EARLIER this month I committed an act that will seem to many unthinkable, possibly even heretical. I was selling a house, and needed to make a decision about some of my less cherished possessions. One of them was a photograph album, begun after I left school and filled by the end with a long holiday taken after my first year at university. For the first time in maybe 15 years I flicked through images of people I will never meet again, of places in communist Eastern Europe whose names I have forgotten, of haircuts and clothes I have no wish putative grandchildren to see.
Reader, I added the album to a carload of flotsam, drove to the municipal recycling dump and hurled it into the ravenous jaws of a skip marked “general waste”. Goodbye, gap year. Goodbye, forgotten friends. Goodbye, striped seersucker bumfreezer jacket, mystifyingly purchased in a Florence flea market. You will not be missed.
All of those photographs, like the vast majority of billions of photographs in similar albums across the world, were shot on Kodak film. In a very real sense, without the Kodak film released from the plastic Kodak cylinder and fed into the Kodak cameras of two or three or four generations of amateur snappers, our past would not exist to enthral – or bore – generations to come.
The news this week is that Kodak may be heading the way of the skip, too, though maybe that should be the digital delete button with the dustbin icon. Eastman Kodak Co, which gave us the hand-held camera, has filed for bankruptcy protection. The company has been going since 1880, the year in which George Eastman, who had dropped out of high school in New York state, started manufacturing photographic plates. It proceeded to conquer the planet.
Neil Armstrong went on to take pictures on the moon with a Kodak. Of all the films to win Best Picture at the Oscars, 80 were shot on Kodak film. The brand gave its name to a song by Paul Simon which catchily memorialised the world’s love affair with instant photography, and by extension with Kodak, which supplied the means. In 1976 Kodak sold 90 per cent of all photographic film in the United States. It also shifted 85 per cent of all cameras sold to Americans that year. The brand name entered the lexicon in the form of the “Kodak moment”.
You remember that moment when you press the shutter, realise there’s no more film in the camera and start to wind the film back through your Instamatic? Multiply that by 1.65 billion. That’s how many dollars Kodak’s liabilities exceed its assets by.
We probably should not be thrown by this development, as we are all Kodak’s executioners. Nobody loads film into their cameras any more. Hardly anybody even uses cameras any more. And most of all, nobody nowadays prints their photos out. Yes, there are nostalgists who cling to the old ways, the same obsessive-compulsives who still fondly use dial phones wired up to the wall. There are also some professional photographers who still meddle with negatives and deploy dark arts in the dark room.
But photography – above all the amateur branch of that most democratic and artless art form – has moved on. The first moment someone hooked up a wire from a camera to a computer and uploaded every image into a clickable folder, the days of film and the film camera were numbered. Kodak did try venturing down the digital route, but more sluggishly than its Japanese competitors. Then came the camera phone. Kodak was a cavalry regiment tilting at tanks. It last turned a profit in 2007.
The game has changed not just in the way we take pictures, but in the way we store them, too. Power has now been wrested away from those amateur snappers who used to thrust a slideshow of holiday pics on friends. Thanks to online file-sharing sites, browsing through other people’s photographs is now in the gift of the viewer. Indeed, such has been the redefinition of “friendship” fashioned by Facebook that intimate photographic moments, the ones that catch subjects off their guard or nakedly mugging for the lens, can now be seen by almost anyone, including potential employers.
But now that every photograph ends up online, hasn’t quality control been ever so slightly sacrificed? As I lobbed my old album into the skip, what I was doing was waving a symbolic goodbye not only to my own past as captured in a series of iffy Instamatic images, but a method of processing it. Once upon a time, you took 24 or 36 pictures on a roll of film and then you carefully selected the best ones to seal behind sticky cellophane in your album. Sometimes you cropped them to fit more than four on to a page. The point is that no one kept the lot.
In fact, you also did a lot of your editing before you even looked through the viewfinder. Because a roll of film used to set you back a bob or two, you’d tend to adopt a miserly stance on when precisely to whip out the camera and shoot. Especially when factoring in the cost of processing, you’d think twice about what to snap. One picture would usually be ample.
Once you’d clicked and wound on, that was it: the picture existed. Or it did until you got it back from the developer only to discover that the image was blurred or over-exposed or some muppet in the shot had blinked or, worst of all, the whole film had for some reason not come out at all. So the camera did some more editing for you.
Nowadays, no one takes one picture where 10 will do. Some get trashed, but in the new dispensation it’s possible to hold on to the lot. They can now be stored not in albums – no one fills those in any more: far too time-consuming and bulky – but in digital folders, usually in sizes far bigger than you will ever need unless you’re planning a poster campaign. This convenient development means that you now more or less live in your own personal Big Yellow Self Storage facility. Computers with sufficient Ram will hold thousands of pictures.
The question of what happens to this ever-enlarging collection is one most of us choose not to address. The only viable way it used to be possible to lose old photograph albums was in a domestic conflagration. They would be the one possession most people want to retrieve from the flames, being both irreplaceable and portable. But there is no helpful fire warning when computers, as they are wont to do, die. The mania for storing one’s life through a digitised compressor known as a hard drive ensures that your past is stored in the most vulnerable place of all. Because nobody backs up, you could lose the lot.
As Kodak breathes what appears to be its last, it’s an appropriate moment to wonder whether we have taken a little too much advantage of a revolution that ended its near monopoly. We took fewer, more considered pictures back then, and looked after the results.
Or some of us did. I’m now slightly ashamed of my trip to the skip. Not what you’d call a Kodak moment.
Independent News Service