The First Snapshots: At Home and Abroad

New Histories of Photography 3
January 11 through March 17, 2002
This exhibition, the third in the collaborative series organized by ICP and the George Eastman House, Rochester, offers a sampling of original Kodak snapshots from the 1880s and 1890s. Chosen from the collections of the two museums, these photographs provide an informal self-portrait of American families in everyday domestic settings and on world travels. Such images recall the moment when photography, until then a difficult and time-consuming process, became a universally accessible pastime.

In the summer of 1887 George Eastman, the ambitious 33-year-old proprietor of the Rochester-based Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company, set out to design a handheld camera that could be used by photographic novices. One year later, the first Kodak camera appeared on the market, selling for the then-considerable sum of $25 (more than $450 in today's currency). It consisted of a 22-ounce wooden box covered in smooth morocco leather, equipped with a fixed-focus lens and a 1/25-second shutter, and loaded with Eastmanís newly patented rollfilm. Another Eastman invention was the word “Kodak” itself. Short, memorable, and easy to pronounce, it had an additional, if less obvious, advantage: because “Kodak” existed in no known language, it could be trademarked worldwide. “It is not a pretty name,” the young entrepreneur admitted, “but it protects the advertising.”

The circular format of the image was perhaps the most striking characteristic of the first Kodak snapshots. The reason for its use was largely pragmatic. The camera's inexpensive lens produced a noticeable blur at the pictureís edges, and it was to disguise that defect that a circular mask was inserted into the camera in front of the film plane. The circular shape lent the photographs a certain novelty value, but by the mid-1890s, as the quality of Kodak lenses improved, a more conventional rectangle took its place.

Eastman's own view of the Kodak's main appeal can be surmised from his pithy promotional copy for the camera: “Anybody can use it. No knowledge of photography is required.” What lay behind this claim was not only the cameraís unthwartable simplicity but a remarkable new division of photographic labor, which Eastman summed up in a famous slogan: “You press the button, we do the rest.” The Kodak came preloaded with a 100-exposure roll of film, and after the roll was finished, the owner returned the entire camera to the Eastman factory in Rochester. There the film was developed and prints were made, which were returned to the owner along with the reloaded camera.

By effectively separating picture-making from darkroom work, Eastman launched a photographic revolution, one which increased the ranks of potential photographers exponentially. The immediate popularity of the Kodak helped trigger a photographic craze that swept the U.S. in the early 1890s. An army of amateur snapshooters sprang up, who proved so intrusive and ubiquitous that the press began to complain of “kodak fiends.” Snapshot photography proved much more than a passing fad. Ultimately it gave rise to a vast storehouse of cultural documents of a kind that had never before existed. Early Kodak advertising made much of the fact that amateur photographers could now make pictures from their “own point of view,” and capture moments that a professional photographer might deem insignificant. These moments were typically of a personal nature: family gatherings, holiday outings, the antics of children and pets, and incidents of vacation travel. “Save Your Happy Memories with a Kodak,” Eastmanís ads proclaimed, anticipating the nostalgic pleasures that lay in store for the collectors of family snapshots.

These photographs—visual records that preserve the daily textures of countless individual lives—are probably best regarded as personal documents, not as esthetic objects. Yet as this exhibition reveals, the untrained eyes and unpracticed hands of early snapshooters could sometimes produce images that still reverberate with surprise and delight.

Christopher Phillips
International Center of Photography

This exhibition has been made possible by the support of the Eastman House Council and the ICP Alliance Fund.