BLAME it on Harry Belafonte. It was Kodak’s 1960 ad campaign featuring his tear-jerker “Turn Around” that set this off.
“Turn around and you’re two/ Turn around and you’re four/Turn around and you’re a young girl going out of the
door,” the Calypso King crooned.
The demands of work were beginning to overtake family time and we risked missing the best years of our
lives. Marketing’s answer to the guilt was consumer photography and life was soon defined by “Kodak moments”. A photo album of memories became a testament to an idealised family unit, as presented in the TV ads and shows such as Leave it to Beaver. It was life with all the boring, unpleasant bits taken out. We were suddenly free of the tedium of storytelling and we could outsource our memories.
Paul Anka reinforced the message in Kodak’s 1975 campaign:
“Good morning, yesterday;
“You wake up and time has slipped away;
“And suddenly it’s hard to find;
“The memories you left behind;
“Remember, do you remember?”
Today most of us have no idea where to find those memories. We are swamped by thousands of unsorted snaps of everyday life.
I have a big bag bursting with unsorted memories that covers school, university, my first job, wedding, honeymoon, the birth of children, the lives and the deaths of assorted relatives, friends and pets.When I leave my phone lying around, I often find my 16-year old daughter Noliwe has taken a new gallery of selfies. I remind her that when Neil Armstrong took just 5 photos when he landed on the Moon in 1969. She finds the concept incomprehensible.
At least the cost of film and processing used to act as some kind of restraint. Now I have hard-drives full of the stuff. I have long ago given up hope of putting them in any kind of order.
There is a kind of guilt that drives all this. Where once we might have lamented missing out on life, now we regret not having
taken a photo of it.
Yet many believe that the convenience of digital photography has removed the inherent specialness of our pictures. What were once priceless are now just ubiquitous ones and zeroes.
Technology’s response has been to make things even easier, with software solutions such as PhotoBucket.
The name of this software package is not promising. Whoever stored anything of value in a bucket?
The marketing says that PhotoBucket allows one to “upload instantly to one place”. “You’ll never have to worry about photo backup again.
It’s easy to sync your photos and videos from your computer, mobile devices and Facebook to Photobucket. Now you really can have it all.” Is that really all we can hope for?
Perhaps it goes deeper. There was something valuable about the process of taking pictures once that has been lost. Roll back to the 19th century. Imagine holding a pose for three or four minutes to get a clear image because of the exposure times back then. That’s why people never smiled in those old daguerreotype and glass plate negative shots — the slightest movement caused blurring. It was still better than posing all day for an artist. I have a photograph of my great-great grandparents taken in 1890 on the family farm near Sydney. Mindful of exposure times, they had stood two or three metres
apart with grim expressions fixed on their faces.
By the early 70s, we were too impatient to wait for the photo lab to process our pictures. Enter the Polaroid Instant cameras, which Arthur Fisher in the January 1973 issue of Popular Science described as “perhaps the most fiendishly clever invention in
the history of photography”.
My Dad was an early adopter and I remember him at family barbecues standing there shaking the film for minutes on end. So often he would stuff it up. Sometimes he would even fail to get the first strip out of the camera and that would be the end of the day’s shoot.
No one but him was ever allowed to handle his trusty Sx-70 Land camera. (Back then I used to think that Polaroid would eventually come up with “Deep Sea” and even “Space” models, but in fact the name came from its inventor, Edwin Land, who was motivated by his daughter’s question: “Why can’t I see them now?”)
In Dad’s case, the tension around this process was usually more memorable than the result. He must have got about six photos that ever worked out to his liking. I remember almost every one.
The mother of my children grew up in Southern Rhodesia in the 1960s where Polaroids, or any cameras, for that matter, were
fairly scarce. Her father died in 1971 and there was a single photograph of him known to exist.
Last week, another turned up in his home village. The photograph was taken in about 1947. A brother had carried it all over southern Africa in his travels as an itinerant miner and it was found in his possessions after his death.
It depicted his brother, David Mhofu Nzenza, sitting at a table in front of a rough thatched school building. On the back, he had written in a painstaking hand: “This is the school that I built in S Rhodesia. I was head teacher.”
It told such a story that I scanned and posted it on Facebook. It caused a minor and brief sensation, but after a day or so my
Facebook pals stopped liking it. Digital pictures may have a pleasing
verisimilitude, but a physical print is literally an item that remains part of one’s life. I posed this question on Facebook and this sentiment came through in dozens of posts.
There was “a joy we used to have in browsing our photo albums that was more tactile than staring into a computer screen and clicking into slide show mode”.
“A negative was precious, so precious that we took great lengths to store them safely away where they couldn’t be damaged or stolen . . . proof positive of ownership of the original photo.”
“I still feel great pleasure and pride in browsing the leather-bound album next to the war medals of my father in British army uniform in India and Burma during WWII. The mood portrayed in black-and-white or sepia is far more powerful to me than most
“Amazing shots are being taken now than ever before, we are jaded, and with such over-documentation comes boredom.”
My 16-year-old daughter says she values physical mementos like concert ticket stubs or handwritten notes far more highly than digital photos. She and her peers don’t bother to organise pictures at all, they just upload them to Facebook or
Snapchat, where people post photos and comments that last for only 10 seconds before self-destruction, is the ultimate expression of digital disposability.
Curiously, Polaroid, which filed for bankruptcy in 2001, is making a huge comeback — or at least the concept of non-digital instant
photography is. It started back in 2009 with third-party companies offering reconditioned old Polaroid SX-70s like Dad’s using expired original film stock.
Then the Polaroid brand name was bought by The Summit Global Group, which began making new analogue Land cameras.
My daughter says a Polaroid camera is the must-have “indie” (for individual) product. Perversely, they
scan the print and post that online.In 2014, a digital/analogue hybrid is set to hit the shelves in partnership with Instagram. The Sociomatic Polaroid Instant camera will allow users to dump their pictures online via a WiFi adapter or print them out with the distinctive white border of yesteryear.
They claim to be “putting the fun back into photos”. But I don’t think it would be quite the same as my memories.
I think I would still have to shake the print and swear for five minutes in honour of my Dad.