Kodak is dead. Today, after weeks of speculation, the media announced the fabled camera company had filed for bankruptcy. It is a great loss that in the age of planned obsolescence and a public that seems to constantly drool over the next new, better, big, thing will probably go unnoticed by the masses. Photographers, Luddites, and hipsters will shed a tear at the loss of a pioneer in film technology — though the hipsters will only shed an ironic tear just like they did when Polaroid stopped manufacturing film a few years back.
The news will, no doubt, be bittersweet for visual historians because without Eastman Kodak much of the sources they use would not exist. Kodak is central to the rise of visual culture and the entry of photography into mass culture of the twentieth century. The arrival of the affordable Eastman pocket cameras at the turn of the 20th century allowed the middle class to start documenting their lives in a way they never could before. It made the masses part of the visual archive. It democratized the visual sphere because it made the technology of creating photographs affordable, easy to operate, and accessible.
Think of the piles of photographs in your grandparents home; how many of those piles have snapshots dating back to the 1920s? 1940? 1950? Sure the images are not great works of visual art, but they show how people understood the world around them. The subjects of the photographs are more than snapshots of nameless people and forgotten events in vaguely familiar places. They are a window into what was important to the person standing behind the camera. The images of the middle class are also images of what they thought and felt and loved and hated and believed.
Kodak is the reason I could write a masters thesis on what locals did for winter recreation in Banff in the 1920s. Without Kodak the boys who pioneered skiing would never have carried an Eastman pocket camera with them to document their day trips to the Eau Clair Lumber Camp, or the first runs they cut on Mount Norquay, or the spills on the Grizzly Street ski jump. They would not have shared their prints with each other and created albums rich in visual stories of the places and activities and people they held dear. The local story of skiing in Banff would be lost without the albums those boys created in the 1920s. On a broader level, without Kodak the Banff Winter Sports Committee could not have loaded promotional booklets with pictures of what locals did in the winter to entice tourists to come to Banff in the off-season. Without Kodak, Norman Luxton could not fill the pages of The Crag and Canyon with calls to locals and tourists to “Kodak as you go!”
None of the people whose photographs I used for my MA thesis could be considered upper class. They were all hard-working people of the middle class or the working class and the only reason they had access to the technology of photography was Kodak made it affordable. So, as the Age of Film comes to an end think about the long-term implications of what Eastman Kodak did in making photography affordable for the masses. Maybe even dig out some of those old family photographs — the ones stamped with “KODAK” on the back — and think about the memories that would be lost without those little pieces of paper to keep them alive.