12 Kodak Instamatic Snapshots from Paris
“Nobody realizes that some people expend an enormous amount of energy just trying to be normal.”
It depends on your perspective really; was 1963 the year of Kennedy’s assassination and a point where the world changed? Or was it another year in a long summer, so to speak, where the killing of a president, or any international crisis, could barely dent the feeling that all was well with the world? If you were a university graduate with a job and a house in the suburbs, what did you really have to worry about?
In 1963, Kodak brought out the Instamatic. The film came in a cartridge that was simply fitted in then removed when all the frames had been exposed. Not that many people had a problem loading cameras but this was an automatic age and Kodak had always understood that for its customers, the less they had to do the better. Aesthetically the cameras weren’t much to get excited about. They were boxy and made from moulded plastic but then this was an age of plastics, and disposability. People were beginning to furnish their houses with moulded plastic furniture. Clothing was made from nylon and polyester. A man could dress himself for work in the morning, confident that not one single piece of his attire was made from organic materials. Never mind that in the summer he began to stink like a polyurethane rubbish bin; bring on the new world.
The other important point about the Instamatic’s aesthetics was that the prints were in square format. Kodak had been producing square formats for cameras for years but the Instamatic prints were enlargements. Remove the cartridge with its 24 frames, each approximately 23mm square, take it to the chemist or drug store and a day later pick up twenty four 90mm square prints. Enlargements, mind you, bigger, glossier and better than you imagined when you looked through the little plastic viewfinder.
The early sixties were a wonderful time to be living in the suburbs, or so we were told, and the square format Instamatic was the perfect camera for the times. One might think it was invented with grassy lawns and carports in mind. The square format had the effect of enclosing the world within the frame, as though nothing existed outside it. That suited the ideal of the suburban home as a place of refuge from the noise and grime of the inner city. The suburbs were still too. A husband could leave for work in the morning, his wife could look through the picture window at midday and he could return in the evening and throughout the day very little, if anything, had changed. Other cameras were built for action, to record rapidly unfolding motion and cluttered, hectic scenes; the Instamatic treated the ordinary as beautiful. It respected the rigid lines of modern architecture and it could make the banality of contemporary living look natural.
One day in the early 1960s a Parisian brought a new Kodak Instamatic home and began recording, well, not exactly the stuff of their daily life, more its artifice. He or she began playing with family and friends, posing one another in windows or doorways like fashionable models and setting each other up against the most mundane backgrounds. That was another thing about the Instamatic; it was a camera for having fun with. No serious artist would touch it. The people had no idea of course that in a few years photographers like Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz would take expensive, professional cameras into similar terrain and turn the square format into a kind of weapon that reflected the suburbs as barren, soulless places. Perhaps the French photographer would be amazed to see the prices an original Adams print gets these days; then again, they were French, living in the era of Sartre and Beckett. It’s just as possible they appreciated how absurd modern life was and knew the best machine for recording it was the cheap, ugly, supremely functional Kodak Instamatic.