A billion dollars worth of pomo photo

Has everybody finally finished discussing Instagram’s billion buck Zuck-quisition?  Probably not, but I can’t wait for all the chatter to settle down to ponder what it means when a generation puts such a value on nostalgia for something they probably don’t actually remember.  I had a college professor who said that was the definition of postmodernism, and that was back in the day when film was all we had and we liked it.

OK, social media mavens and startup geeks, I know Facebook did not pay a billion bucks for “just filters” and I don’t mean that Instagram’s filters are so super special.  Facebook bought a social photo utility, they bought a mobile app, and they bought a user base, all to build and defend their market position. But this post is about film, so move aside hipsters and deal-makers, let the photo nerds gather round and pour out libations of D-76.

There’s been a funny thread here and there asking if Instagram somehow owes Kodak something.  In a way, they owe Kodak everything.  Instagram’s visual style trades on a variety of now-vintage photo techniques, styles, and even equipment, much of it Kodak’s but also some by Polaroid and others.  Those companies didn’t just create the look that Instagram trades on, they created the culture of personal, instant, and shareable photography that gave birth to digital photography and then the cameraphone and ultimately Instagram and its ilk.

The Instagrammers could probably buy Kodak and Polaroid with their newfound megazucks (Kodak was worth $145 million in January, and Polaroid was almost sold for $60 million in 2009) but they have no reason to.  I doubt that “style” and “culture” are terribly well-protected as intellectual property.  And even if they were, history has shown that Kodak and Polaroid were too late to the digital game to even think of trying to protect these assets, intangible as they were.

I like to play a little game trying to match Instagram’s various filters with the films or technologies that inspired them.  There’s the Polaroid SX-70 clone, the Tri-X knockoff, the Kodachrome copy…  They are at the same time obvious and impossible to confirm – except maybe one that I’ve noticed:  Instagram’s “Nashville” (I wonder how they came up with that name?) swipes the edge code of Fuji’s Velvia film, RVP100.

Does the look and feel of “Nashville” correspond to Velvia?  I’ll leave that up to finer appreciators of color film. For what it’s worth, I also found the Kodak Tri-X edge, reversed, in this Hipstagram that looks reasonably like Tri-X.  Don’t forget that Kodak had some cameras called Instamatic.  But none of that really matters to the Instagram generation. TX400 or RVP100 doesn’t mean anything to them, it just looks cool and vintagey. I hope they get as much out of that feeling as those of us who remember, even a little, get out of the memories.

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