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Lights! Camera! George Eastman, Kodak, and Rochester

George Eastman’s story is a classic tale of being in the right place at the right time, with the right skill set. A self-taught man, he was employed as a bank clerk and first assistant bookkeeper at Rochester Savings Bank from 1874 to 1880. Mr. Eastman took up photography in his spare time, reading all the European photography magazines he could get his hands on and apprenticing with George Monroe, a local commercial photographer. When he was passed over for promotion at the bank in 1880, Mr. Eastman left to start his own business. As luck would have it, Henry Strong, a wealthy boarder living in the Eastman family’s rooming house, agreed to subsidize Mr. Eastman’s new venture ($1,000.00 to the less flush entrepreneur’s $100.00), and the Eastman Dry Plate Company was formed. Luckily for Mr. Eastman, not only was the science of photography advancing rapidly during this time, the Industrial Revolution also came roaring into town, bringing with it the capability to mass produce many types of goods. Sensing that this was the break he’d been waiting for, he started down the path that would eventually lead to one of the most recognizable brands in the world. The name Kodak will be forever synonymous in our minds with cameras, film and motion pictures.

An seemingly unusual name, “Kodak” was chosen because Mr. Eastman was fond of the letter “k” and played around with anagrams until he came up with his idea of the perfect name: not only did it have two “k’s,” it was easy to spell, pronounce and remember.

Todd Gustavson, Curator of Technology at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester (GEH) for 25 years, knows his subject inside-out. According to Mr. Gustavson, what’s so unusual about GEH is that it focuses on the art, science and mechanics of photography, making it one of the oldest “photo-specific” museums in the country. GEH is home to numerous photo-related treasures, but of particular interest is the Technology collection, which includes any type of photographic hardware used to create images in still-frame or moving pictures, such as cameras, lenses, flashes and tripods. Mr. Gustavson notes that the fundamentals of camera design haven’t changed drastically in 160 years; the real transformations have occurred in optical film technology and the camera’s complementary accessories.

Mr. Gustavson clarifies that, though Mr. Eastman is known as the “father” of popular photography, he didn’t invent it. Photography, evolving from light traveling through a small opening, has been around for centuries. “It’s the concept of the camera obscura,” also known as a “pinhole” camera, Mr. Gustavson says, delving into an abbreviated photo history lesson. Next came large darkrooms or tents, followed by another small box that had the capability of making a permanent copy of the image presented in the camera obscura. All of these required light in some form: light reflecting off objects, silver salts exposed to light that would darken to form the image, and a very light touch. “You need to allow the light to react with the chemicals up to a certain point but then you have to stop it and preserve it, otherwise it turns black,” Mr. Gustavson elaborates. The daguerreotype, made on a copper plate with a light-sensitive surface, was the next rung on the photography ladder. This was replaced in the 1850s by the Ambrotype, a sort of “non-reflecting” daguerreotype. With the advent of first the “wet plate,” then the “dry plate” photo processing methods, photos became increasingly more light-sensitive than their predecessors. Despite this, Mr. Gustavson asserts that the high-resolution daguerreotype is still the best quality photo on the market. But this type of photography only allows one unique print to be made, as opposed to multiples from a single negative, and is too expensive for most of us to utilize on a regular basis. Because of this, in the 19th century, photography was primarily a hobby for the wealthy, with time on their hands and the money to purchase the costly photographic equipment.

This is where photography stood when Mr. Eastman burst on the scene, determined to create a simple and affordable camera. From 1886-87, Mr. Eastman worked with manufacturer F.W. Cossitt to develop and patent the dry plate, hand-held Eastman Detective Camera. The box-style cameras were often hidden in canes, books, hats and other accessories, and met the public’s desire to take more candid and less posed photos. With no stand or bellows required, they were the perfect device for amateur photographers who wanted clear images, but weren’t professionally trained. In his continuing quest to make photography available to the common man, Mr. Eastman invented flexible roll film and the first Kodak Camera in the 1880s. The camera cost $25.00 and could take 100 pictures. Though its somewhat lengthy process of taking pictures may boggle our minds today, it was considered easy to use in its time. The shutter was set by pulling a string and tripped by pressing a button on the camera's side. After exposure, a key wound the film to the next frame. During its journey, the film rotated past a shaft, causing a pointer visible on the top of the camera to revolve, so the photographer could be sure their film was advancing correctly.

Initially, amateur shutterbugs needed to mail the whole camera in to Kodak for processing, after which the original camera and developed film were returned to the owner, a process which was both time-consuming and inconvenient. It wasn’t long before a light went off in Mr. Eastman’s businessman’s brain, sparking an idea that had literally been right in front of him the whole time. The money to be made wasn’t in selling the cameras themselves, but in processing the film. He quickly invented a “daylight loading film” cartridge that allowed people to trade their exposed film for a fresh roll so they could continue to use their camera while their pictures were being developed. This was truly the beginning of the photo finishing industry as many of us knew it in the years before everything went digital.

Since his first cameras were still pricey for average citizens, Mr. Eastman’s next design was for a $5.00 box camera, the Kodak Pocket Camera. By 1900, the price for Kodak’s new line of Brownie cameras were sold for a mere dollar. Inexpensive, entry-level cameras originally intended for children, Brownies weren’t named for their color or Frank Brownell the manufacturer. Instead, the name was derived from author Palmer Cox’s beloved gnome-like Scottish character, familiar to children worldwide (as Mickey Mouse is today), from his comic strip “The Brownies.” Initially, Brownies were aggressively marketed through venues like the Brownie Camera Club which offered prizes to youngsters for the best photos taken. Light years ahead of most people and never one to fear a risk, Mr. Eastman began to mass-produce Brownies for the very people who were now constructing them in his factories. This new breed of consumers had the jobs, steady income and vacation time to provide the incentive to buy the little cameras and preserve their happy memories for generations to come. It was the overnight success of the Brownies that allowed Mr. Eastman to build the George Eastman House, a stately mansion surrounded by lush gardens on Rochester’s lovely and historic East Avenue.

Mr. Eastman was also influential in the film industry. Once again, the timing was right for him. As he was experimenting with developing 35mm film, Thomas Edison (a friendly acquaintance) and his team at the Edison Lab, were working on a Kinetoscope, a machine that creates the illusion of movement by conveying a strip of perforated film bearing sequential images over a light source with a high-speed shutter. Shortly after Mr. Eastman’s death, Kodak introduced Kodachrome, a color reversal stock for movie and slide film.

An inventor’s life doesn’t always run smoothly but, rather than discouraging him, Mr. Eastman’s setbacks only made him more determined to remain in the forefront of the photography industry. In 1912, he founded the Kodak Research Laboratories. C.E. Kenneth Mees, a young chemist with an interest in light’s effect on the photographic process, was Mr. Eastman’s choice to lead his latest endeavor. Dr. Mees jumped at the chance to organize and direct a research laboratory for the Eastman Kodak Company, sensing an opportunity to study how the theories of photographic process, as related to the nature and action of light, could be applied to the actual practice of photography. From the beginning, the lab focused on how photographic science could be used to improve the photography industry and Dr. Mees was eventually awarded the prestigious Franklin Medal, given by the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, PA, for his 50 years of contributions to the scientific knowledge of the photographic process. In his acceptance speech he noted that, not only has industrial research been highly successful at Kodak, it has also become an integral part of most businesses, known today as “Research and Development,” or “R&D.” A talented inventor with 32 patents to his name, a savvy businessman and a generous philanthropist, Mr. Eastman contributed immeasurably to the world’s scientific and artistic communities, while making it possible to preserve our culture and history through images for generations to come. Sadly, the man who brought photography out of the shadows and into the light, took his life in 1932, leaving behind a simple note that stated, “My work here is done. Why wait.” The upcoming year marks the 125th anniversary of the Kodak camera and Mr. Gustavson is planning a special exhibit in commemoration. His current exhibit, “Cameras from the Technology Collection,” is well-worth seeing, providing a visual history of the evolution of the camera during Mr. Eastman’s lifetime. It runs through Dec. 31, 2013 in the Eastman House’s North Gallery.

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