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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
George Eastman, as almost anyone at all interested in the history of photography knows, was the founder of Kodak, and is regarded as the person who brought photography to the masses. He was an early contributor to the development of dry-plate photography (before which creating a photograph was a much more cumbersome affair, requiring essentially carrying around a darkroom, along with some fairly specialized knowledge of chemistry, etc.) and in 1885 created the first paper film negative. He followed that in 1888 with the first roll film camera, and the rest is…well, one writer has estimated that there have been about 3.5 trillion photos taken to date.
In a section on the history of the company on the Kodak website, the instigation for Eastman’s attempts to simplify the photographic process was apparently a planned vacation to Santo Domingo in 1877, when he was 24 and working as a clerk at Rochester Savings Bank:
“When a co-worker suggested he make a record of the trip, Eastman bought a photographic outfit with all the paraphernalia of the wet plate days. The camera was as big as a microwave oven and needed a heavy tripod. And he carried a tent so that he could spread photographic emulsion on glass plates before exposing them, and develop the exposed plates before they dried out. There were chemicals, glass tanks, a heavy plate holder, and a jug of water. The complete outfit ‘was a pack-horse load,’ as he described it.”
Eastman did not make the trip, but his interest in photography was sparked. After a further experience in which some of his chemicals spilled and ruined his packed clothes during a trip to Mackinac Island in Lake Huron, he became even less enamored of wet-plate photography. Then one day he read about photographers in the UK making their own gelatin emulsions (which remained sensitive to light while dry, thus doing away with much of the inconvenience of the wet-plate process). He threw himself headlong into working on his own formula – some nights, according to his mother, sleeping on the floor next to the stove, so tired that he couldn’t undress.
By 1880 Eastman had not only refined his formula, but also patented a machine for producing large quantities of the plates, having quickly recognized “the possibilities of making dry plates for sale to other photographers. ‘The idea gradually dawned on me,’ he later said, ‘that what we were doing was not merely making dry plates, but that we were starting out to make photography an everyday affair.’ Or as he described it more succinctly ‘to make the camera as convenient as the pencil.'”
And that convenience is what early Kodak advertisements stressed, with phrases such as “Anybody can use it,” “No knowledge of photography is necessary” and “Anybody who can wind a watch can use the Kodak camera.” Or, as in the ad below, their famous phrase “You press the button, we do the rest.”
And they really did. The cameras came loaded with enough film for 100 exposures, after which the photgrapher would return the camera to the factory. The film was then processed and the camera reloaded and sent back. The resulting shots were 2 1/2″ in diameter and round.
According to camerapedia, “the round image was a design decision, partly as a way of ensuring that the photographer didn’t have to hold the camera exactly level with the horizon, and partly to compensate for the poor image quality at the corners of the image.”
The very first camera, produced in 1888, was simply called The Kodak. The model with the name that makes it seem like it was Eastman’s original effort, Kodak No. 1 (also commonly called the No. 1 Kodak), actually was the company’s second camera, and was produced from 1889 to 1895. It featured a more reliable shutter as well as an easily removable lensboard rather than one held in place by screws. The cameras cost $25, which today would be somewhere in the vicinity of $600.
Still to come, of course, were folding pocket cameras, the brownie, and all the rest. But those will be touched on in future posts. In any event, it must have been an exciting time. Within just a few years – by 1892, when the company changed its name from ‘The Eastman Company’ to ‘The Eastman Kodak Company’ – it was capitalized to the tune of 5 million dollars. George Eastman was only in his late 30s at that point, and was already demonstrating his acumen for business. Beyond his technical ingenuity and fierce determination, he just seemed to have a feel for things. As Rudolph Kingslake puts it in A History of the Rochester, NY Camera and Lens Companies, “Eastman’s success over his many competitors was mainly due to massive advertising and an excellent sales organization with world-wide affiliations, to which must be added his uncanny knack of hiring the right people, and anticipating what would best please the public.”
Eastman was an intriguing character, both in his early years and then later in life, and I will of course delve more into his story in future posts.