A direct line from Eastman to phone images

Jul. 03, 2014 @ 11:04 AM

“Painting on Silence,” Through This Lens,
303 E. Chapel Hill St., Durham, through July 18.

“An Everyday Affair: Selling the Kodak Image to America, 1888-1989,”
Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University,
1317 W. Pettigrew St., through Sept. 13.


Chances are the camera Frank Myers uses is a direct descendent of one made by Kodak and, if not the camera, then his film is. Myers’ show of local musicians performing around the Triangle is all about the local jazz scene and the non-profit Art of Cool Project. The Kodak references have been fueled by an exhibit at the Center for Documentary Studies on the role the Eastman Company played in putting a camera in almost every hand in the country.                
Lisa McCarty, the 2013-14 CDS exhibitions intern, mined a cache of advertisements from the Wayne P. Ellis Collection of Kodakiana and the J. Walter Thompson Company Domestic Advertisements Collection, which are part of Duke’s collection of Sales, Advertising & Marketing History, to put together a fascinating story about invention and advertising and how a costly and unwieldy pursuit of image making was turned into an inexpensive and easy matter. 
McCarty has divided her show into five sections with titles she chose from various ad campaigns, like “Kodak As you Go,” “At Home With Kodak,” and “Romance Lives in Snapshots.” The images, all reproductions of ads, speak for themselves. Her added text at the beginning of each part is short and to the point and puts the images in context.
The show has many layers beyond the growth of one company and its main product; one is about technological revolution which was at the core of the 19th and 20th centuries; the other is about the power of mass media. George Eastman knew how to use advertising to sell his products.  Today, advertising uses many of the same techniques; the technology has changed but selling us stuff we did not know we needed is still the name of the game.
In 1888, almost 50 years after the camera had been invented, Eastman dreamed up the word “Kodak” and developed a sales pitch aimed at turning picture making into an American pastime. Between 1888 and 1975 the company was responsible for the first handheld camera, roll film, 35 mm negative and slide films, color film for amateurs and the first digital camera. But when digital went global, Eastman was not in the vanguard.  During the 2011 bankruptcy proceedings the company’s executives acknowledged their reluctance to advance to digital because they knew it would hurt film; others had no such compunction and the revolution was on. 
Today film is practically a thing of the past, slides are dinosaurs and who needs a separate camera when every hand-held telephone can have image-making capacity?  With eerie foresight a 1902 ad asks “What would we do if the dark room was abolished?” and a 1981 ad asks “What would the world look like without Kodak film?”
Those early Kodaks cost $25 and came with 100 exposures in a roll of preloaded film.  When the roll was used, the customer sent the whole thing back to the company, which was returned with the developed film, a new camera and more preloaded film. The advertising targeted the perception that photography was difficult and expensive while suggesting ordinary people could easily take a picture. Since anyone could take a picture, women were part of the campaigns and ads focused on them carrying cameras in their handbags and taking pictures wherever they were. While women, for the first time, were in active roles, people of color were non-existent. It was “Kodak As You Go” for an all-white world.
Family photographs were part of very clever campaigns. Going to the beach, take your camera; the relatives are coming for the holidays, have your camera ready. Snap the kids all day, so when dad comes home from work he can enjoy their antics. And if you have a date with your best girl, take the camera along.  
“Press the Button, We Do the Rest” portrayed image making as an effortless pursuit; film could be loaded in daylight and the camera focused automatically. By 1976 Kodak owned 85 percent of the camera market and sold 90 percent of all film in the United States.  Whether you are a camera buff, a history buff or just like fascinating fun material, this is a show to see.
All of which brings us to “Painting on Silence” at Through This Lens. Myers, a professional photographer for 20 years, uses digital and film interchangeably. We talked by telephone and he told me he had never used a Kodak camera but he certainly used Kodak film. He said he became aware of the Art of Cool Project about four years ago and ultimately was a member of its board. In the beginning, he went to concerts and brought his professional equipment to take the various musicians in action. That led to an ongoing series on local jazz performances; this exhibition is an example of some of his images.  The pictures are about the jazz community in the Triangle and include musicians like Kobie Watkins and Shirazette Tinnin on drums, Al Strong on trumpet and The Beast in concert at Labour Love gallery. There are Laura Lindley singing with Mint Julep Jazz Band and Yahzarah belting it out with arms outstretched and eyes closed. Myers said since he began photographing, others are bringing their professional equipment to the concerts and, of course, the fans are constantly using their phones to take a picture.  
The line from Eastman to Myers to the spectators who aim their phones at the performing musicians is a direct one. The fans do not realize it, but taking their camera phones with them is exactly what Eastman exhorted them to do. It is “Kodak As you Go.”  

Blue Greenberg’s column appears each week in Entertainment and More. She can be reached at blueg@bellsouth.net or by writing her in c/o The Herald-Sun, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.