The Next Page: From 'Kodak Moments' to the Instagram feed
Sunrise at the Point.
Deluca's in the Strip District.
The Cathedral of Learning in Oakland.
Rooftops in South Oakland.
West Carson Street church.
East Liberty Presbyterian Church.
Statue on Centre Avenue.
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In the 1970s, singer Paul Anka's jingle "The Times Of Your Life" inspired many of us to snap the kinds of photographs that would capture our laughter and the tears and the shadows of misty yesteryears in iconic images. Eastman Kodak Co., the benefactor of Anka's music and lyrics, would eventually brand those timeless pictures as "Kodak Moments."
They were days when what you shot was what you got. Consumers and photo enthusiasts made pictures that were honest, seldom manipulated and captured on a roll of 12, 24 or 36 exposures of 110 or 35mm film. Back then, Kodak was king and ruled the world when it came to all things photography.
Through the years, however, Kodak struggled to evolve from the sitting ruler in film to the revolutionary leader in digital. In January of this year, after watching sales nose dive, with profits drying up and its stock price plunging, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The news of Kodak's fall signaled the end of photography as we knew it.
Kodak's sad story came up over breakfast at DeLuca's in The Strip the other day. I was in the middle of my annual reunion with an old photographer-friend who now lives with his wife and son in Dallas. A born and bred Pittsburgher, Steve Yakub was shooting stills for The Pittsburgh Press in the 1980s while I was shooting video for WTAE-TV news. When we weren't making images for work, you can bet we were snapping Kodak Moments for family and friends. Although the era of the Kodak Moment may be history, Steve holds onto the Kodak way of simpler times, when professional photographers ruled like Kodak ruled, and respect for the art of making a good shot came before the social fix of posting a good shot.
I hold great respect for technical purists like Steve. Throughout my career, I've learned a lot from men and women like him and I'm grateful. But I've evolved from a photo and video purist to a professional willing to at least try the latest technology, gadgets and apps that can impact my video and still photography in innovative ways.
So here I admit, I'm doing a lot of shooting and posting on Instagram these days, the social media site where photophiles like myself can post and share pictures. You won't find Steve there and I respect that; however, let me try to explain why I'm an Instagrammer and why Steve is not.
First, a bit of history. In 1975 a different Steve -- 25-year-old electrical engineer Steven Sasson -- took on a broad assignment from his boss Gareth Lloyd at the Eastman Kodak Co. The challenge was to create a camera using solid state imagers known as charge coupled devices (CCDs). For more than a year, Mr. Sasson worked on his 8-pound, toaster-size "camera" in the Kodak labs until he produced a groundbreaking 0.01 megapixel black-and-white image captured on a digital cassette tape.
The invention would change photography forever. Mr. Sasson's birth of digital imaging marked the beginning of a revolution in the art and technology of imaging. Although most of today's digital cameras rely on the more than 1,000 patents and inventions that came out of Kodak, the former Goliath of American business couldn't fully compose a picture of the future.
Fast forward to 2010. The smartphone, as much a camera product as a phone product, is firmly fixed in the hands and creative minds of consumers. In the wings, Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, two Stanford University pals enrolled as Mayfield Fellows with the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, launch a big idea. It's called Instagram. With iPhones aimed (Instagram would add support for Android smartphones in April 2012) and Instagram running, consumers begin to evolve the tenets of how and why we take and share pictures.
I asked my friend Steve if he thought all those great Kodak Moments we grew up with have become today's Instagram Moments.
"Instagram is OK for what used to be called the snapshot," Steve offered. "But you never saw a snapshot image altered. Back then, the snapshot always had that great look to it. With Instagram, people alter the image and then it's no longer really the image. It's something else."
For a lot of pros like Steve who were weaned on technique and photojournalism, great images were all about composition, exposure, subject, taking time to "get the shot" and capturing that decisive moment through the lens. For Steve, Instagram is the antithesis of this in most cases. "Instagram is a thousand images and you can't remember one of them," he said.
Steve humored me and let me walk him through the Instagram process while he worked on his breakfast burrito. Using the app and camera on my iPhone, I snap a picture, tap the photo through a filter or two in the app and the image's look and feel is transformed, instantly. Then with two more taps, I post the picture to the Instagram universe.
"Instagrammers live for the little moments," I told Steve. Yes, those Kodak Moments. Images are shot spontaneously and quickly -- sometimes captured for art and sometimes pleasure. And yes, Instagram filters and other photo applications like Snapseed and Photoshop can be used to juice up the image into a vision beyond reality and what had been the real moment. But I think a photo is really a bridge to sharing. An idea. An experience. A feeling. Photography was born for social media.
One thing Steve and I do agree on is that a good photograph deserves an audience no matter how it's made or where it's seen. Instagram gives Instagrammers and millions of their photos an audience. This past April, Instagram announced that more than 30 million users around the globe are sharing their pictures and captions. There are some terrific photographers making great digital images with their smartphones. I would never get to see any of those "snapshots" if it weren't for Instagram.
Conversely, with my iPhone in hand, I shoot and share Pittsburgh in photographs with people all over the world. Instagrammers who follow me check the Instagram app on their phones, view the image feed and see my work. When the nearly 400 followers of my images see one of them in their Instagram feeds, they're likely going to get a new shot of Pittsburgh, my favorite subject. From Turkey to Texas, I get a lot of likes for how beautiful our city is.
I asked Steve what he thought would come of Instagram 20 years from now. "Nothing. It's fleeting," he said. "There are some iconic photos out there in the world people will always remember," he added. "Not sure you can say that with Instagram. They're too easy to make. No real work."
I still believe there are lots of compelling images to enjoy and savor on Instagram. I see them daily. However, I have to agree that most shots on Instagram do seem disposable, including plenty of my own.
Greg Daniels, a professional video editor I work with, believes a lot of art is disposable today. Like Steve, he too is somewhat a purist; however, Greg does like to push the tech envelope on all fronts. Another video editor, Dave Jennings, suggested to me that photojournalists might be disgruntled by the dilution of photography's perception as a craft just like professional video editors are by the "anybody-can-edit" software available in the consumer market. As Dave pointed out, "Purists were furious with Andy Warhol when he started using industrial methods to create his work. Now look at his legacy."
Steve told me what he tries to do is create a memory with a photo. Ten to 15 years from now, he wants to be able to remember what he was doing when he shot the image, what he felt, smelled and where he was. "I don't think Instagram can ever do that for me," he said.
I paid for breakfast. We left with a handshake. On my way back to the car, I fired up the Instagram app, framed a shot of DeLuca's flanked by Penn Avenue and pressed the button. I added a filter and some defocus. Added more contrast and a second filter. Posted the image and hoped I'd garner some comments. It took about 30 seconds. By the end of the day, I had earned only 12 likes. No comments.
Maybe a few decades from now someone will discover my Instagram Moments and like them. For now, thank you Steven Sasson for the first digital camera. Thank you Steve Yakub for holding to your convictions. Kodak, thank you as well. The history of the camera and photograph continue to develop right before our very eyes and you had a lot to do with that. I think a picture will always be worth a thousand words no matter what camera freezes the moment. And, whether it's a Kodak Moment or an Instagram Moment, photos help us remember the times of our lives. To quote Paul Anka:
Gather moments while you may
Collect the dreams you dream today
Remember, will you remember
The times of your life?
First Published December 2, 2012 12:00 am