Ali Feser takes the page 99 test

On page 99, I get to the Kodak. The fixed focus, single aperture lens camera was patented 1888, and it sold for the not insignificant price of twenty-five dollars. The first Kodak product intended for use by the masses, rather than professional photographers. The Kodak was marketed to a growing class of middle-class consumers, and as advertisements suggested, it was simple enough for a woman or child to pick it up and start snapping.

There were no settings to adjust.It came preloaded with a hundred exposures. The consumer didn’t even touch the film. The tagline was literal: “You press the button, we do the rest.” She wound the key, released the shutter, and mailed the entire camera back to Kodak’s factories in Rochester for developing. Workers submerged the film in chemical baths, brought out the latent image, and fixed the molecules in place. They projected the image on emulsion coated paper, made prints, and mailed it all—photo, negatives, and camera, refueled with fresh film—back to the consumer. The Kodak system materialized an emulsive loop between mass industrial production and intimate, domestic life, but it disappeared from consumers’ view the messy, chemical labor of photography.

The simplicity of the Kodak system made it possible for ordinary people to objectify their worlds in chemical form. At the same time however, because the Kodak system attenuated users’ capacity to intervene in the photographic process, it precipitated a mass standardization of consumers’ visual habitus. The fact that there were no adjustable settings meant that the Kodak could only be used within a precise arrangement of photographer, subject, and light. Hand drawn illustrations in the instruction manuals offered normative templates for how to see the world. They simulate portraits at distances of three, six, and nine feet and the right way to photograph babies, buildings, and pets. Get to their level, hold the Kodak steady, hold it level, hold your breath and disappear, face in the direction in which the sun shines, press the button, turn the key, repeat. With every snapshot, consumers learn to see as the cameras see. They learn the difference between good pictures and bad and how to domesticate the visual conventions featured in Kodak advertisements and other mass media. Especially after the launch of the five-dollar Brownie camera in 1900, Kodak’s system would radically transform subjectivity and social life, reorganizing perception along patterns engineered by a single corporation.

Page 99 doesn’t include everything. There is no attention to the utopian aspirations of twentieth century social welfare capitalism; the chemoaesthetics of fascism and the historical imbrication of corporations and the imperial state; the racial politics of emulsion and fantasies of the white, American “good life”; the longue durée, ecological impacts of chemical manufacturing; or how photographs and fantasies endure and transform over time. What page 99 does capture, through a description of the Kodak system and early instruction manuals, is the moment in which Kodak began to remake the world.

Ali Feser. 2020. Reproducing Photochemical Life in the Imaging Capital of the World. University of Chicago, Phd.