With the ostentatious pavilions gleaming during the day, and the fountains and futuristic statuary illuminated at night, the World’s Fairs in New York were a photographer’s dream. Numerous professionals and news reporters flocked to Flushing Meadows, but alongside were just as many amateurs, often equipped with a Kodak preloaded with film.
That Kodak Moment: Picturing the New York Fairs opened at the Queens Museum in November. Showcasing a recent donation of 1,200 medium-format color slides by fashion photographer Jerry Kean and performing arts photographer Van Williams, the exhibit also includes some of the 10,000 objects in the museum’s collection related to the fairs. Many of these have never been on public view, including personal scrapbooks with worn pages open to family vacation snapshots juxtaposed against a surreal landscape.
On one wall of the Kodak Moment, slides play in carousels, while mementos in display cases like World’s Fair-branded cameras and photographs lay flat. Certain shots catch the eye, like Dalí and Gala visiting a giant alien fish head at the “Dream of Venus” attraction in 1939, and Westinghouse’s Elektro robot who could smoke, talk, and flirt with ladies.
Kodak itself was highly aware that sharing photography was essential to their brand, especially at the flamboyant World’s Fair. Long before Instagram and museums were encouraging hashtags, Kodak was staging pavilions where you could pose with a miniature of the 1939 Trylon and Perisphere, and offering an incredible aerial vantage point from the 1964 World’s Fair undulating pavilion roof. On the exterior of each of these pavilions, gigantic photographs of cats and kids were displayed, suggesting anyone’s snapshots were worthy of being seen.
Mia Fineman, assistant curator in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Department of Photographs, wrote in “Kodak and the Rise of Amateur Photography” that “the most significant event in the history of amateur photography was the introduction of the Kodak #1 camera in 1888,” something that sparked the mass photography craze. She adds that by the 1960s the “snapshot aesthetic” had even gained “currency in art photography circles.”
Introducing new, user-friendly cameras at the World’s Fairs, Kodak likely encouraged a few enthusiasts to pick up one of their 1939 Brownie’s branded with gold Trylon. From our view in 2014 — with the once-king Kodak only emerging from its 2012 bankruptcy — both the fairs and the company are distinctly dated. However, the impulse to share a personal experience among a sea of photographers is certainly not. Even in 1939, everyone wanted their own shot of the spectacle.