If it’s not a sign of the times, it certainly is a snapshot of it. As Bob Dylan prophetically proclaimed, “the times they are a changing’.” And he said that in 1964!
Flash forward nearly five decades or so — a few flips of the old photo album pages in the grand scheme of things — and just last week the granddaddy of film and photography, Kodak, announces that it is filing for bankruptcy.
How many of us felt oddly sad when we heard that? After all, Kodak made it possible for us to freeze-frame our world, to record everything important in our lives and put them in slide carousels and scrapbooks and frames and in keepsake boxes. I can hear younger readers exclaiming aloud: “Why would I want to put pictures in boxes, I have them all right here on my cellphone.” Also: “What the heck is a slide carousel?” And: “Who’s Bob Dylan?”
It’s hard to impress upon the younger set just how much Kodak meant to families and especially to stores that sold film. Yes, believe it or not, it used to actually cost money to make a picture! Just a few years ago, it would cost me around $18 for a roll of 24 exposure film, including the 24 nice four-by-six prints that I then put into scrapbooks or boxes instead of computer files.
That’s assuming all 24 pictures turned out well enough to keep, because, believe it or not young non-baby boomer people, you couldn’t actually see the picture instantaneously when you took it. This is a foreign concept to those who only know the amazing world of digital photography, where people take 24 pictures of their cat on a daily basis before heading out to take dozens more of nothing in particular. Yes, taking photographs was a bit of a crap shoot back then, and unfortunately that was often the best way to describe how the pictures turned out.
So 18 bucks for 24 photos, or 75 cents every time I pressed the shutter. And if that doesn’t make you shudder, last week, over four days, I took over 1,200 pictures with my two cameras, using five digital memory cards. And it didn’t cost me one red cent or any other colour cent other than buying the cards in the first place — which I can erase and re-use once the pictures are downloaded.
No wonder Kodak has gone the way of Blockbuster video, electric typewriters and Polaroid instant film. Yes, it’s gone the way of the dodo bird, which ironically is a saying that has, itself, gone the way of the dodo bird. (The younger set may have to look that one up.)
And speaking of irony, guess who invented the first digital camera? That’s right, Blockbuster video. I’m kidding of course; it really was, ironically, Kodak.
Yep. In the 1990s, Kodak spent billions developing the instant photo technology that is inside most of today’s digital cameras and cellphones. In a move that would be comparable to selling your thousand shares in Apple because you didn’t like the beige colour of the new MacIntosh computers in 1984, Kodak decided to keep its focus (haha) on its lucrative film business rather than gamble on the new-fangled pixels, megabytes and digital digits.
In 10 years, film was all but wiped out by the filmless photography it invented. You could say that film failed to develop, but you would be making a very bad pun.
And speaking of developing, I can’t tell you how many happy hours I spent in the dark.
Hold it. I’m speaking of the dark room, developing and printing my own black and white film. It started with a photography course at the college many dark rooms ago that involved learning the magical secrets of making pictures appear on paper right before your very eyes and coming out of a small, stuffy pitch-black room smelling like toxic chemicals with impressive names like ‘stop bath’ and ‘fixer.’
My buddy and I (who shall remain nameless for legal reasons) used to make sure we had several beverages in the form of stubby bottles during these darkroom sessions, plus a portable cassette player (another thing for young readers to look up) and many loud cassette tapes to help us with the creative process.
Later, my house always had a darkroom in the basement — not just a typical two-word dark room, but a one-word photographic darkroom. My rotten kids used to sit in the darkroom with me and watch the pictures come to life and dip their curious little fingers into the stop bath and fixer, which may partially explain their subsequent instances of occasional erratic behaviour.
I miss those many hours in the dark. Creating photographs that way never gets old. Apparently it just becomes obsolete.
Robert Burley, a photography professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, puts it this way: “Kodak played a role in pretty much everyone’s life in the 20th century because it was the company we entrusted our most treasured possession to — our memories.”
The advertising gurus created a term for capturing those life-mapping memories. A term that became as much a part of our lives as “Where’s the beef?”, “It’s the Real Thing” or “You’re soaking in it!” (Some may have to look that one up too.)
They called it a “Kodak Moment.”
Billions of those Kodak Moments have been created in the 132 years since the company invented flexible roll film and the Brownie, Hawkeye and Instamatic cameras, and virtually made the movie business possible with its magical combination of silver and plastic.
That’s all that film is really. Silver and plastic. As miraculous and intangible as pixels and digits on a screen.
See, I think digital photography is magical, too — perhaps even more so. But there’s something about those yellow boxes, and those pieces of plastic, and the Brownie/Hawkeye/Instamatic snaps we created — even the really bad ones — that keep the Kodak Moments alive for us digital draftees.
Meantime, I’ve been busy converting my old Kodak pictures into digital files, all the while, listening to Bob Dylan on ITunes.
A sign of the times.
Harley Hay is a local freelance writer, award-winning author, filmmaker and musician. His column appears on Saturdays in the Advocate. His books can be found at Chapters, Coles and Sunworks in Red Deer.