« Happy Easter! | Main | Oh Well »

Monday, 01 April 2013


Feed You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.

But wasn't APS more of a collaborative effort with Fuji and others?

I liked APS, and if it hadn't been for that darn digital, it might have worked out.

Yep; the lowly Instamatic got me started too. I also took a goodly number of shots of family, friends, and childhood haunts. And found the resulting prints terribly disappointing, particularly compared to the beautifully sharp, tonally smooth black & white prints my grandfather got with his "German camera" (I'm guessing something like the Super Ikonta).
In fact, my Instamatic prints were so bad (and the rapid fading so spectacular), I dropped photography completely until my own kids came along. By that time, 35 mm autofocus SLR's were brand new and perfect for my needs (well, okay...desires). By sheer good fortune I was instantly smitten by those gorgeous, gem-like 35 mm transparencies, and took nothing but slides after the first few rolls of print film. Fortunate because prints from those first rolls have faded horribly, while the first roll of K-25 slides look as good as ever, more than 25 years later.

Interersting. Steve Jobs I think thought like Kodak, trying to think ahead of what people want/need before they know they want/need it. "Whatever works is a good idea!"- that's my mantra.

Thank you - what a time it was with the Instamatic.

Within the first paragraph of reading that Nerwin came to the U.S. from Germany after WWII, Project Paperclip sprang to mind. You beat me to the punch.

Perhaps entirely off topic, and frightening to think of, it has been said that our OSS/CIA is patterned in some way after the Nazi template.

April Fool's articles are supposed to be woven of whole cloth - not stitched together from fragments of genuine history - it makes it too hard on us while trying to decide how much of a fool we are. I refuse to fall for the ruse. Imagine, the designer of Zeiss Ikon cameras creating the Instamatic. Preposterous! Next thing you'll tell us is that he invented the IBM card and the photocopier!

The Instamatic was my first camera as well. I took an entire roll/cartridge of photos of the back of the front seat in a '67 Ford Torino GT, at the ripe old age of three, so says my mom.

Not all of the Instamatics were "atrocious" cameras--the Instamatic 500 was a metal-bodied camera with a collapsible Schneider lens (f2.8 Xenar), hot-shoe and pc socket for flash instead of the flashcube. All in all, pretty nice--but only produced for about three years; arguably mismatched to the market. My guess is that it was too expensive for the "instamatic" market, and the more serious photographers would opt for a 35mm rangefinder or SLR.


His friend and Zeiss coworker, Hans Padelt, also came over and gave us the professional equivalent of the Instamatic... the horrid Graflex XL... the camera that killed that particular gem of a company.

It's almost as if they wanted to sabotage the American camera industry by making lousy plastic cameras!

BTW not all Instamatics were bad. The great mountaineer and nature photographer Galen Rowell made his first "professional" photos with an Instamatic 500 equipped with a not-too-shabby Schneider Xenar 38/2.8 lens. Given the circumstances.. roped in on a vertical Yosemite cliff, an easy loading auto-everything camera was just the ticket for the rock climber.

I remember the Instamatics very well. I took my very-first picture with one of them when I was around five years old. And I can remember that when my parents needed to buy some film they would go to a store that had a giant model of an Instamatic above the display case, complete with a automatically-rotating flash cube that would fire and rotate once every several seconds.

But, as bad as 126 film was, it was superb compared to 110 film. When I was 15 I took a 110 Instamatic and a 1950's-model Olympus 35mm rangefinder camera with me on a youth-exchange trip. The vastly-better quality of the shots I got from the 35mm film negatives was a major revelation to me. I spent most of the next year saving up for the first camera I bought, an Olympus OM-1. I shot many rolls of Kodachrome, Ektachrome, Kodacolor, Plus-X, Tri-X with that camera. I have loved the various film and developing chemicals Kodak created over the years. It is unfortunate that such great success eventually contributed to such colossal failure.

I'm old enough that I missed the whole Instamatic 'thing'; I was already shooting 35mm.

The thing I would suggest about all those old, faded prints is to search out the negs. Although, as you say, the prints were over cooked, that was more the processing than the film itself.

If you have a frame where the subject is more or less in focus, a scan from the neg may be revelatory as to color and highlight and shadow details that were never apparent on the prints.

With good NR software, the grain recedes to more tolerable levels, as well. Deconvolution 'sharpening' is of use, too. Maybe someone can convince DxO to do a custom deconvolution profile for the standard, plastic Instamatic lens?

In any case, my limited experience with other's 126 negs is that there is often much more hiding there than one might imagine.

Then, there are caches like the endless snaps my first sister-in-law took when she spent a youthful year+ in Europe and No. Africa. Every one seemed to suffer from lots of motion blur. On top of paying no attention to subject motion, I think she jerked the camera in the process of pushing the shutter release. No hope for those.

The truth is, not all old snaps with folders are that great. Many shots of my earliest years were taken with a Kodak 6x9 folder, using cut film and packs. As you say, many of the contact prints look pretty good. And my Mom kept all the negs, right under the prints, in the family album, on acid free paper.

But, when looked at more closely, the combination of modest lens quality and speed, poor film flatness, esp. in the film packs, zone focusing and the relatively slow shutter speeds dictated by slow film and lenses all added up to very few negs that look much good larger than a contact print. Still, better than Instamatics. \;~)>


My parents used a Twin Lens Reflex camera in the late '50s and early '60s before switching to Instamatics and Polaroids. What a shame! Those early images on "larger" format negatives scan exceptionally well while the others -- not so much.

An entire generation of photographers was convinced that convenience trumped quality. Wait! They're still doing that!


..But then, without the Instamatic, they might never have been taken at all.

That last sentence says it all.
I was offered an Instamatic on my 12th birthday and later, at age 14, deceived by its results, would "steal" my elder brother's fantastic Yashica Minister D (35mm frame with 45mm/2,8 lens, Leica style). So that crappy Instamatic might have started my love for photography ?

It seems to me that Kodak was really like Gillette. Give away the razor and sell them loads of high profit razor blades. The problem was that they did not seem to understand it themselves and thus they created the most magnificent large office copier I have ever seen. But you do not sell many of those. There was no digital equivalent of something you have to buy and have processed every couple of dozen shots. Their efforts with sensors were doomed because most camera manufacturers keep it all home in Japan. They lost Olympus to Panasonic and you cannot exist on the the number of sensors bought by Leica and the medium format guys. Too bad they did not buy some company like Contax and create a powerhouse that could have introduced some competitive cameras with a Kodak inside sticker into the marketplace. But I think they would have had to do something in addition to stay in business.

The first camera I ever used was my mother's Instamatic. Looking at what came afterwards, Kodak certainly seemed to learn the wrong lesson from it. From what I gather, while the Instamatic did represent a step down in image quality from the cameras that came before it (smaller negative, cheap build), it was still "good enough" for the size of prints most people had made and provided enough benefits (small size, ease of use, foolproof film handling) that the overall tradeoff was worth it for many people. If my family's albums are anything to go by, ordinary folk took far more pictures once they had an Instamatic than they had with whatever camera they'd owned previously.

Looking at the 110 and disc cameras that followed, Kodak seemed to forget that "good enough" quality was part of the recipe. They also seemed to forget that some sort of benefit to the user was needed to justify a change in format. Larger print sizes were becoming the norm, and Kodak kept reducing the size of the negative so resolution on the print was terrible. Also, as far as I could tell, the 110 and disc cameras provided no real added convenience over the Instamatic (other than a built-in permanent flash).

In hindsight, a better successor the Instamatic would have been a 35mm camera as foolproof as the Instamatic which could have given Kodak the 35mm point-and-shoot market before the Japanese companies got traction there. But apparently Kodak had gotten addicted to the revenue from selling the film processing equipment for new formats every decade or thereabouts. That put their interests rather at odds to those of their customer base (both consumers and photo lab operators), opening the door for other companies.

Like General Motors, Kodak's a great example of how a period of complete market dominance can lead to arrogance and an inability to compete once others finally do gain a foothold.

My first was a folding Kodak 620, taking 6X7 sized pictures..non-focusing lens, but still plenty sharp compared to later series plastic cameras with smaller film...amazingly, my Mom was sort of a photo-nut, liked twin-lens style camera in the 40's and 50's; she was even the first person I knew to use "filters", having a half-yellow sky filter to slightly darken skies! She eventually bought what I seemed to think was a "higher end" Instamatic: metal body, wind up spring loaded film advance, glass lens. When it nailed the exposure, it was plenty sharp, although people will tell you the 126 cartridge was inherently unsharp, I've looked through her old negs and they're better than a cheap, plastic camera that took 35mm. As I seem to recall, the Instamatic film frame was about as big as the long end of the 35mm frame, square. Plenty big with a decent lens...even tho I had a decent 35mm eventually, I always lusted after one the the German made SLR Instamatics, pretty sure they were cheap towards the end...

I still have my Instamatic rattling around in a cabinet somewhere. I used to take it on hikes all the time. Kodak made K64 available in 126 for a while, so I still have some decent slides of the North Cascades and the Glacier Peak Wilderness in my files. It was my second camera, replacing my Brownie Starflash, which mostly shot Verichrome black'n'white.

It was the Pocket Instamatic (110) that drew a lot of fire in the late 1970's, in the form of private antitrust actions and the like. A lot of labs and manufacturers didn't like having another film format crammed down their collective throat by Kodak, which had a monopoly share of the film market at the time.

Yeah, but I think Hubert Nerwin's operation paperclip camera was his masterpiece.

the 70mm combat graphic is the best camera ever in my opinion.

Maybe not that different from the Kodak Instamatic 814 rangefinder camera with its radioactive thorium oxide Ektar 38mm lens and a spring motor drive.

Alas, it's about as hard to get 70mm film as film for a disc camera.

I don't know. PhotoCD and Kodak Disk were disasters, but APS, not quite as bad.

What really did Kodak in, IMHO was that they were too successful with the disposable cameras. Much like GM with minivans, they were too slow to wean themselves off of a cash cow (for GM, the station wagon, for Kodak, the disposable) in order to embrace the new.

Sadly, I can't see it playing out any other way. For Kodak to make headway into consumer digital cameras, they would have had to sacrifice big chunks of the more profitable disposable market, and that move might have been too painful to make at the time.

With the Instamatic and those cube flashes you really looked like a pro!

Inherited mine from my mother, and like her I didn't pay much attention to the small focus mechanism on the lens, hence my childhood is a blur...

My first camera was an Instamatic I got when I was 8. It was very cheap and not very good. I later was given one by my Aunt with a much better lens. I don't think I actually used either one much, but they did start my interest in photography. I didn't really start photographing until I found an abandoned 35mm camera at my grandparents house.

However, there was at least one good Instamatic. My mother had one (and mostly used Kodachrome so they have have held up fairly well). It had a mechanical motor drive that you wound with a tab on the bottom of the camera and a good lens with rangefinder focusing.

"I think the instructor... was trying to break me of perfectionism."

Your resulting image had the opposite of his intended effect.

I taught photography in High Schools.Kodak had a very neat design to make a pinhole camera that used an Instamatic cartridge to hold the film. This enabled students to make their own pinhole camera that also took a whole roll of film so we could play around with lots of things while learning the basics.Most basic pinhole cameras of course could only take one shot before going to a dark room. I never liked the Instamatic cameras but loved those cartridges.

>(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.)

What you said. Especially as the majority of persons involved in "the photography hobby" are clearly much more transfixed by cameras than by photographs. Maybe the Hubert Nerwins of history go largely without note is because the link between the two things (cameras and photographs) is so throughly misunderstood by so many.

I have my mom's green and cream "Hawkeye Instamatic" now. It was just about her favorite thing back when I was in grade school.

Too bad. By the time the 110 camera craze hit even the cheapest Kodak Pocket model 20 had a respectable 25mm, 3 element f9.5 lens. The 13X18mm negs would make a decent 3.5X5 inch album sized prints. That covered 99.9% of what the average family snap shooter required. And directly preceding the introduction of the 126 "Kodapak" the average consumer was probably using a 127 roll film "Starmite" or some such that, except for a slightly bigger 42X42mm negative (vs. 28X28mm) was not any better than the Instamatic in real life. And 6X9 you say? How many were the better models with 3 and 4 element f4.5 lens and multi speed shutters? Precious few. Most were cardboard boxes with one speed ever-set shutters and a f11, or slower, single element meniscus lens. So I think the slide to lowest quality began well before the introduction of the 126 cartridge.

I was one of those with an Instamatic at the '94 World's Fair. My friend struggled with a manual rangefinder and light meter while I was actually able to take some not very good pictures.

I didn't appreciate the difference at the time, but my dad was a mild photography buff, and it showed in our family pictures. He wasn't quite a hobbyist, just someone who took pride in his snapshots. So my sixties childhood was preserved on Kodachrome 64 with a Minolta viewfinder, so popular then with people who looked down on Instamatics, like my dad. When he got back the slides he went over them carefully, culling the duds, labeling the rest and putting them in a metal slide tray for our projector (pre-Carousel). Mom's old early fifties Kodak was still put away in a closet. We were slightly awed by it's apparent antiquity and lovely case, while we took the superior Minolta for granted.

"...But then, without the Instamatic, they might never have been taken at all."

I think this really sums it up. Your article brings to mind that my mother always thought she was a bad photographer - in this case she should have blamed her tools. However the Instamatic suited her in so many other ways - it was cheap, easy to use, and easy to carry. If she hadn't had one, no photos would have been taken.

I also had one, but was so entranced by being able to take photos, that I never realised the quality was so bad. Luckily for me, my father later bought a nice Minolta slr and let me use it - so any subsequent photography faults were all mine!

(The Minolta would never have been a camera for my mother - too big, and too many knobs and buttons. She would never have used it, even though the quality in the output was so much better.)

I had an Instamatic 300, with a selenium cell, the first automatic aperture model. My father installed carpeting at the 1964 World's Fair and I came along as a teen helper photographing before the fairgrounds were open to the public.
I have no memories of the cameras output, but I sold it to my uncle and used the proceeds to help me step up to my first 35mm, a Yashica Lynx 1000.
Again the images were forgotten until I bought my first Nikon F in September 1966.
The Nikon made negatives that I still have indexed and prints that I would not be ashamed to exhibit today.

"But then, without the Instamatic, they might never have been taken at all."

Somewhere along the lines of "The best camera is the one you have with you."

I had a Sears version of the instamatic. Its most amazing feat was when I held it up to one binocular eyepiece, framed with the other and shot a not-awful shot of crevasses on Mt. Rainier. About two years later I'd done enough yard and home chores to buy my Praktica SuperTL ($99!) - and I was on my way to becoming whatever it is that I am today.

Now I know who to blame.

I received an Instamatic, a cartridge of Kodachrome and a slide viewer for my 12th birthday. This system had no redeeming feature, and after taking half a dozen cartridges to please my parents I didn't want to do any more photography until I could afford to buy a proper camera for myself, which took more than a decade. I wanted to make black and white prints, not enter a lucky dip for exposure accuracy, colour and whether the film would tear.

The best portrait of me as a child, c. 1967, was taken by my grandmother on rollfilm B&W. Eventually, she couldn't get it processed near her any more, and bought an Instamatic because she liked the square frame. Although totally nontechnical, she could see it wasn't as good, and said so, but "at least it's in colour so people won't complain". The pictures aren't all that colourful any more...

Ah - my first camera - still got it somewhere. Last used for experimental high school photography circa 1978 - so I assume film was still available. Dang. Going to have to search the storeroom.

The comments to this entry are closed.



Blog powered by Typepad
Member since 06/2007