructive effect on the planet. Only available in Japan.

    Elite Daily/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    McDonald's Black Burger: Because the laws of competition say that once Burger King introduces a black cheeseburger, it's only a matter of time before McDonald's follows suit. You still don't have to eat it.

    Domino's

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Domino's Specialty Chicken: It's like regular pizza, except instead of a crust, there's fried chicken. The company's marketing officer calls it "one of the most creative, innovative menu items we have ever had” -- brain power put to good use.

    Arby's/Facebook

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Arby's Meat Mountain: The viral off-menu product containing eight different types of meat that, on second read, was probably engineered by Arby's all along. Horrific, regardless.

    KFC

    2014's fast food atrocities

    KFC'S ZINGER DOUBLE DOWN KING: A sandwich made by adding a burger patty to the infamous chicken-instead-of-buns creation can only be described using all caps. NO BUN ALL MEAT. Only available in South Korea.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Waffle Taco: It took two years for Taco Bell to develop this waffle folded in the shape of a taco, the stand-out star of its new breakfast menu.

    Michele Parente/Twitter

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Krispy Kreme Triple Cheeseburger: Only attendees at the San Diego County Fair were given the opportunity to taste the official version of this donut-hamburger-heart attack combo. The rest of America has reasonable odds of not dropping dead tomorrow.

    Taco Bell

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Taco Bell's Quesarito: A burrito wrapped in a quesadilla inside an enigma. Quarantined to one store in Oklahoma City.

    Pizzagamechangers.com

    2014's fast food atrocities

    Boston Pizza's Pizza Cake: The people's choice winner of a Canadian pizza chain's contest whose real aim, we'd imagine, is to prove that there's no such thing as "too far." Currently in development.

    7-Eleven

    2014's fast food atrocities

    7-Eleven's Doritos Loaded: "For something decadent and artificial by design," wrote one impassioned reviewer, "it only tasted of the latter."

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>