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.

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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.

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