“Eastman Kodak and the Chemoaesthetics of Whiteness, or Film as a Material Fantasy of Race”
Ali Feser | Harper Schmidt Fellow & Collegiate Associate Professor
Discussant: Rebecca Journey | Teaching Fellow in the Social Sciences
*Wednesday, May 4, 5pm – 6:30pm CST
Location: Haskell 101 and Zoom
*Please note the change in time.
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Paper Abstract: Founded in 1880 in Rochester, New York, Eastman Kodak was the second largest chemical company in the U.S., and it is said to have produced eighty percent of all the film stock in the world. Over the course of the twentieth century, however, Kodak produced much more than film; they also manufactured the American Dream of the white, middle class, heteronormative “good life.” Mass mediated images shot on Kodak film gave visual form to national fantasies with their archetypal subjects and landscapes. Through instruction manuals and advertisements, Kodak crafted photography into an essential practice for imaging and reproducing the family, and they made it possible for consumers to image themselves within these collective fantasies.
I argue that these fantasies of the capitalist good life issues from the chemical structure of film and the organizational forms of labor at Kodak’s factories in Rochester. There, Kodak’s social welfare programs–intended to dissuade workers from unionizing– shaped the life experiences and aesthetic dispositions of Kodak workers. Workers, in turn, applied this regime of sensuous knowledge to the design of photographic technologies; they inscribed into cameras and emulsion and reproduced in Kodak ads a morally saturated way of seeing that normalized whiteness as the color of the “good life.”
As such, this essay draws from forty months of ethnographic, archival, and visual research in Rochester to theorize how the chemoaesthetics of Kodak film became a normative template for how to see the world. It juxtaposes the history of the invention of Kodachrome film with the story of George Eastman’s support of eugenics research. It narrates how the dreamspace of film was shaped by the white homogeneity of Kodak’s workforce and the ideology of “family” that anchored Kodak’s paternalistic order of industrial capitalism.
*This convening is open to all invitees regardless of vaccination status and, because of ongoing health risks to the unvaccinated, those who are unvaccinated are expected to adopt the risk mitigation measures advised by public health officials (masking and social distancing, etc.). Public convening may not be safe for all and carries a risk for contracting COVID-19, particularly for those unvaccinated. Participants will not know the vaccination status of others, including venue staff, and should follow appropriate risk mitigation measures.