Kodak founder George Eastman was one of the first people to foresee the market potential of photography. If cameras were less expensive, unwieldly and technically demanding, every household and holidaymaker would have one, he predicted. In 1900, Eastman’s $1 Box Brownie camera took the world by storm. No longer were photographs exposed onto heavy glass plates for minutes at a time; the Brownie accepted rolls of film.
Thirty-three years after Eastman’s death, Kodak simplified cameras even further. The Instamatic 50, released in February 1963, further eased the finicky business of loading film. All you had to do was place a cartridge of film inside and close the back. There were no other settings which might confuse neophyte photographers: shutter speed, aperture and focus were fixed. A month later, the Instamatic 100 added on a built-in flashgun for peanut bulbs. All for $15.95.
By 1970, more than 50 million Instamatics had been produced, and the name became a generic term for any brand of point-and-shoot camera.
Other companies scrambled to imitate the Instamatic, and facing stiff competition from Fuji in the early 1970s, Kodak joined forces with Scott Paper Towels to give away cameras in the United States: collect 30 paper-towel wrappers, receive a free Instamatic 126. It was a ploy to guarantee ongoing demand for Kodak film. They didn’t stop there: “Kodak put signs at the entrances of many towns listing what to photograph,” wrote Susan Sontag in On Photography. “Signs marked the places in national parks where visitors should stand with their cameras.”
Photography was no longer a luxury: it was a marker of a successful holiday. You could collect views as though they were stamps or model aircraft.
Later models expanded the Instamatic line-up considerably, adding on automatic exposure, light meters and even interchangeable lenses, in the case of the top-of-the-line Instamatic Reflex SLR.
There may be another Instamatic on the horizon. Last year Kodak unveiled the Instamatic 2014, an Android-powered smartphone with a retro casing. As well as all the usual cellphone accoutrements it had a viewfinder, 14-megapixel sensor and LED flash. It turned out to be nothing more than a concept, likely created to measure market interest in such a device.
In December 2014, Kodak announced that it would launch a range of mobiles in partnership with manufacturer Bullitt Group. So far, none of them resemble the ideal of the Instamatic 2014—but watch this space.