Happy Snappy Instamatic

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Wednesday 16 December 2009
Ron Brownson

The wonderful Kodak Instamatic was once named the 'Happy Snappy'. Placed on the international market in 1963, this camera immediately became the camera of choice for many New Zealanders. With its easy to use click in 126 plastic cassette, here was the best idiot-proof tool for personal photography. It had no dials to confuse the camera shy. It really was the first camera invented for the mass use of colour film. Black and white stock was still readily available but the resulting photographs never looked anywhere near as good as the colour ones did. The Instamatic had a fixed focus lens and was almost indestructible. I took over Dad'sInstamatic 100 Deluxe with the motorised film advance for rapid shooting. I immediately imagined that I could take action photos but they never worked out because the shutter was way too slow to record such major hometown events as the High School's summer athletics and swimming days. In diving shots all I got was an image of the diver's splash and with the runners I got blurred figures with nicely focused backgrounds.

Yet the Instamatic could produce memorable images. Look at the odd one below. Imagine posing people on seats placed on the flat back of an articulated trailer? Here the photographer has had to get so far away so that the entire trailer can fit into the shot. None of the people can be recognised! Although it is noted on the reverse that the guy standing up is 'P.P. Birt.' What I also like is how the rear zigzag roof-line looms out from the articulated deck so that it suddenly becomes transformed into a bogan's souped up trailer. Al la 1966.

I reckon that the Instamatic actually gave both women and men an equal access to the camera, in the previous generation the family was jealously possessed by the 'Dad'. The possessive reality to ‘It’s my camera’ syndrome extended the 1890s to the 1960s. Strange to think that there was such a gender imbalance in the production of photographs for the first six decades of the 20th century. TheInstamatic’s ease of use, light weight, its low cost and its overall physical handiness soon made it a favourite for women. I look at this little oddity and wonder whether the photographer's partner is up the telephone/power pole at Christmas time in 1966? Backcountry of Palmerston North, of course.

In a previous blog, I conjectured that only a woman could have made a particular snapshot based on the internal evidence of the image. I believe that one woman made all these Instamatic images. I found them at a local garage sale in a pile of over 200 photographs. The entire bunch was priced at $5.00. Someone, maybe the photographer herself, had carefully scored out in black marking pen ink almost all the names of people which the photographer had carefully inscribed onto the photos. Every image was so 'censored' and then they were all discarded for sale. Why not simply burn them? Why edit out the inscribed names and then sell them for $5.00? Many of the photographs include young children, the recurring man shown up the ladder (He has to be the photographer's husband as no one documents their brother like that) and plenty of older people (who have to be relatives?).

What makes this a fascinating group of pictures is the fact that the photographer has shot most of them on a diagonally framed bias, so all the resulting prints are presented in diamond format. They are carefully composed shots and would not have been easy to make, as the Instamatic's viewfinder is so tiny that all subjects really have to be carefully centred.

The intriguing profile shot above is of a young woman in a garden house and was taken at Queens Garden, Nelson in January 1964. The photographer is standing so close to her female friend that she is both out of focus and in silhouette. Look at how the patterns contrast between her dress to the lattice.

This domestic landscape has all the spooky air of a René Magritte painting where the emptiness itself becomes the subject ‘October 1966 New shed and study from Dinette.’ Certain evidence that a Gothic perspective towards our reality actually has currency in the everyday life of our citizens. 

If you study these shots you can gain plenty of information. In February 1964, the Cashmere Scout Group was named Te Hoka and their mailbox was also employed as a water-fountain. Who recalls that fact now? Who thought of such a bizarrely combined usage or is this commonly encountered in Canterbury?

My personal favourite is a charming portrait of farm work. The inscription has survived the editing out process ‘Anne Gray and Bill O’Brien both about to spray blackberries behind Aunt Eliza’s home.’ Surely, New Zealand's only photograph of farm spraying made at Christmas in 1967? Truly a moment of stolen reality transformed into dreamtime.