Early Kodak camera formats The advent of popular, vernacular (or "found") photography essentially dates from 1888 when the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company (later the Eastman Kodak Company of New York) of Rochester, New York, introduced the Kodak camera (later to be called the "Original Kodak" camera). This small, box-like camera came preloaded with paper-backed roll film, sufficient for 100 exposures. The camera sold at a price of $25 (a significant amount in those years), had no viewfinder, and was string-loaded/set (which means that the shutter had to be manually cocked or armed by pulling a string). The images, 2½" in diameter, were round (the crisp edges being produced by a mask, rather than by a focused lens). Once the film had been exposed, the entire camera was shipped back to Rochester where the images were printed, mounted on stiff card, and the camera reloaded and sent back to the owner.
A year after its debut, the Original Kodak was replaced by an improved version, the Kodak No. 1. The price, the diameter of the round images it produced, the lack of viewfinder, and the factory loaded—factory printed-and-returned nature of the apparatus remained, however, essentially the same. (Kodak remained true to its advertising slogan: "You Press the Button, We Do the Rest".)
The Kodak No. 1 remained in production until 1895, but was, in the same year of its first appearance (1889), replaced by a still more improved version, the Kodak No. 2.
The Kodak No. 2 produced round images, 3½" in diameter, and used roll film that was not paper-backed (and thus had to be loaded in a darkroom). It sold for a steeper price ($32.50) and again the entire camera was returned for processing to Rochester, reloaded and returned (later, processing in London also became an option for those abroad). The No. 2 used film that produced 60 or 100 images and, most significantly, had a viewfinder. It remained in production until 1897.
The advent of these cameras essentially paved the way for a revolution in photography. Removed from the exclusive hands of practiced craftsmen and women, photography became democratized—the ability to document, frame and capture life’s experience suddenly being made available to the amateur. What strikes me now about these images is—in the best of them—their remarkable quality (remarkable for what was essentially a somewhat crude instrument) with their rich tones and sharp focus. Equally important are the quaintness of the circular image itself and the elegance of its presentation: on many, the back of the mounting card is decorated by a fine printing of flowers and leaves with the Kodak insignia centered on the card; the front often has a dark brown-burgundy border and gilt edging.
As with any historical image, the window into the past that it presents to the contemporary viewer is fascinating. In these early Kodak images, this attribute is pronounced with its concentration on the lives of ordinary people and families, in addition to its documentation of the inevitable holiday trip abroad or voyage to foreign and exotic locales.
The images in my collection presented here are, for the most part, Kodak No. 2’s. The diameter of the individual image varies, ranging from 2½" (Kodak No. 1) through 2 5/8" (the early advertised size of the image produced by the Kodak No. 1) to 3¼" to 3½" (Kodak No. 2). This variation may come from the fact that Kodak produced 13 different models of the No. 2 between its debut and its demise. The images themselves come largely from two sources. One documents a mining town on the dry and dusty western frontier of the US; the other is a series of images from one family’s trip through the southern United States and Mexico. These latter images are particularly fine, in my opinion. Whoever the photographer was, he or she had a keen eye for composition and for the detail of life outside of the everyday. Some show a striking modernity in focus and structure. As with the best of all vernacular photography, in the hands of a gifted amateur the images produced transcend the documentary and attain the level of inadvertent artistic expression. It is this anonymous craftsmanship and artistry that attracts collectors of the vernacular. Here, at the dawn of a popular medium, the foundations of a worldwide obsession with documenting the rituals and passages of everyday life and experience can be glimpsed, and the potential for that documentation to extend, challenge and, indeed, define the way we view the world is given full rein.
© Nigel Maister (November 2006)