The Dawn of the Kodak Moment
By Kieran Robertson
The Ohio History Connection has many different family photograph collections preserved in the archives. Every family is different, but one trend does appear across all of these collections. Somehow right around the 1890s and early 1900s we go from this:
You don’t need an archivist’s trained eye to see the difference in these two photographs. One is a stiff portrait, taken in a studio, and the other a snapshot capturing a moment of everyday life. How did Americans quickly make this shift from keeping just a few professional portrait photographs in their homes to filling shelves with multiple photo albums documenting each key moment of their lives?
To answer this question, it’s important to understand the man behind the now famous Kodak Company, George Eastman. Working as a bank clerk in Rochester, New York, during the 1870s, a young Eastman became fascinated by photography but frustrated by the complicated process. This frustration steered Eastman towards a lifelong quest for simple and accessible photography for the masses.
Eastman began to spend his off hours in his mother’s kitchen, perfecting his own dry plate design. Dry plates allowed photographers to wait until it was convenient to develop a photograph instead of being forced to do so immediately after the exposure. Once Eastman was able to patent his own unique dry plate process, he left his work as a bank clerk and focused on selling and developing new photographic processes full time. He continued to work tirelessly to make photography as easy as possible, especially focusing on the idea of roll film.
In 1888, Eastman introduced his biggest invention yet- the Kodak #1. Retailing for about $25, this camera could be used by any average American. As the advertising slogan read, “You press the button, we do the rest.”
The Kodak #1 was portable, easy to use, and could be sent back to Kodak for developing. Eastman was clear that his invention was meant to bring photography to the masses. Kodak’s new advertising campaigns showed the box camera being used on the go and even by children. The Eastman Kodak Company even published an annual book titled “How to Make Good Pictures.” George Eastman was determined to make photography available to the masses.
Thanks to Eastman’s invention, Americans went from having their picture taken only a handful of times over the course of their lives to keeping detailed photo albums filled with snapshots of picnics, vacations, and pets. These snapshots captured moments of everyday life, rather than stiff portraits at a photographer’s studio. Technology continued to make photography easier and easier as the snapshot craze continued to captivate Americans.
With the advent of cell phones, modern Americans carry a camera in their pocket at almost any moment of the day. We scold ourselves for forgetting to live in the moment, but if the Kodak induced snapshot craze of the early 1900s shows us anything, it’s that human beings have always been pretty fascinated by our ability to capture our own image. It seems our obsession with snapshots has never truly ended. Do the historic snapshots here remind you of any photographs you have taken?