The Eastman Kodak Company of Rochester, New York, was at the forefront of the major photographic technology advances of the 20th century, from the introduction of flexible camera film sold by the roll, to the production of film for the first motion pictures with sound. Mostly, though, Kodak revolutionized the world of amateur photography by making cameras affordable, portable, and easy to use. With the creation of small, inexpensive cameras like the Brownie in 1900, anyone was suddenly able to document their daily lives through simple snapshots, a legacy that lasts to this day. Within a few years, Kodak was more than just a household name, and “Kodaking” was used interchangeably with “photographing.”
The birth of the company dates to 1878, when George Eastman purchased his first camera in preparation for an overseas trip. Cameras at the time required heavy glass negatives covered in various chemical emulsions that fixed an image when exposed to light. Working in his mother’s kitchen, Eastman began experimenting with different emulsion formulas. By 1880, he had developed a new dry-plate process using a thin gelatin layer, as well as a machine to mass-produce the plates.
This new technology completely changed the capabilities of photographers. The plates could be stored safely for extended periods of time, absorbed light quickly for shorter expos...
The Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company was officially established in 1884, but Eastman continued to tinker with plate materials, hoping to replace the standard glass with a lighter, cheaper substitute. He developed a method of coating paper with gelatin layers, but photographers who were used to glass plates were slow to adopt his new gelatin-emulsion paper film. Stymied, Eastman decided to reinvent the camera altogether.
At the time, photographs were still primarily taken in studios by skilled professionals because of the need for massive equipment, from the cameras themselves to the machines to develop the film. Photographers also had to have complete control over backgrounds and lighting due to the long exposure times. In 1888, Eastman challenged this cumbersome system with the handheld Kodak camera. Eastman came up with the name Kodak out of thin air, claiming that the letter “K” was a favorite of his, “a strong, incisive sort of letter.”
To signal the change in focus, Eastman renamed his firm the Eastman Company since the future was clearly not in manufacturing Dry Plate and Film. But by 1892, the Kodak brand had taken off, so another name change, the Eastman Kodak Company, positioned the company as a producer of cameras for all people, not just professionals.
From its very first slogan, “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest,” Kodak emphasized the ease and accessibility of photography. Individuals could now easily document the seemingly trivial events of everyday life, rather than posing for formal studio portraits.
The first Kodak model sold for $25, or around two week’s worth of wages, which was still quite expensive. After shooting the 100 exposures that were built into the camera, customers would return the entire device to the factory for processing and printing. The following year, Kodak introduced a new roll-style film on transparent backing, thus establishing the film format that was the standard until digital cameras took over at the beginning of the 21st century.
George Eastman quickly recognized the important role that women and children could have in integrating his cameras into daily life; as early as 1893, Kodak advertising was targeted directly to these groups. Eastman understood the central role women played in recording and documenting family life, as well as the untapped market children represented for his company. This focus on the domestic sphere also created an entirely new genre of photographs, those of candid private moments valued as a form of personal memory.
The image of the Kodak Girl was soon inseparable from Eastman’s products. In her blue-and-white striped dress, the Kodak Girl enjoyed and documented leisure activities in beautiful outdoor settings. She was typically portrayed on her own, happy in her new-found independence behind the camera lens.
Kodak’s innovations in both business and technology continued in quick succession. In 1895, the company released the amazing Pocket Kodak, a $5 camera that was small enough to fit in a coat pocket, which greatly improved convenience for casual photographers. This was the first truly affordable, hand-held camera to make photography accessible to the masses.
In 1900, the first of Kodak’s famous Brownie models was offered for $1.00, with replacement film priced at just 15 cents. The Brownie derived its name from the beloved children’s book series, “The Brownies,” by Palmer Cox, and its cast of mischievous brown-clothed elves. Kodak advertised the Brownie in popular magazines of the day, sponsoring a Brownie Camera Club for children under 16 and holding special events and competitions to keep customers engaged.
During the 1920s, inexpensive cameras from Europe like the Leica 35mm and Rolleiflex began offering skilled amateurs and professionals alike higher-quality lenses and more flexible settings than Kodak products. Instead of challenging these companies, Kodak continued to focus on the popularity of its products among middle-class, family photographers.
Beginning in 1928, Kodak released a series of cameras designed by Walter Dorwin Teague and targeted specifically at female users. Models with names like the Coquette, Vanity, and Petite came in stylish colors with bold, Art Deco exteriors. These cameras were marketed as fashion accessories as well as photographic tools. The most trend-oriented was the Ensemble set, which included a compact, mirror, change purse, and lipstick in addition to a miniature camera.
The highly collectible and stylish Kodak Bantam appeared in 1935. The original Bantam designs featured a black Bakelite or cast-alloy body, making them extremely lightweight compared to earlier cameras. Walter Dorwin Teague’s alterations for the Bantam Special in 1936 incorporated horizontal metal striping that gave the Special a distinctly modernist look.
In 1935, Kodak also released its famous Kodachrome film, allowing for the reproduction of color slides and transparencies, which vastly improved the realism of amateur photography. Kodacolor film, which finally made possible color printing, was available beginning in 1942.
When Edwin Land released the first instant-developing camera in 1948 for Polaroid, Kodak was up against its first significant competitor in the amateur-snapshot market. Eventually, Kodak created a similar instant-print film, and was sued by Polaroid for patent violation. Kodak lost the lawsuit brought in 1986, and was forced to discontinue its instant-print film line and pay Polaroid a hefty settlement.
Kodak’s first single-lens reflex (SLR) camera arrived in 1958, with the Reflex Retina, an update of the classic 35mm Retina model. The SLR process relied on a mirror and prism system, allowing a photographer to see the exact image that will be captured in the viewfinder before the shutter is snapped.
Throughout its history, the Eastman Kodak Company also contributed to major innovations in other industries that depended on image reproduction. For example, after Wilhem Roentgen discovered the X-ray in 1896, Kodak quickly entered into an agreement to supply specially designed plates and paper for this new process, thus contributing to the medical-technology revolution of the early 20th century.
In 1928, a subsidiary company called Recordak began selling a new microfilm system to improve the management of bank records. A version of this technology was used in World War II for the so-called Victory Mail or V-mail program. Letters to soldiers were photographed and shipped as film to improve storage capacity, then reprinted at their destinations. Later, many libraries adapted this microfilm technology to save space and better preserve their aging newspaper and journal collections.
Kodak also drove innovation in the motion-picture industry. In 1896, the company marketed the first film coated specifically for faster moving projection speeds. Kodak also made movie cameras, and as early as 1929, Kodak had developed a film that combined recorded sound with moving-picture technology.
In 1949, the company received an Academy Award for its patent of a tri-acetate film base, which eliminated the use of flammable nitrate film and increased the longevity of film stock. Prior to this development, there was a very high risk of cinema fires due to the close contact of nitrate film with hot projector lights and machinery.
Kodak was soon working to create film technology that could be used for amateur motion pictures, too. Kodak released Super 8mm film in 1965, thus introducing the world to the original home-movie technology, which made the live recording of family moments a possibility for the first time. In 1973, the format was improved with the addition of sound, thus perfecting the medium and allowing amateurs to record reality in a way that we take for granted today.
The company contributed to the digital revolution, too. In 1971, Kodak received the first digital-camera patent for a device that recorded imagery on cassette tape. Though the resulting images only had a 0.01mp resolution and required a 23-second exposure time, Kodak was again at the forefront of imaging technology innovation.
Unfortunately, the company relied too heavily on its traditional products rather than expanding production in the digital arena. In early 2012, due to increasing foreign competition and a failure to focus on new digital-camera developments, Kodak declared bankruptcy.
Between 1900 and 1999, Kodak was awarded a total of 19,576 patents for its many advancements in the fields of film, photography, and image reproduction. However, this number only begins to suggest the company’s enormous impact on contemporary culture and the omnipresence of photographs and shared images today.
Interviews & Articles
When we published our first interview with Rob Niederman back in 2008, he was focused, if you will, on historically significant an… [more]
My father had a camera store, so I grew up with cameras and used Kodak film. These days I like digital better, but I still have a … [more]
How did I start collecting cameras? Actually, I had an interest in photography as a kid and owned a darkroom by the age of 12 or 1… [more]
We both come from families that had collections and we both had collections as children. Jack lost his when his grandmother threw … [more]