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Say Cheese -- and Goodbye

It’s a small step, as commercial history goes, but Kodak’s decision to stop selling traditional film cameras in North America marks the formal beginning of the end of, well, a tradition. It’s easier, smoother, more efficient and certainly more expensive upfront today to take pictures on computer chips, converting memories into e-mailable electrons and pixels. These images can be stored, transmitted, printed at home, even erased and reused.

But previous generations of Americans grew up -- and can now look back on themselves growing up -- with those spools of film wrapped in thick yellow paper that got inserted into cameras, to unroll there in secret, recording whatever family pose, birthday cake or newborn the box was aimed at.

The rewound film was then dutifully delivered in wrapped darkness to a chemical alchemist at a drugstore that also mixed medical potions. There, or somewhere even more mystical in a large city not nearby, the film was developed and turned into snapshots for shipment, scrapbook storage and souvenir savoring. Fifty years ago, these developments could take a week of excited waiting. Today it’s 30 minutes if you’re psychologically equipped to wait that long.

During World War II, the magic chemicals necessary to make consumer film were needed more urgently to blow things into oblivion. A family somehow acquiring a roll of film for its box camera might sell some of the eight or 12 available shots to filmless neighbors with new brides or babies. One roll of eight or 12 pictures might record the varied joys of three or four families. This explains why American babies from the 1940s have one or two black-and-white infant photos in their scrapbooks. Then suddenly the child is 6 and has color.

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This past holiday season saw some stores offering old-fashioned-looking console radios, which once dominated American living rooms as TVs do today. These retro-radios made of wood-looking plastic also play tapes and CDs, and when you lift the top there’s a round table with a silver spindle and an arm containing a tiny needle that plays something called a phonograph record. Parents could be seen explaining this prehistoric device to modern children, who carry their entertainment in battery-powered, pocket-sized music machines.

It’s all part of progress, presumably. Someday, when palm-sized cameras transmit video images directly into the eyeglasses of distant relatives, our grandchildren will not believe there was anything as primitive as a photo CD, let alone film. Meanwhile, we hope Kodak takes a nice snapshot of the last film camera for sale in North America -- and does it on film.


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