Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - Feb. 24, 2012

A snapshot look at life

Taking pictures is probably in my blood.

Grandpa Robert Freeland took and printed hundreds of pictures. In fact, at times his picture-taking proclivity has even been a bit of a problem. When I look at one of his unlabeled prints, I don't know if the people looking back are distant relatives or just some neighbors who wanted an image of their family.

Dad's brothers Bob and Stan loved to take pictures, too. Grandpa Nels Mostrom also took a lot of photos, storing his special camera equipment in the attic of his farm home. Mom has the photo gene, too. Her dozens of photo albums are a testament to that.

The photography bug bit when I was just a youngster. I first used my parents' Brownie camera and later their Instamatic, complete with easy-to-load cartridge film and a cube-shaped flash that took four pictures before it had to be replaced.

Then my interest waned until I took a black-and-white photography class in college. The following lines from a piece I wrote for the student newspaper more than 35 years ago leave little doubt I had been bitten again:

"...Once I got started, I went wild taking pictures of everything - squirrels, roommates, trees, rabbits, eroded fields, weeds, bicycles, wine bottles, buildings ... You know you have the camera bug when you leave your tennis partner in the middle of a game to get a picture of a weed with the sun hitting it just right so it is backlighted."

But this time my interest never diminished. It even inspired the title of my weekly column. That was more than a decade ago, and in the first one I explained:

"My family and friends tolerate me snapping dozens (well, more like hundreds) of shots during the year of holidays, birthdays, 4th of July barbecues, school programs and every-day life. They're used to me stopping along the road to take pictures of the Flint Hills dotted with redbuds in the spring, churning storm clouds in the summer, burgundy, gold and copper grasses on the Konza Prairie in the autumn, and frost-laden bales of hay in the winter."

The word snapshot was originally a 19th-century hunting term that meant "to shoot from the hip, without careful aim." It was adopted by photographers to mean a picture taken without all the careful arrangements made in a studio setting. Later yet, it came to describe a moment captured in time. And so I settled on the title "Snapshots" for my column, later lengthening it to "Kansas Snapshots."

For most Americans my age and older, the photographic snapshot has a name. That name is Kodak and George Eastman was the man behind it. The picture-taking process I used for most of my life, the one both my grandfathers used and the one photographers used when Eastman began his work, was essentially the same. It dated from the mid-19th century and relied on a surface covered with chemicals that changed when exposed to light.

But before Eastman, that surface was a fragile glass plate held in a camera larger than a toaster. He was certain professional photographers would welcome his thin flexible film. When they didn't, he decided to take his invention to the general public. He created something very similar to the disposable camera that was so popular just a few years ago. It contained a roll of his film in a sealed box. A person took a picture, wound the film and was then ready to take another. When the roll was exhausted, the camera was sent in, the film developed and the pictures printed.

Eastman began marketing the camera in 1888 using the slogan "you press the button, we do the rest."

He also invented the Kodak name.

"I devised the name myself. The letter 'K' had been a favorite with me -- it seems a strong, incisive sort of letter. It became a question of trying out a great number of combinations of letters that made words starting and ending with 'K.' The word 'Kodak' is the result."

Eastman died almost 80 years ago, yet his company remained a leader in all aspects of photography. It even developed the technology that would lead the way from the chemical-based picture-taking system to the one where light converted the image directly into electrical signals - the digital camera. That was in 1970. It has been estimated that as recently as the 1980s, Kodak sold more than half the world's photography materials.

But the company turned its back on digital technology, keeping its emphasis on its traditional business. By the time it was clear that decision was a bad one, other companies had rushed past Kodak. In mid-January of this year, it filed for bankruptcy protection in the hope it can sell enough of its patents to fund a turn-around.

Looking back, it is easy to see the huge mistake the company made. But I recall when it seemed like a reasonable one to me. Husband Art gave me a digital camera for Christmas 2004. I did not embrace it for I was very hesitant to move away from the film cameras I had used all my life.

The turning point for me came at Art's cousin's home in Wisconsin. I took a picture of the birds at the feeder just past the living room window. The ability to capture an image, look at it and take another based on how the earlier one turned out made me an instant fan. I took at least 20 more bird shots and then turned the camera on the people and objects inside the house. Brother-in-law Tommy said I was "like a kid in a candy shop."

George Eastman and the Kodak name are quickly fading from the public consciousness. But their place in history is secure. The small hand-held Kodak box camera Eastman developed changed the lives of millions. By liberating photography from the studio, he allowed all of us to capture the stories of our lives.

Left: Dusty, the family dog, was one of my favorite subjects when I was growing up and I often entered the snapshots I took of him in the photography category at the county 4-H fair; right: one of the first digital photos I took. This woodpecker, left, and another hungry bird, right, were unwitting subjects just outside Art's cousin's home near Three Lakes, Wisconsin.

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