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)

“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)