Zeiss camera designer Hubert Nerwin and family shortly after their arrival in the U.S. following WWII. Nerwin was instrumental in the development of the dominant American consumer camera of the 1960s, the Kodak Instamatic. Photo courtesy Zeiss Historical Society.
I'm a day late with this. Last month (March) marked the 50th anniversary of the camera that ruined Kodak—the Instamatic.
Designed around Hubert Nerwin's drop-in, "foolproof" film cassette (a picture of which can be seen here), the Instamatic was both the true descendent of George Eastman's $1 box Brownie of c. 1900 and the transformative consumer camera of its own era. It sold seven and a half million cameras in its first two years and 50 million in the decade of the 1960s. It remains one of the most successful and profitable consumer products in the history of photography; it introduced baby-boomers to picture-taking.
...Me, too (although I'm technically Generation Jones). It was my first camera, and the camera I did my first "project" with: six entire rolls on a 7th-grade trip to the battlefield at Gettysburg, Penn., the site of the turning point of the American Civil War.
Somewhere around here, I still have an Instamatic.
The reason I say it ruined Kodak is that it convinced Kodak that it could dictate the market rather than follow it. And Kodak tried again and again over the years to dominate the consumer market by deciding a priori what people would buy and then attempting to overwhelm them with it via marketing and sheer scale.
(I think this reflects human nature. In high school, I sat on a hillside watching a soccer game, and saw a classmate named Doug make a remarkable goal. He made a high, arcing kick from almost the corner of the field, and, improbably, it cleared the leaping goalie's hands and entered the goal, even though the angle was exceedingly narrow, as he was not far from being lined up with the goalposts at the spot of the kick. As I watched the rest of the game, I noticed that Doug tried to recreate his success by repeating the same kick twice more during the game. Both kicks were surprisingly good; but the first attempt had been both good and lucky, and the subsequent attempts failed.)
Kodak made numerous attempts to recreate the Instamatic success in some form or other. The Disc camera was the most obvious one; the Instamatic cast its formidable shadow all over that doomed project. The last two major attempts were Photo CD and APS. With Photo CD, everyone was supposed to turn their film into the processors, pay $50(!), and receive the roll of pictures as digital scans on a compact disk in return. You were then supposed to look at your pictures on your TV set, using a player that Kodak was going to sell to you. Kodak decreed at the outset of this program that it was going to sell 250,000 consumer Photo CD players every year. Over the product's pathetic lifespan, the company allegedly sold about 25,000 of them—total. And even that was a bit of a feat (I think I referred to Photo CD at the time of its introduction as "three times the expense of prints with all the viewing convenience of a living room slide show"). Photo CD did turn out to be an important method for getting film images on to computers for a number of years, a usage Kodak initially wasn't especially concerned with or interested in.
The next "Instamatic-style success" was intended to be APS, the Advanced Photo System, a thoroughly engineered and exhaustively marketed from-the-ground-up system that gave consumers about what they were already getting, but with more profit and convenience for Kodak and the other film and camera manufacturers built in. The huge investment in APS, which fizzled before it faded, was one of the reasons Kodak was so cash-strapped and ill-prepared to respond when digital began its march to the sea.
But I was speaking of the Instamatic. It was actually an atrocious little camera, the Lomo of its day only without the quirky contriarian charm. The lens was horrible and the easy-to-load negative wasn't big enough. But it was meant to be cheap to buy and easy to use, and it was both those things in spades (the "Flashcube," like the film cartridge, was a stroke of genius in that respect—four small flashbulbs in an automatically rotating clear plastic box). The pictures, unfortunately, were an accurate reflection of what you saw through the minuscule, smeary viewfinder. (And by the way, poor, low-contrast lenses like the Instamatic's were the reason why consumer color negative films were typically oversaturated and too contrasty.)
It's a bit tragic, actually. Some of the snapshots I inherited from my family from 20 or 30 years prior to the era of the Instamatic were taken with a Zeiss folder that we found in my grandfather's house when he died but which I have since lost track of. It might have been a 6x9 Super Ikonta. The store-processed black-and-white snapshots from it are contact prints. Their quality and longevity is striking compared to Instamatic prints. Of course, the ease-of-use of 1930s folders was diametrically opposed to that of the Instamatic as well, which is why the latter came into being.
The lead designer for the Instamatic program was the protean Dean Peterson. And Hubert Nerwin, whose name is on the patent for the 126 cartridge, was a fascinating character too. (It's rather elitist and exclusionary that the "history of photography" leaves aside the technical history and its major figures—they ought to be at least as famous as people like lesser-known but important photographers, major curators, and so forth.) One of the 20th century's great camera designers, Nerwin worked for Zeiss before WWII and was involved in the design of many famous Zeiss Ikons, including the Contina and the exquisite Contessa 35. He came to America—literally on the same ship with rocket scientist Werner von Braun!—under Harry Truman's "Operation Paperclip," the OSS program designed to bring prominent German scientists and engineers to America (and keep them out of the clutches of the Russians). Moving his family to Rochester, Nerwin initially worked for Graflex, owned by Kodak, and then for Kodak itself. He retired in 1971.
I have lots of snapshots in my collection, and many of them have great charm. But few of the charming ones were taken with Instamatics. Many of my childhood memories were taken with an Instamatic, and I still have all those pictures, fading now. In the case of the ones I prize, I dearly wish they had been taken with a better camera.
...But then, without the Instamatic, they might never have been taken at all.
Original contents copyright 2013 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved. Links in this post may be to our affiliates; sales through affiliate links may benefit this site.
(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Stan B.: "The Instamatic was the Mustang of photography in the mid 'sixties—cute, small, fast, cheap. They were ubiquitous in the '64–'65 NYC World's Fair, another sign of 'the future' compared to their considerably clumsier counterparts."
John Hufnagel: "I still curse the Kodak Instamatic.
"I have restored, documented, digitized, and archived the many hundreds of photographs of my and my wife's families from the 1880s to the present. What was a treasure lode of memories and family histories collapsed, seemingly inspired by the song 'New York Mining Disaster 1941,' with the introduction of the hated Instamatic.
"Within just a few years Kodak had convinced most of our family that photography was not a skill worth learning, and lousy, blurry, washed-out pictures were actually good.
"Even my oldest brother, a U.S. Army intelligence agent in Europe during the Viet Nam era, reported that most of the agents preferred cheap plastic Polaroid cameras (purchased out of petty cash) as G2's government-issued Leicas were 'too hard to use.'
"The result is a real dearth of documentary photographs from the early to mid 1960s until the advent of decent P&S cameras beginning around 1980. If it wasn't for the very few (three out of dozens) who owned Mamiya, Canon, and Pentax SLRs, our family would have very little from that period. On the other hand, it made the collecting and archiving effort a lot smaller than it otherwise might have been...."
Steve Mason: "I started my photo career as a camera salesman. Every person I have ever had this conversation agrees, Kodak was its own worst enemy. I often had customers ask for an American-made 35mm camera; of course there were none since Kodak quit. As sales people we often got the skinny on new products and we were told of a new product coming soon. The rumors were of a sprocketless 35mm camera to take full advantage of the film size, we got the Disc camera. Kodak promised better B&W paper, we got plastic RC paper with very little silver. The list goes on and on, even when Fuji came into the picture and started offering better choices, Kodak knew best. As a car guy you can see the same story with GM, Ford and Chrysler during the '60s and '70s. We make it, you buy it."
Mike replies: Steve, that was my impression of Kodak for years: Wrong move, bad move, dumb move, repeat.