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The Kodak Flashcube—a rotating cube with a miniature flashbulb incarcerated within each of its four mirrored compartments—made amateur photography of the domestic interior possible from the mid-1960s onwards. It also reduced the risk of injury presented by its forebears. Its mother, the single-use luminescent flashbulb, resembled a domestic light bulb and would project shattered glass as well as light. Its fragility disguised its ferocity. Containing magnesium filaments, the oxygen gas, once electrically ignited by the click of the camera shutter, would generate substantial residual heat and often cause painful burns. Memories should burn brightly, not painfully. The Flashcube’s grandmother, the flash lamp, carried an even greater risk of violence. Upon triggering the shutter, both photographer and subject risked being cut or even blinded should some stray glass enter the eye. Worse, photographers sometimes died when preparing the flash powder, a composition of metallic fuel and an oxidizer such as chlorate. Flash lamps maintained their market dominance for some sixty years before flashbulbs replaced them in 1929. In 1965, however, the need for greater safety and simplicity urged the Flashcube into existence.
Eastman Kodak’s invention of the Flashcube also emerged from the company’s specific wish to offer a flash that would work with its newly ubiquitous amateur photographers’ cameras, made popular by the white middle-class families targeted in 1960s advertising campaigns. Partnered with Kodak’s Instamatic camera, the Flashcube’s adaptability, portability, and ease of use made interior photography possible for the masses, without prerequisite skill or expertise. The impact on interior behavior as well as interior spaces was substantial. Interiors and normative domestic relations could be captured and shared, exposing the aspirational aesthetics and social arrangements of this once most private of architectures. In magazine advertisements, a woman’s hand was shown affectionately caressing a Flashcube, positioning it as a feminine technology to capture home life. In the Flashcubes’ dazzling light, families staged domestic tableaux in an effort to display their nuclear family credentials.
In observing the phenomenon of staging, Susan Sontag observed presciently that “needing to have reality confirmed and experience enhanced by photographs is an aesthetic consumerism to which everyone is addicted.” And, since addiction is characterized by repetition, Flashcube “users” could click/shoot, click/shoot, click/shoot, click/shoot, discard, reload, click/shoot, click/shoot, click/shoot, click/shoot, discard, reload and so on, until the three-pack was spent. Without agency over light levels, contrast or glare, redeye was inevitable, casting an unintentionally malevolent air over many tableaux. And with each photograph, the Flashcube would make a small snapping sound, as sharp and discreet as a breaking wishbone. The four- compartment casing would feel warm for an instant, then cold, and then forever silent. With each aluminium ignition the Flashcube’s explosion remained contained within its interior, the plastic housing intact. The subjects would freeze in anticipation, to avoid the image being blurred, only to disperse their familial tableau seconds later, momentarily blinded.
If they ever looked at the used Flashcube before discarding it, subjects would have noticed the scorch marks inside, resembling the remnants of a chip-pan fire in a doll’s house. Aluminum, the element in the Flashcube that helps the magnesium combust, must be one of the key material symbols of modernity, having shaped the twentieth century through domestic and industrial advances, air power and Moon landings. It is lightweight, strong, non-magnetic and resistant to corrosion. Yet aluminum’s shiny utopia has a dark side. Aluminum is a neurotoxin that, when ingested, may cause Alzheimer’s.* That an object designed to capture memories is contrived from a substance that corrodes memories speaks of both alchemy and irony. Aluminum in its raw form is contrived from bauxite, an amorphous clayey rock whose strip-mining extraction requires the removal of all native vegetation in the surrounding area, the destruction of habitat and food for local wildlife, with soil erosion and river pollution thrown in. Since they first opened, bauxite mines have fueled resource disputes in Africa, India and the Caribbean, and have elicited both the greed and the wrath of multinational corporations. Aluminum embodies the carcinogenic contradiction of our time: that affordable, playful and convenient consumerism is non-degradable toxic waste in waiting. Perhaps this is the reality that the spent Flashcube illuminates best.
None of this was on the register of consumers at the time, of course. They simply wanted a flash that wouldn’t die after being fired only once. The solution was in fact being developed as early as 1931, thirty years before the Flashcube, by Harold Edgerton, a professor of electrical engineering. His Electronic Flash, a battery-powered device able to carry its own energy supply and integrated into the camera body, began to dominate the consumer market in the late 1960s. It was perfectly suited to several uses without the detriment of detritus, and quickly deposed the Flashcube as the device of choice for capturing domestic interiors. Consequently, the Flashcube’s principal manufacturer, the Kodak subsidiary Sylvania Electric Products, ceased producing it in the 1970s. As a leading contractor for warfare research and other forms of surveillance, the company returned to its main product lines, principally, avionics systems for observation helicopters, and personal distress radios for downed pilots.
Despite the closed production line, is it disingenuous to claim that Flashcubes are extinct? What about the familial memories they captured? As Sherry Turkle observes, “we consider objects as useful or aesthetic, as necessities or vain indulgences … [but] are on less familiar ground when we consider objects as companions to our emotional lives or provocations to thought.” A Flashcube’s aluminum filament takes one hundred years to decompose, and its plastic casing up to a thousand. However, the photographic prints it produced will degrade within half a century, making the interior, familial memories that the Flashcube helped to capture far more susceptible to disposability than the object used to create them. Consequently the Flashcube’s simple provocation reveals that vanity and violence are essential accompaniments to un-disposability. It might have fallen out of use, but the abandoned and slowly degrading Flashcube acts as a dimly pulsating warning light, reminding us that the objects we design to indulge our narcissistic fumbling towards immortality only serve to end our life, rather than extend it.
Correction, Dec. 22, 2021: This reprinted excerpt originally overstated the link between the ingestion of aluminum and Alzheimer’s.
Reprinted with permission from Extinct: A Compendium of Obsolete Objects, edited by Barbara Penner, Adrian Forty, Olivia Horsfall Turner, and Miranda Critchley (Reaktion Books, $40.00, available from the University of Chicago Press).
For another obsolete object from the book, The Clapper, click here.