*** photography: snap shots amateur photography

Photography: Snapshots

Figure 1.--The Kodak Browie revolutionalized photography. Now any family member could photograph the minutest detail of family life. The camera moved out of the studio and at a price that most middle-class Americans could afford.

Photography for most of the 19th century was studio bound. For photography to move out of the studio and be available to ordinary people, it was clear that a dry method was required. Many experts contributed to this, but it was not until George Eastman released the "Brownie," in 1900 that amateur photograpy became a real possibility for virtually everyone and snap shots began to reveal the everyday lives of people. This was a major development and explains why so many photographic images begin appearing in 1900 of everyday people in all kinds of dressy and informal outfits going about their lives. Snap shots began to appear in the 1890s with the introduction of the box camera, but it was the low-cost Brownie in 1900 that caused the snap shot to become an integral part of everyday life.


For photography to move out of the studio and be available to ordinary people, it was clear that a dry method was required. The next major step forward came in 1871, when Dr. Richard Maddox discovered a way of using Gelatin (which had been discovered only a few years before) instead of glass as a basis for the photographic plate. This led to the dry plate process. English photographer Richard Bennett developed the first practical dry plates in 1878. Dry plates could be developed much more quickly than with any previous technique. Initially it was very insensitive, but it proved to be much faster than the wet collodian plates. The introduction of the dry-plate process marked a turning point. No longer did one need the cumbersome wet-plates, no longer was a darkroom tent needed. In addition, the increasing speed enanled the photographing of moving objects for the first time.


Celluloid was invented in the early 1860s and John Carbutt persuaded a manufacturer to produce very thin celluloid as a backing for sensitive material. George introduced flexible film in 1884. His films replaced the heavy, bulky, breakable glass plates.

The Box Camera (1889)

The box camera was a major innovation. Until the box camera, photography was so complicated and expensive that only the most committed amateurs could persue photoraphy. George Eastman in 1889 introduced the Kodak box camera bring photography within reach of a much larger market--but it was still relatively expensive compared to what earlier cameras cost. We begin to see affluent people taking snap shots at this time. Even children could operate a box camera. We see, for example, boys at exclusive private schools with box cameras in the 1890s. The Kodak box was the first box camera to become widely adopted by the public. The design was soon copied by compettors, but it was archetype for the cameras that made the family snapshot possible for middle-class Americans. The secret to the box camera was flexible roll film which made the cameras light weight and portabl. Heavy tripods were no longer necessary. And doing away with heavy, fragile glass photographic plates freed the photographer to go about anywhere. And Kodak solved the development process which was complicated. The first Kodak camera was pre-loaded with film. The the customer mailed the the camera to Kodak which processed and relaoded the camera with flim. If the individual could afford it, the box camera was a simple cameras that could be easily operated by amateurs. The film was on a strip which could be advanced by simply winding. Thus by the 1890s snap shots begin to appear in contrast with the formal studio shots previously available. Box cameras while not cheap in the 1890s, were a fraction of the cost of the elaborate cameras previously required. Prices steadily fell in the next centuary which would bring photography available to virtually everyone.

Flexible Roll Film

It was American George Eastman who brought photography out of the studio when he developed flexible roll film. The first Kodak cameras cost about $25. You bought the camera loaded with a roll which took 100 photographs. The camera was small and without heavy, bulky equipment, it could be taken where ever you wanted to go. When the roll was shot, you sent the camera to Kodak. They returned the prints and the camera loaded with a fresh film. The $25 cost of the camera plus printing costs, however, limited photography to the affluent middle class.

The Brownie (1900)

This changed for ever in 1900 when the Brownie camera was introduced for $1. This was not quite as cheap as it seems. That would be more than $30 dollars in 2019 dollars. Now most middle-class Americans could afford one. The number of informal snbapshots increase exponetially beginnuing in 1900. It is no accident that large numbers of family "snap shots" began appearing. Family snap shots meant that children might be photographed around the house at any time of the day. Indeed they were so easy to use that children might even take the photographs themselves. The Brownie and the sanp shot were a marvelous inovation to the social historian. The resulting snapshots provided wonderful images of everyday life. Photographs of children were no longer limited to an occasional visit to the photographic studio when they were dressed in their best clothes. Begining in 1900 one starts to see children in their everyday clothes engaged in day to day activities around the house. Not only do we get a much more relaistic look at how children were dressed, but we have a multitude of images showing their homes and everyday activities in and around the home. It is Georege Eastman and his Brownie that brought this about.

Figure 2.--Amateur photographs began to appear in the late 1880s with George Eastman's box cameras with flexible roll film, but they were relatively expensive until the Browine was offered for only $1 in 1900. Sudenly the snap shot was born and photographic images of children appear chronicling their daily lives.


The Kodak Brownie was the first mass-produced camera (1900). It finally suceeded in taking photography out of the studio and putting it in the hands of the general public, not only because it was simple to operate, easily carried, and relatively inexpensive. The Kodak Brownie the many sucessors which folloed in great profussion all relied on a basic technical innovation--modern film, especially roll film. This was first produced by George Eastman (1885) who subsequently followed with the Brownie. [A side issue is why did so many technical advances come from America and still do. Very few teachers pose this question and very few American students can answer this question.] The Brownie meant that people could create memories of not only static images, but of their many varied activities, noy only vacations and special occassiond, but every day life. And the low cost meant that these images could be taken in incredible numbers, The Brownie was so popular that Kodak was still making updated vesions into the 1960s. The large size of early film ment that cameras could not get to much smaller thn the original Brownie. Oskar Barnack addressed this problem working with the idea of using the smaller 35 mm film used by the film industry. He began this effort (1914), but the onset of the War created problems in developing this technology. European companies, especially the German companies like Leica and Zeis-Ikon picked up on this technology. Kodak introduced the Retina (1930s). Comanies intriduced range finder models and then single lens reflexes for 35 mm film. Better lens and film meant that sharp images could be obtained even with smaller film. The Germans were especially noted for their lens. Enthusiasts wanting larger film often used twin-lens reflex models. After World War II, a new type of camera appeared, the instant camera. This was introduced by Polaroid. As the reaults go better and better, it became very popular, although the results were never a good as regular film and there was no negative. The Japanese after the War enteed the camera business with a vengence and companies like Cannon, Nikon, Pentax, and others began to creating hiogh-quality, but moderately priced camera. The destruction of World War II allowed the Japanese to largely replace German companies. Computers and digital technology were the next major step in camera technology. Texas Instruments created the first prototype (1972). The first true digital camera appeared in Japan (1988) and than the United States (1991). Developing pixel technology and other technical innovations have now made high-quality canera available at nonimal costs, rapidly replacing film technology. All of the advances in cameras were not only a matter of recording family history. The camera has also provided the ability to capture events as they occur, essentially recording history. Ans the small size of cameras meant that they could go everywhere. And the power of the images created has meant that photography could also affect history.


With the invention of the Kodak Brownie, America and the world was suddently deluged with millions of family snapshots. This greatly expanded the photographic record and our ability to follow fashion and historical trends. There were several different formats for snapshots. Most early snapshots. at least in America, had postcard backs. Eventually snapshots were printed with white borders. These borders and the paper edges can be useful in dating the snapshots. Early snapshots were black and white. Some parents dated the snapshots on the back. Most did not. A few had the date printed on them. To archive these snapshots on HBC, we need to date them. Here there are a range of indicators that can help us date these snaspshots. Some can be dated with considerable precession. This is probanly true of American snapshots because of our large srchive. we can The clothing styles and basckground such as cars can help date the udated images. Most early snapshits were done as post cards. They can be dated to an extent by the stamp boxes. By the 1930s we see mostly prints with plain backs as the postcard backs became less common. The prints varied in size, border, edges, and other factors. Commercial color film was developed in the inter-War era, but we do not begin to see large numbers of color snoshots until well after World War II. At first color prints were done with the same format as black-and white prints. Eventually by the 1970s we see color prints begin to replace black-and-white prints. They were generally printed without borders. The variations in prints differed from country to country, although there were some similarities. We are going to use the dated prints to help develop chronological trends for the various varabilities.

Country Trend

The snapshot was born in America with the Kodak Brownie. And nowhere else but America did the snapshot reach such prevalence and importance. This was not just because the snapshot was invented in America. America became the larget Western country both in territory and popuation. It also was the most prosperous. Even some working-class families could aford a Brownie and the pleasure of family snapshots. The photographic record of the snap shot is for the most part in direct relationship to the size of the population and the economic prosperity of the country. Prosperity meant that people had the money to afford phptography. We have found large numbers of snapshots in England, France, Germany, Japan, Yugoslavia, and other countries.


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Created: March 23, 1999
Last updated: 9:33 AM 3/11/2019