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.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 7
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    AP/Jae C. Hong

    Your summer in extreme weather

    California drought

    Since May, California has faced a historic drought, resulting in the loss of 63 trillion gallons of water. 95.4 percent of the state is now experiencing "severe" drought conditions, which is only a marginal improvement from 97.5 percent last week.

    A recent study published in the journal Science found that the Earth has actually risen about 0.16 inches in the past 18 months because of the extreme loss of groundwater. The drought is particularly devastating for California's enormous agriculture industry and will cost the state $2.2 billion this year, cutting over 17,000 jobs in the process.

       

    Meteorologists blame the drought on a large zone (almost 4 miles high and 2,000 miles long) of high pressure in the atmosphere off the West Coast which blocks Pacific winter storms from reaching land. High pressure zones come and go, but this one has been stationary since December 2012.

    Darin Epperly

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Great Plains tornadoes

    From June 16-18 this year, the Midwest was slammed by a series of four tornadoes, all ranking as category EF4--meaning the winds reached up to 200 miles per hour. An unlucky town called Pilger in Nebraska was hit especially hard, suffering through twin tornadoes, an extreme event that may only occur every few decades. The two that swept through the town killed two people, injured 16 and demolished as many as 50 homes.   

    "It was terribly wide," local resident Marianne Pesotta said to CNN affiliate KETV-TV. "I drove east [to escape]. I could see how bad it was. I had to get out of there."   

    But atmospheric scientist Jeff Weber cautions against connecting these events with climate change. "This is not a climate signal," he said in an interview with NBC News. "This is a meteorological signal."

    AP/Detroit News, David Coates

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Michigan flooding

    On Aug. 11, Detroit's wettest day in 89 years -- with rainfall at 4.57 inches -- resulted in the flooding of at least five major freeways, leading to three deaths, more than 1,000 cars being abandoned on the road and thousands of ruined basements. Gov. Rick Snyder declared it a disaster. It took officials two full days to clear the roads. Weeks later, FEMA is finally set to begin assessing damage.   

    Heavy rainfall events are becoming more and more common, and some scientists have attributed the trend to climate change, since the atmosphere can hold more moisture at higher temperatures. Mashable's Andrew Freedman wrote on the increasing incidence of this type of weather: "This means that storms, from localized thunderstorms to massive hurricanes, have more energy to work with, and are able to wring out greater amounts of rain or snow in heavy bursts. In general, more precipitation is now coming in shorter, heavier bursts compared to a few decades ago, and this is putting strain on urban infrastructure such as sewer systems that are unable to handle such sudden influxes of water."

    AP/The Fresno Bee, Eric Paul Zamora

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Yosemite wildfires

    An extreme wildfire burning near Yosemite National Park forced authorities to evacuate 13,000 nearby residents, while the Madera County sheriff declared a local emergency. The summer has been marked by several wildfires due to California's extreme drought, which causes vegetation to become perfect kindling.   

    Surprisingly, however, firefighters have done an admirable job containing the blazes. According to the L.A. Times, firefighters with the state's Department of Forestry and Fire Protection have fought over 4,000 fires so far in 2014 -- an increase of over 500 fires from the same time in 2013.

    Reuters/Eugene Tanner

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Hawaii hurricanes

    Hurricane Iselle was set to be the first hurricane to make landfall in Hawaii in 22 years. It was downgraded to a tropical storm and didn't end up being nearly as disastrous as it could have been, but it still managed to essentially shut down the entire state for a day, as businesses and residents hunkered down in preparation, with many boarding up their windows to guard against strong gusts. The storm resulted in downed trees, 21,000 people out of power and a number of damaged homes.

    Debbie Arita, a local from the Big Island described her experience: "We could hear the wind howling through the doors. The light poles in the parking lot were bobbing up and down with all the wind and rain."

    Reuters/NASA

    Your summer in extreme weather

    Florida red tide

    A major red tide bloom can reach more than 100 miles along the coast and around 30 miles offshore. Although you can't really see it in the above photo, the effects are devastating for wildlife. This summer, Florida was hit by an enormous, lingering red tide, also known as a harmful algae bloom (HAB), which occurs when algae grow out of control. HABs are toxic to fish, crabs, octopuses and other sea creatures, and this one resulted in the death of thousands of fish. When the HAB gets close enough to shore, it can also have an effect on air quality, making it harder for people to breathe.   

    The HAB is currently closest to land near Pinellas County in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is 5-10 miles offshore.

  • 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>