Cheaper, Simpler, Smaller, Defunct

Cheaper, Simpler, Smaller, Defunct

Watching the popular photography market in the late film era was rather like watching the bubbles in a bottle of fizzy drink – one that had been left on a warm window sill. What started out as lively effervescence slowed down, bubbles became fewer, and smaller, and eventually were no more – the lemonade was finally flat.

The fact that the Russians try to sell flat lemonade from the Leningradskoye Optiko-Mekhanicheskoye Obyedinene for the next two decades is neither here nor there. Digital won when Kodak and Agfa packed their carpet bags and ran for the train.

This saddened me for a long time until I finally accepted that I do much more and do it much more happily with my choice of digital equipment. Like a lot of older photographers I had grown up with the film cameras and learned to love them. In the end I decided I could still love them but with fond memory rather than creaking passion. Thus I can look at the examples we see on the CE shelves – or in Michael’s camera museum in Melbourne – and enjoy myself with no desire or regret. And I can see where they went wrong.

Going cheaper, simpler, and smaller is a fine set of criteria if you are trying to shoot lower and lower targets. If you convince yourself, as a company, that the mass market needs to be treated like a mass – and that the mass is a slow moving one, hard of thinking – you make less and less capable instruments. You hope that the dumbing down of your technology can meet a point where it triggers the floodgates of finance and the masses reward you.

In truth, you keep making worse products and eventually you do yourself out of business.

View the idea of the 35mm cassette of film in a consumer – styled camera – a point and shoot device. The mass had to wrap a tongue of film around a spool, wind it on with three strokes of a lever, and close the back. It was easier to do than opening an oven and putting in a cake pan.

Yet many failed and the designers were tasked with making it simpler.

They made a plastic cassette that you popped into the even simpler 126 camera. The mass could try to put it in 4 ways – only one of these was physically possible.

( One woman managed to put it in opposite left-to-right and close the door of the Kodak Instamatic 104 in the 1960’s. I saw it and her and watched the manager of the camera store cope with the mess. I have never forgotten it…) Despite the best efforts, the 126 sales dried up and the designers were ordered to make a smaller and simpler one.

The 110 cassette and associated slim cameras appeared. Film was everywhere and so were the tourists using these to make terrible pictures of wonderful places.

And that was very nearly the end of the game. There was still the disc camera to come, but we don’t talk about that in front of minors.

The most horrifying thing of all was the results from these cameras got progressively worse. The film emulsions got better, but this did not make up for the fact that the formats got smaller and the mechanisms poorer. And even if people could seem to find a mini-lab on every corner with a diligent printer who tried to rescue their art…the game wound itself down as it tried to make more of the masses.

But keep reading as I go to other parts of the CE Museum shelves. All was not gloom, and light was about to shine.


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