A few days ago, I was walking around the George Eastman Mansion in Rochester, N.Y., blissfully unaware that Facebook was preparing to buy Instagram for $1 billon. I loved the tour. Eastman and his company, Kodak, turned early photography — an incredibly a cumbersome and rarified process in the mid-1800s — into a portable, easy-to-repeat consumer obsession. Today, the obsession continues — but largely without Kodak, which is now mired in bankruptcy. In its place is, I guess, Instagram, the $1 billion baby.
I still haven’t decided if I’m happy that Facebook bought the digital photography app and social network. I am an Instagram user. I think I first noticed it when I saw some shared images on Twitter that reminded me of old Instamatic photos. That was clearly the appeal of Instagram: the ability to take everyday digital images from your iPhone (now Android, too!) or photo library and apply a filter that made the picture look like it was taken by a camera that Kodak made more than 50 years ago.
Every Instagramed photo was somehow more authentic, like the act of adding a filter made the image handmade. These pictures look like you developed them yourself.
There would be no Instagram without Eastman and Kodak. Even the Instagram logo is similar to a classic Kodak Instamatic camera — though I don’t know that Instagram has ever paid a dime to Kodak.
The Eastman museum displayed a lot of Kodak’s early cameras and related photography equipment, but no Instamatic that I could find. Although the camera arrived nearly 30 years after Eastman’s death, it helped solidify Kodak’s position in the “photography for everyone” pantheon. Clearly, the easy-to-use, low-cost and very portable camera influenced the Instagram team.
Too bad Kodak couldn’t have seen as far ahead as Eastman once was. Maybe it could’ve come up with the idea of Instagram.
That’s a fantasy. The reality, though, is that Facebook and Instagram probably do owe Kodak something — maybe a debt of gratitude. Without Kodak, there would be no Instagram — and I bet Facebook would be a much duller place, too.