It’s Your Patriotic Duty: WWI and the Need for Lenses

In 1917 The Amateur Photographer’s Weekly published a short piece (it looks like it was essentially a press release) in one of their issues calling on American photographers to do their duty and sell their foreign lenses to the government for use in the war effort. I had certainly never heard of this aspect of WWI, but it makes sense, given that, as the article points out, German lenses were no longer available to be bought in the open market, and they of course made many of the premier lenses of the time. (Great Britain had had to make a similar plea to the public at an earlier point, but by 1917 had managed to increase domestic production to meet their requirements.) The need was for lenses of longer focal lengths (from 8 1/4″ to 24″), for the ”fleet of observation airplanes” that were then being readied. These lenses tended to be “in the hands of professional, commercial and portrait photographers, who are reluctant to give them up,” the piece points out, but “these photographers must be brought to realize that their Government should not be handicapped by them, and it is their patriotic duty to offer their lenses for use.” It goes on to say that there are many other suitable lenses for that sort of commercial work, and that “this fact has been proven beyond a doubt by photographers of great renown who have sold their lenses to the Government.”

Kind of a fascinating footnote to WWI, and it also makes one wonder how many magnificent lenses must have been forever lost that would otherwise have remained safely housed in portrait studios and homes, etc. On a page devoted to “the war in the air,” this WWI site points out that “Reconnaissance missions were dangerous. They were usually carried out by a crew of two. The pilot was required to fly straight and level to allow the observer to take a series of overlapping photographs. There was no better target for anti-aircraft guns, no easier prey for stalking fighters….The twin duties of artillery observation and reconnaissance remained the most important utilization of aircraft throughout the war. The number of sorties flown on these missions far outweighed the number of missions flown on all other missions combined. It was more important, if less romantic, for a fighter pilot to shoot down an observation plane than to shoot down another fighter.”

The above passage is talking about observation aircraft active in the war in general, not just on the part of the Unites States, and when you consider the number of countries involved and the greater length of time others were involved in the conflict, it really makes one think that the combined loss of lenses during the war must have been significant. I have no idea, of course — it would be interesting to see if anyone does — if in the end more were lost than the number that were manufactured (and survived) that would otherwise never have existed had it not been for the increased production the war prompted. Perhaps the relative rarity and expense of vintage lenses of longer focal lengths (widely coveted today by large format and wet-plate portrait photographers) owes at least something to WWI, and to campaigns like this. Or maybe the war actually drove up production to the point that afterwards there were a greater number in existence — though even if that were the case, many unique and valuable lenses (and certainly many that were made earlier) would still have been sacrificed. It is also, I think, odd to ponder the prospect of a piece of glass that 6 months earlier may have been focusing an image of, say, a child in some Main Street portrait studio being blown to bits in the skies over northern France or Flanders. Here is the piece (click to open in its own window/enlarge).

Short article on the need for american photographers to donate their camera lenses to the war effort

“The need is immediate and of great importance…”

Big Bertha and Don Newcombe

Vintage 5x7 negative of Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Don Newcombe throwing his glove in the air after being removed from a game

An unhappy Don Newcombe, 1956, as captured by Big Bertha’s 40″ lens (click to enlarge)

This newspaper-archive 5×7 negative from my collection came with its original info sheet (reproduced below), which I was happily surprised to find included information about not just the game, but everything from the camera used to the precise length of lens, exposure info and type of film: “Royal Panchromatic film. Eastman Type,” as they put it.

Information sheet accompanying a 5x7 vintage photo negative of a 1956 Brooklyn Dodger-Chicago Cub game

Big Bertha, 1/600 sec, f/11, Kodak Royal Panchromatic Film

As the sheet indicates, the shot was taken at Chicago’s Wrigley Field in July of 1956, after Brooklyn Dodger pitcher Don Newcombe was removed from the game and tossed his glove into the air to show his displeasure. The camera used is identified as “Big Bertha,” with a lens sporting an enormous focal length of 40 inches. Big Berthas were essentially 5×7 Graflex or Graphic cameras modified to use very long telephoto lenses (4×5 cameras were also used, but I believe were more often called “Little Berthas”). Some say William Kuenzel of the Detroit News — one of the country’s first sports photographers who began his long career with the paper in 1901 — came up with the concept; a piece on the paper’s website states that “Kuenzel captured many of his sports action shots with a special long-range camera called ‘Big Bertha’ that he developed. The camera was built by the News Photo Department and sold to newspapers across the country.”

It’s hard to know if that is the whole truth; there’s certainly a chance it is. In any event, it seems that Graflex never made an actual “Big Bertha” — they were always the result of modification — but the company did eventually start to produce a modified Home Portrait 5×7 body that could be adapted to become one. Below is a photo of a Big Bertha in use.

Enormous "Big Bertha" camera in use

News photographer with a Big Bertha (and another further down)

You can see how absurdly large they were. I have come across accounts of models that weighed in at 120 pounds, so to say they were not easy to use would probably be a pretty big understatement. The cameras were typically fitted with lenses anywhere from about 20″ to an incredible 60″ — outfits with the longer length requiring two people to move them and, from what I gather, being most often used for football, with the photographer sitting at the top of the stadium. Apparently for baseball games that was considered a little long, so 40″ lenses tended to be more common — and indeed that is what was used for the Newcombe photo. An article on the upcoming World Series in the September 1952 issue of Popular Science by the AP photo editor talked about the camera’s use on the baseball field, pointing out that “Big Berthas usually are shot from low level in the photographer’s box with the base resting on the box sill.” The article does contain a couple of shots taken from the outfield stands with a 60″ lens, however, so they did clearly use that length at times for baseball.

Photo from 1952 Popular Science article on the use of Big Bertha cameras in baseball

Big Bertha at a baseball game, Popular Science, Sept. 1952

Below is a 1940 photo of a 5×7 Big Bertha in the window of a Boston camera shop, along with shots the camera took, displays for Kodak film and some other cameras. The Big Bertha looks smaller than the others pictured above because it has a shorter lens — I couldn’t make it out exactly, but think the placard in front of the lens describes it as being 20″. It’s a Zeiss, in any event (though apparently most often the Berthas used Dallmeyer lenses). The sign at left for “High Speed Kodak Super-XX Film” reads “Snap it Tonight.”

Big Bertha camera in window of Boston camera store

Sign reads: “5×7 Big Bertha used by Boston Herald-Traveler for photographing football games” (Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection)

Cameras at the Beach

Vintage snapshot of a 1920s family in the surf, with the man holding a period box camera

Circa 1920s family ready to capture just about any moment

Beach woman holding fold-out camera, circa 1910

Camera woman, circa 1910

Vintage snapshot of 1920s group at the beach, including camera

Circa 1920s group + camera (at right; click to enlarge)

I will be posting much more regularly from now on, beginning with what you might call an ode to the coming summer. Please see vintage-snapshots for another great beach shot added today.

Strangely Bewitching: 1922 Kodak Color Test Footage

Slate posted a story today on some beautiful early Kodachrome Kodak test footage, calling it “strangely bewitching.” I agree. This was shot in Fort Lee, NJ in 1922, and more on it can be found on Kodak’s website here.




Frances Benjamin Johnston: What a Woman Can Do with a Camera

Frances Benjamin Johnston holding camera while excited children crowd around

Johnston with fascinated future photographers

Frances Benjamin Johnston, born in West Virginia in 1864, is said to have received one of her first cameras from Kodak founder George Eastman, a friend of her well-connected family. I don’t know if that is a Kodak in the shot above, but it looks likely. It seems to have been taken in the 1890s – thus not long after Eastman had debuted the portable camera in 1888 – while the cyanotype below of her with a large-format camera on a balcony of the State, War and Navy Building was taken in 1888. (This also almost certainly gives the lie to the oft-repeated notion that her “first” camera was from Eastman; she is said to have written him about his new, lighter-weight camera in 1889, after which he sent her one.)

Johnston had grown up in Washington, D.C., and partly through her mother’s associations there (she was the Washington correspondent for the Baltimore Sun and “knew all of the important people” in addition to being related to President Grover Cleveland’s wife), many of the city’s doors were opened for her, and as early as while she was still in her late 20s. As her biography on says, “from the 1880s into the 1910s, she would take pictures during the administrations of Presidents Cleveland, Harrison, McKinley, Roosevelt, and Taft. This resulted in an outstanding and historically invaluable pictorial document that depicted the members of the various first families, as well as White House staff members and visitors.” Johnston even took the final image of the living President McKinley minutes before he was assassinated at the Buffalo Exhibition in 1901.

Pioneer female photograher Frances Benjamin Johnston making a portrait, State, War & Navy Building, 1888

Frances Benjamin Johnston making portrait of unidentified man, Washington, D.C. (1888)

She also opened a portrait studio in the city in 1894, photographing everyone from Mark Twain to Booker T. Washington to Susan B. Anthony. She was the only female commercial photographer in the city, and in 1897 she published an article in The Ladies Home Journal, “What A Woman Can Do With A Camera,” in which she shared some of the expertise she had gained. It’s a charming piece, and includes this observation: “It is a profession that should appeal particularly to women, and in it there are great opportunities for a good-paying business – but only under very well-defined conditions…: The woman who makes photography profitable must have, as to personal qualities, good common sense, unlimited patience to carry her through endless failures, equally unlimited tact, good taste, a quick eye, a talent for detail, and a genius for hard work. In addition, she needs training, experience, some capital, and a field to exploit.”

Frances Benjamin Johnston's wedding portrait of Alice Roosevelt, 1906

Teddy Roosevelt’s oldest daughter Alice’s wedding photo (Johnston, 1906)

At least Johnston acknowledges how intimidating that sounds: “This may seem, at first glance, an appalling list, but it is incomplete rather than exaggerated; although to an energetic, ambitious woman, with even ordinary opportunities, success is always possible.” I’m sure that is true, although one could probably surmise that in her case it couldn’t have hurt to have the connections provided by her family, not to mention the art education in Paris that preceded her photography career. She received her initial photography training, for example, from Thomas Smillie, director of photography at the Smithsonian, and then in the 1890s, according to this article from (Johnston photographed and exhibited in the area in the 1920s), she “toured Europe, using her connection to Smillie to visit various prominent photographers and gather items for the museum’s collections.”

Johnston also “served for a time as a Washington liaison for newly formed Eastman Kodak, forwarding film and serving as a customer service representative when lenses or cameras needed repairs. In this role, she gained firsthand working knowledge of her craft and the fine details of her equipment.”

Photo of a Southern interior by Frances Benjamin Johnston

Southern interior, Frances Benjamin Johnston (c 1920s)

However she got her start, Johnston quickly became one of the finest photographers of her generation, branching out from her beginnings as a portrait photographer to become, in the first decade of the 20th century, what is generally regarded as America’s first female photojournalist. Some time after that she developed an interest in the South, and particularly its vanishing architecture, and the article notes that in the ’30s she often “covered more than 12,000 miles annually in her quest to capture the rapidly vanishing icons of America’s past….Johnston was particular and professional in her approach to a subject. Well into her 80s, she was known to lie on her back on a hard floor in order to capture just the right angle on a ceiling adornment. One of her photos can tell more about a site than a dozen from another source.”

Johnston, who never married (she was by some accounts a lesbian, and produced several intriguing self portraits, sometimes dressed as a man, complete with fake mustache) led an interesting, independent – some have called it Bohemian – life, finally settling in New Orleans, where she died at the age of 88 in 1952. Her collection of more than 20,000 photographs and almost 4,000 negatives resides in the Library of Congress.

Circa 1899 cyanotype photo of high school girls climbing apparatus, Frances Benjamin Johnston

Cyanotype by Frances Benjamin Johnston, Western High School, Washington, D.C. (c 1899)

“Hitting the Grade” with the 3A Special Kodak

Image taken from the January 1923 issue of Kodakery of a motorcycle rider coming down a hill

A page from Kodakery, January 1923

This is just a great shot from the January 1923 issue of Kodakery. The 3A Special Kodak it indicates was used was produced from 1910 to 1914, so they must have taken this photo with something of an “older” camera, if indeed it was a recent shot. $65 translates into today’s dollars to the tune of approximately $1,585, so these cameras were not cheap, which is a little surprising to me, as they were in the end a foldout pocket camera, as you see below in a 1911 ad. Note that they were designed to take postcard-sized photos.

3A Special camera print ad from 1911

The flexibility of “speed control” — as in, shutter speed (Click to enlarge)

The Witchery of Kodakery

Vintage advertisement for Kodak cameras, depicting a mother and daughter

The Witchery of Kodakery: Photography’s Magic

George Eastman was clearly a marketing genius. He recognized early on that Kodak needed not just to sell cameras, but the very notion of what they were to be used for. As William F. O’Barr points out, “Once people owned a camera, they needed to be told what their pictures ought to look like.”

Part of Eastman’s genius lay in recognizing that the most obvious subject of the new “snapshot” photography would be family life, and that women would play the largest role in documenting it. Thus from virtually the beginning he targeted them in Kodak’s ads. He formed an advertising department in 1892, and the next year unveiled “Kodak Girl,” a figure so iconic that there are websites and books devoted to her. (The Guardian also published a nice series of images of ads featuring the Kodak Girl earlier this year here.)

The company’s facility with advertising was noted even early on; a 1921 issue of Advertising and Selling has an interesting article in which they claim that, “Mention the Kodak advertising in any company of advertising men and all know about it, all have noted the latest example, all unite in its praise. Seldom, indeed, is a word of criticism evoked.”

As the piece explains, the task of Kodak’s advertising was twofold: first, to convey the simplicity with which photography could now be practiced (hence phrases such as – as I discuss in my first post – “You press the button, we do the rest,” “Anybody can use it,” “Photography with the bother left out,” etc.); but second, and more importantly, to “persuade this world…of the delights of photography.”

In other words, beyond touting the practical matter of how simple photography now was, “Something else was needed, it was soon realized, to make the advertising success complete. Comparatively few were interested in photography itself––a few thousand perhaps in every city or state––but not ‘the millions of the earth’ whom it was desired to reach and interest. The early realization of this fact turned the advertising appeal to other Kodak factors and to the real Kodak lure. That lure is the record the Kodak keeps of events of social, sentimental and human interest. Kodak advertising did not seek to establish the Kodak as a fad, but as the charming ally of all the fads and fancies that go to make a playground of the human heart. Holiday outings, travel stories, hunting, fishing, home scenes and recollections, children, and so on, touch responsive chords in all and are the real subjects for Kodak activity and interest.”

As Lewis Bunnell Jones, Eastman’s advertising manager, so elegantly summed it up in the same article, “Kodak inventions created photography for the world. Kodak advertising strove to create a world for photography.”

It was Jones who came up with the “Witchery of Kodakery,” as a way of stressing the “magic” of photography – how remarkable it is to so readily be able to capture and preserve images of everyday life. And when you think about it, it really is, still.

And now that Kodak had arrived, even a child could do it.

1911 advertisement for Kodak cameras touting their simplicity

Children Kodaking (1911)

Dueling Cameras

Woman and man take photographs of each other in 1920s vintage snapshot

The Kodak Brownie in use, circa 1920s

This 1920s snapshot provides a charming look at what are likely Kodak Brownies – possibly, at least in the case of the woman, a 1920s No. 3, Model B, as from what one can make out in the close-up it looks an awful lot like that model – including the trigger guard, which according to this very informative site was added to the Model B from 1920. The No. 3 was produced from 1908 to 1934, and estimates are that somewhere above one million were made.

Detail of what is likely a Kodak No.3, Model B camera in use, circa 1920s

Ready to shoot

Kodak No. 3, Model B, circa 1920s

Kodak No. 3, Model B, circa 1920s (photo:

A Very Early Dog Snapshot

Circa 1890 photograph of dog from a Kodak Original or No. 1 Camera

Through a keyhole: an early Kodak snapshot (circa 1890)

This photo from my collection is an early example of a dog (along with a lamb) captured in a snapshot – difficult as it may be at first to make him or her out. Of course photographs of dogs had been taken before, but (as I talk about in my first post) the amateur snapshot was born in 1888 with the advent of Kodak’s first camera, known as The Kodak, and this shot would have been a product of either that or its immediate successor the following year, the Kodak No. 1. The 2 1/2″ diameter image indicates that it is from one of those cameras, as the Kodak No. 2 produced shots of 3 1/2″ in diameter.

The person I obtained this from estimated that it dated from about 1890 and had been taken in the Thousand Islands area of New York – which interestingly is only about 120 miles from Rochester, home of Kodak. I think it is quite beautiful, and that the round format really almost makes the photo in some ways. (My wife said it sort of made her think of a Wes Anderson movie, and the feeling of peering into a different world.) It really is a photo of much more than the dog and lamb, the photographer clearly not having followed Kodak’s recommendation at the time, which suggested, as you can see below, photographing a dog from a distance of six feet.

Kodak's recommendation for photographing dogs and cows, circa 1890

Should you want to showcase your dog to best effect…

Here is a close-up of the figures, with a little contrast added. I have no idea, of course, how many snapshots of dogs were taken in those first few years. This may have been the 10th, or the 10,000th, but in any event was probably pretty magical at the time, as it remains today.

Close-up of dog and lamb with people in early Kodak snapshot

Close-up of dog and lamb being helped to pose for a very early Kodak camera