The More Things Change: Update on Photography and the Pencil

Eric Cheng photo of cats with the new Lytro camera

Lytro-fied cats (photo by Eric Cheng)

I began this blog with an entry about how Kodak founder George Eastman wanted to bring photography to the masses, striving to “make the camera as convenient as the pencil.” I was therefore intrigued when, while leafing through a recent copy of Entrepreneur Magazine, I came across the pencil once again invoked to convey how “easy” photography has become. The article was on the Lytro camera, a new approach to photography in which the camera captures, as the company’s website explains, “the entire light field, which is all the light traveling in every direction in every point in space.” That means a photo can be focused after the fact – that is, any part of the image can be brought into focus. In addition, they “allow both the picture taker and the viewer to … shift their perspective of the scene, and even switch seamlessly between 2D and 3D views. With these amazing capabilities, pictures become immersive, interactive visual stories that were never before possible – they become living pictures.”

Personally I am not terribly convinced (though I can see some of the advantages; a CNET review points out that “Lytro believes the cameras will be be handy for focusing an image after it was taken; you can whip the camera out, turn it on, and snap the shot rapidly without worrying about waiting for an autofocus system to hunt around while the baby’s first smile fades away”), but that isn’t the point. I was mainly struck by the final paragraph of the article, and the fact that the pencil can still be the favored point of reference for illustrating how far photography has come:

“Within the ranks of career photographers, Lytro is not exactly greeted with cheer. Rob Haggart, former photo director at Men’s Journal and founder of the blog, sees Lytro as another step in photography’s trajectory away from professional camera-wielders toward computer-using amateurs who can fiddle with imperfect images. ‘From autofocus to digital images to the Lytro–operating a camera today is like operating a pencil,’ he says. ‘How can you make people pay you to operate a pencil?'”

I don’t think professional photographers actually have that much to worry about, and to the extent that the Lytro has been described as a “no frills, socially-oriented, easy-to-use camera,” it seems to be intended to fill a different niche, at least for now. (Besides, to pursue the simile, “operating a pencil” (in the broad sense) is of course precisely something people often do pay for – when the result is, say, a great piece of writing.)

That brings up something about the way popular photography has changed in recent years, however, as the writer of the article, Jennifer Wang, notes:

“With the photo-sharing app Instagram, tens of millions of people have adopted a new concept of what a snapshot means. Facebook noticed and snapped up the 13-person operation for a cool $1 billion. Contrast that with Kodak, the bankrupt company that invented the snapshot more than 100 years ago: Its market valuation on the day of Instagram’s purchase was less than $80 million.”

Personally, whatever the latest developments in the concept of the snapshot, I think I will always be partial to the less-controllable, simpler charm of the Kodak version.

Vintage 1940s photo of a horse, dog and farmhouse

Circa 1940s Kodak snapshot (collection of the author)

“As Convenient as the Pencil”

Circa 1890 Kodak circular photo

Reporrtedly one of the earliest photographs taken with a Kodak camera

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.”

Kodak's George Eastman, circa 1880

George Eastman, circa 1880

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.”

Vintage Kodak camera ad touting its ease of use for amateurs

No instructions – or portable darkroom – needed

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.”

1888 Kodak camera

An example of the first Kodak camera (photo: The National Museum of American History)

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.