At the turn of the 20th century, photography was in the hands of a few elitists who were skilled in the use of glass plates and chemicals. The photographic equipment was large and heavy, and you had to carry a large inventory of all sorts of chemicals with you to capture your image. It was a cumbersome and complex work, albeit the results were stunning. Ansel Adams’ work was out of this world and he was a wizard using this highly complex technology.
One man decided to revolutionize the industry and place a camera in the hands of the mainstream user. His name was George Eastman. He changed the way ordinary people would see the world and capture precious moments with a camera, so simple anyone could use it. In the process, he invented the gelatine dry plates, a light weight paper film, the roll holder that attached to the back of the camera and roll the film to the next frame and Kodak. He also invented a type of transparent plastic called celluloid in 1889 which the motion picture industry took by storm. Kodak became so well-known, it became synonymous with photography, the same way Google is now in searching for information on the Web.
An ad for Kodak during those early days of photography said, “Photography is the healthful hobby. It takes you out of door, yet causes no trouble or fatigue.” “You press the button. We do the rest.” You could use a Kodak camera in your backyard, picnics, ballgames, take pictures of babies playing in the mud without having anything to do with chemicals. The people went crazy and swarmed the stores to buy one of these small picture boxes.
During Christmas time, George Eastman placed the following ad in a Rochester newspaper; “A Kodak camera fulfills all the requirements of the ideal Christmas gift. It is distinctive, it is useful, it is certain to please; it has a sustained interest for the recipient. Kodak for Christmas.”
The first Kodak camera had a price tag of $25.00—loaded— which was pretty expensive in those days. The size of the camera was 3 1/4 x 3 1/4 x 6 1/2 inches. The size of the pictures were 2 1/2 inches in diameter and the weight of the camera was 25 ounces. “Amateurs can finish their own pictures, or the exposed film can be sent to the factory, by mail, to be developed and pictures finished. Price for 100 finished pictures including a spool for 100 films for reloading could be had for $10.00.”
In 1900 George Eastman released the Brownie camera for $1.00 aimed at the children’s market. Kodak wanted children to grow up using their cameras from cradle to grave. They would have a captive market of American-raised Kodak junkies. The Brownie was an immediate success and George Eastman became the sixth wealthiest man in the nation.
In the last few years of his life Eastman suffered with chronic pain and reduced functionality due to a spine illness. On March 14, 1932 Eastman shot himself in the heart, leaving a note which read, “To my friends: my work is done. Why wait?”
Below is a three-part American Experience documentary prepared by PBS dubbed, “George Eastman: The Wizard of Photography.” It follows the life and career of George Eastman and his revolutionary impact on photography. This documentary portrays the life of a man who allowed us to remember the fun moments in life and capture them for generations to come. Good Day.