In recent years, I’ve noticed an increased enthusiasm for vintage art forms and media products. New vinyl albums and record players are being sold at Barnes and Noble, major movie directors are shooting big budget blockbusters like The Hateful Eight and Star Wars: The Force Awakens on film stock, and teenagers/twenty-somethings are discovering the joys of knitting and sewing. Unsurprisingly, this reverence for the quality and unique characteristics of past mediums has also permeated photography. Fujifilm has had runaway success with its Instax instant film cameras and film prints. Poor reproductions of old film filters are all over photo sharing apps. And more youths are running around cities with 35mm SLRs and expired film than you can shake a stick at.
Right now, I am holding in my hands what seems like the perfect evolution of this retro film craze in a modern digital era: the Earthlink e-snap!. Except, it’s a digital camera and it was released in 2001, a time when many industry professionals were still using film cameras as workhorses. So in a way, you could say that the e-snap! was ahead of its time.
This camera has everything you’d expect to find in a cheap 35mm or APS point and shoot film camera: a small offset viewfinder, a frame counter, and the inability to review any of the photos you’ve taken. This is not because it doesn’t have a playback mode. It just straight up doesn’t have a practical back screen at all. And when I say it has a frame counter, I don’t mean it indicates the number of digital images you can take with available memory. I mean it displays the number of images you have already taken on a 1x1cm LCD screen.
Now that I think about it, the best way to describe this camera is by addressing what it doesn’t have. Like I said earlier, the e-snap! is a digital camera without a back screen (aside from that minuscule frame counter). The camera does not have an on/off button. It does not have autofocus or manual focus. There are no image quality, shutter speed, ISO, or aperture settings. The memory card slot does not exist because it relies solely on internal memory. According to the e-snap!’s manual, you can expect the camera to “hold approximately 24 pictures.”Huh, kinda like a cheap 35mm film roll. I’m almost tempted to believe that the e-snap! was meant to be a consumer level film camera before the Earthlink pencil pushers charged into the research lab one day only weeks before the production date and ordered everybody to gut the innards out and turn it into a digital camera.
To be perfectly honest, I like the e-snap! in theory. Yes, it has a godawful name. But, the idea of a cheap, mass produced simplistic camera is something that greatly interests me. It’s the very idea that fueled the first Kodak box cameras during the turn-of-the-century, allowing photography to become accessible and easy to many people without wealth or technical expertise. Citizen photographers no longer needed their own darkrooms and chemicals. Instead, they could simply mail their film rolls to Kodak, who would then send back finished prints. I don’t think I need to explain that the Earthlink e-snap! had a less profound effect on the public. Otherwise, we’d all be posting pictures of cats and food to our Earthlink accounts. Speaking of which, Earthlink did have a social website platform in which users could post their favorite e-snap! shots way before Instagram, Facebook, and Flickr. Unfortunately, for reasons unknown to me it never quite caught on.
And that is not all that is unknown to me. There is almost no record of this camera ever existing on the internet. Because it forgoes nearly every feature one would expect to find in a digital camera, I assume it didn’t cost much, but the exact price has eluded my investigative efforts. I contacted Earthlink several days ago, but they have yet to respond back and confirm this camera’s existence. Maybe they want to forget that part of their history.
The second thing I like about this camera is its design. The construction is largely inexpensive plastic, but its used in an effective manner. The two-tone silver and black is a nice ode to classic midcentury 35mm film cameras and the yellow buttons remind you of its zany early 2000s roots. The fake chrome section is pretty clever. The designers covered the main silver part with a transparent layer that heightens reflectivity to simulate the appearance of real metal. I’m also happy to point out that the cosmic Earthlink logo on the back is the only writing on the external body, no boastful camera features or flaunting model names are present. This is probably the most nondescript digital camera I’ve ever held. A perfect harmony has been achieved in its simplistic design and usability.
By now, you may be wondering why you aren’t seeing any pictures taken with this camera. Remember when I said it uses internal memory to store image files? Well, to get those photos off the camera all I thought I had to do was connect it via USB cable to my computer. Jeez oh man alive, was I wrong about that.
The camera malfunctions if you hook it up to a computer before downloading the camera driver software on its accompanying CD-ROM. But, my laptop doesn’t have a CD drive. So then I tried all manner of computers around me that have CD drives, but their operating systems were incompatible with the software, even Windows XP. So then I tried running Windows 2000 on my laptop, and after numerous setbacks I succeeded in running it and moving all the CD-ROM files to my laptop. Except, after stumbling through miles of dark tunnel and finally seeing the light at the end, the virtual machine I was using prevented me from moving the driver from my host operating system to my guest operating system. And you probably don’t care about any of that.
I wouldn’t either. There were only a grand total of 11 pictures on the e-snap!. Except, I was stupid enough to take pictures of my friends at a college newspaper anniversary party solely with this camera and then spent too many hours trying to rip those eleven files out of their digital prison. If some bonehead has ever opened the door to the darkroom while you were loading film into a processing tank then you know how I feel. Unintentionally, this camera review has become more of a cautionary tale, but an important one. So heed my words. Do everything you can now to future-proof your valued digital photos because in only 15 years time a similar series of unfortunate events could befall you.