Jean-Claude Gautrand, Publicités Kodak: 1910-1939 (Paris: Contre-jour, 1983).
The advertised image is no less ephemeral than the newspaper, the magazine or the poster that conveys it. The need to continually repeat the commercial message, to reassess its visual impact and to avoid visual boredom leads to making a series of images that follow one another, modify one another and overlap in order to reflect tastes, fashion and present cultural trends as closely as possible. These series can even go so far as to create new habits and new needs to which they offer the right answer.
If ‘You Press the Button, we do the rest’ has remained one of the most enduring and exemplary formulas for the whole history of advertising, it has with the years accompanied series of new images that celebrate the technological improvements, which in spite of their popularity were intended for a certain social class.
André Rouillé has shown that the discovery of photography was in no way a fortuitous event, but rather the outcome of a widening gap in the nineteenth century between the rhythm for producing pictures and the new needs created by the emerging industrial and capitalist society. Reproducibility, accuracy, but also profitability were imperatives. On these bases, a mass production market was born that, as it met the demands of new clients, also generated enormous benefits.
This commercial spiral was conditioned by the need to broadcast, promote and impose a new media through adequate advertising.
In order to understand to whom these advertised messages, which brag and impose a certain way of representation were intended, we need to go back in time in order to define the social target of this vulgarisation of the new means of reproduction, hence of knowledge.
Since the time of Daguerre’s heavy camera, technology has considerably improved but the manipulation of the hand-held camera was not yet for everyone. With the appearance of the dry bromized plate, the equipment was at last to become miniaturized; and a section of the middle class was finally to take to this new practice.
The ‘detective type’ cameras, always ready to be used casue, in turn, a small revolution: the public could now take snapshots. The nonprofessional photographer was born.
1888 was the year of the last and decisive revolution in the photographic industry. Till then photography had been the mere privilege of the privileged.
Eastman explained the philosophy of his system: ‘We provide those – men, women and children – who are able to direct a camera towards a subject and press a button with a tool that allows them to take pictures without their having any exceptional aptitude or even a special knowledge.’
A form of art that had been reserved to the upper classes came within the reach of all classes who thus acquired the possibility of ‘capturing’ all the moments of life and preserving ‘souvenirs’ in precious albums.
The marketing, in 1900, by Eastman of a simple box for taking six shots (5.5 x 5.5cm), sold for only one dollar, brought the art of photography to the most poorly off. Thousands of people in the street could take millions of pictures, simple and naive, that would be kept in their family archives; they thus entered into the logic of the producer-consumer spiral.
These photographs – a typical reflexion of capitalist society – had several purposes: promoting sales but also favouring dreams, when not enticing one to dream, in order to promote sales.
The message of these shots, celebrating the timeless aspects of a sophisticated, casual and luxurious happiness was: owning a camera is clearly a social privilege. Mass consumption was still out of sight.
Regardless of the backdrop of these advertising images, woman always remained the basic sign of the message apparently intended for her alone. Wasn’t she, on all those small posters, the only one who handled the camera? Who captured on film the masculine sports and activities of her male friend? She was a sign of the times when, for some strata of society, it was out of the question that a woman should ever do anything but conform blindly to fashion, be beautiful, smile and eventually become a mother.
Children also appeared as a favourite subject matter of advertising photography since they especially belonged to the female world.
Moments of happiness had to be captured and multiplied in order to make these albums, the true memories of families, to be leafed through in front of wide-eyed children.
The dream machine worked, as we see, perfectly well. If a half-century later, we can still thumb through these photographs, eyes brimming with emotion, the reason is that the commercial motivation has become less dominant. What we are left with is the obsolete, outmoded charm, the mellowness of the past, the melancholy poetry of these sophisticated chromos.