Celebrating the days when Kodak was king
HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA — May is National Photo Month in the United States - one of those marketing-based celebrations created, years ago, to promote the sales of photographic equipment and especially, film. Of course, things have changed since those first National Photo Months, as film has been steadily losing ground to the newer option of digital image capture. Within the last year, Nikon announced that it was dropping all but two of its film cameras, Konica Minolta (an economically motivated merger of two major camera manufacturers) went out of the photography business entirely after a short brush with digital, Fuji Photo announced plans to diversify into pharmaceuticals, and AgfaPhoto - Europe's largest filmmaker - went bankrupt.
But perhaps the most significant milestone came last September when Eastman Kodak (just Kodak to its friends) revealed that it would cease investing in film research and development. Granted, the transition from film to digital is inevitable in the long term, but when Kodak stops "developing" film (which was still 70 percent of its market when the announcement was made), it can't be too far down the road that the digital versus film debate will be rendered moot for all but a few dedicated traditionalists. Ironically, using film to move photography from the fringes to the masses was how the Kodak brand got its start, and as the celluloid pendulum swings in the other direction, a few sites serve to commemorate the glory days - when the company name was so inseparable from the concept of popular photography that "Kodak" was a verb as well as a trademark.
While most of us are aware of the impact that Kodak's "Box Brownie" made in popularizing photography, fewer may know that the great yellow giant once used style as well as simplicity to sell its wares - going so far as to package cameras with makeup, to appeal to the fashionable Flapper. Gloriously Colorful Kodaks presents a collection of early 20th-century models that were made to be as much a fashion accessory as a tool (iPod, anyone?), and while the trend began with the specific goal of making cameras that appealed to the "style-conscious women of the twenties," these special editions eventually expanded to cater to both sexes and all ages.
The site itself is basic in both design and content, giving center stage to the cameras, and ensuring fast download times. (I would have liked links to more and larger images of the cameras, though.) After a quick introduction, Gloriously Colorful Kodaks presents its collection in chronological order, beginning with the "Vanity" series of 1928-33. In addition to the unusual designs, visitors will also be struck by how much times have changed while viewing this first collection - from the 1928 price of $30, to the advertising copy for the series ("join Park Avenue debutantes in acclaiming these gloriously colorful Kodaks" or "the most momentous addition of the season to the correct ensemble").
After the Vanity series came the Petites, which display even more distinct Art Deco designs in their construction (complete with color-coordinated bellows), followed by the Ensembles, which were packaged in a carrying case complete with a mirror, change pocket, lipstick, rouge, and powder compact. (I couldn't help wondering if Kodak made the cosmetics as well.) Some of the later models (such as the Gift Kodak) seem targeted for the male market, and for those who remember - or still have - one of the classic Box Brownies, there are limited edition samples of these models as well. A few models, like the Boy Scout Kodak, are listed, though not yet "cataloged" on site - but the curious can search elsewhere on the Web for related images.
As entertaining as this sampling of Kodak's trendier cameras may be, there isn't enough here to convey the ubiquity of the brand in the early part of the 20th century. The Ellis Collection of Kodakiana at Duke University's Digital Scriptorium reveals something of the bigger picture through a full-color collection of Kodak ads from 1885 to 1923 - accessible either chronologically or by keyword search. While the interface leaves something to be desired (chronological browsers will have to click their way through hierarchical listings to a single ad before actually seeing an image), the Scriptorium's Kodak collection is extensive (with more than 500 ads), and offers large (150 dpi) copies of all of its scans, so each piece of ephemera can be examined in detail online, or downloaded for reasonable-sized prints should you find a few examples that match that relic from the attic.
Of course, if you want to be synonymous with photography in the consumer's mind, you can't afford to ignore 50 percent of the potential market, so early Kodak advertising actively promoted the female shutterbug - both to appeal to the gender and to demonstrate that Kodak photography was so simple that "even a woman could do it." Kodak Girls celebrates this happy meeting of product and demographic, and further demonstrates the company's omnipresence with images gathered from everything from cartoons and matchboxes to postcards and a parade float. The largest category, magazine ads dating from 1890s to the 1980s, even includes a few celebrity endorsements from the likes of Rosemary Clooney and Mrs. Ed Sullivan. And finally, just in case you thought that Paul Simon was the only artist to immortalize Kodak in song, the PBS/American Experience site, The Wizard of Photography, complements online features such as a QTVR tour of the George Eastman Estate with audio files of three ditties from the turn of the last century, including "The Girl From Kodak Town."
Amateur photography is currently undergoing its most significant shift since the introduction of the Box Brownie, but no company dominates the market as Kodak did for the first half of the last century. It's unlikely that we'll ever see a company name so synonymous with a new technology in the way that Kodak was with bringing photography to the mainstream. (Unless ... iPod, anyone?) But while the global domination of Kodakery may have faded into history, souvenirs of the golden age remain, safely preserved online.