The Popularization of Photography

A number of American and European inventors developed coated paper films, but the big breakthrough was the invention in 1889 of celluloid roll film by the American chemist Henry Reichenbock. George Eastman, former bank clerk and founder of the Eastman Kodak Company, was Reichenbock’s employer. Based in Rochester, New York, Eastman Kodak revolutionized the camera industry by concentrating on the mass market. Before 1888, when Eastman launched his first camera, camera developments were geared to the needs of the professional user. Studio cameras had large, heavy wooden bodies, while field cameras, with folding bellows, were more portable, but expensive. The first Kodak camera, loaded with a 100-frame paper roll film, was advertised with the slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest.” Once the film was completed, the owner returned the camera to Eastman Kodak for processing. The camera plus film cost $25, and the cost of the prints and a new film was $10.

Eastman’s next step was the introduction of the Pocket Kodak box camera, the first truly portable camera, in 1895. When the Kodak pocket bellows camera followed in 1898, Eastman Kodak had sold one and a half million cameras. By 1900, about 10 percent of the population in both the United States and Britain owned a camera. A small, cheap box camera, the Kodak No. 1 Brownie was introduced in that year and sold for just $1, plus 15 cents for a six-frame film. Designed by Frank Brownell and made from wood and cardboard, the No. 1 Brownie brought photography within the means of the average person.

By the 1920s, the amateur camera market was more competitive, so makers began to use design to increase the desirability of their products. In 1927, Eastman Kodak employed the American designer Walter Dorwin Teague to redesign the Box Brownie. Teague’s Beau Brownie design was launched in 1930 and featured a two-color Art Deco geometric front panel. Teague also designed the 1928 Vanity Kodak bellows camera, which came in a range of colors and with a matching case. The availability of Bakelite and other new plastics made it possible to produce cheaper cameras in a variety of shapes and colors. The Kodak Baby Brownie of 1933, again designed by Teague, had a squat Bakelite shell with rounded edges and a distinctive ribbed lens panel. A particularly innovative use of plastics was made by the American designer Raymond Loewy, in his 1937 Purma Special camera design for the British company R. F. Hunter. The streamlined black Bakelite shell incorporated an integral viewfinder and wind-on mechanism, while the lens was not glass, but Perspex, thus reducing the costs. Fun cameras are exemplified by the Coronet and Corvette Midgets, made by Britain’s Coronet Camera Company. These miniature cameras had rounded Bakelite bodies with domed tops housing the viewfinder and came in a range of striking, mottled colors.