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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Kodak and the Rise of Amateur Photography

By far the most significant event in the history of amateur photography was the introduction of the Kodak #1 camera in 1888. Invented and marketed by George Eastman (1854–1932), a former bank clerk from Rochester, New York, the Kodak was a simple box camera that came loaded with a 100-exposure roll of film. When the roll was finished, the entire machine was sent back to the factory in Rochester, where it was reloaded and returned to the customer while the first roll was being processed. Although the Kodak was made possible by technical advances in the development of roll film and small, fixed-focus cameras, Eastman’s real genius lay in his marketing strategy. By simplifying the apparatus and even processing the film for the consumer, he made photography accessible to millions of casual amateurs with no particular professional training, technical expertise, or aesthetic credentials. To underscore the ease of the Kodak system, Eastman launched an advertising campaign featuring women and children operating the camera, and coined the memorable slogan: “You press the button, we do the rest.”

Within a few years of the Kodak’s introduction, snapshot photography became a national craze. Various forms of the word “Kodak” entered common American speech (kodaking, kodakers, kodakery), and amateur “camera fiends” formed clubs and published magazines to share their enthusiasm. By 1898, just ten years after the first Kodak was introduced, one photography journal estimated that over 1.5 million roll-film cameras had reached the hands of amateur shutterbugs.

The great majority of early snapshots were made for personal reasons: to commemorate important events (weddings, graduations, parades); to document travels and seaside holidays (2000.298.3); to record parties, picnics, or simple family get-togethers; to capture the appearance of children, pets, cars, and houses (2000.298.2). The earliest Kodak photographs were printed in a circular format (1997.54), but later models produced a rectangular image, usually printed small enough to be held in the palm of the hand. Most snapshots produced between the 1890s and the 1950s were destined for placement in the family album, itself an important form of vernacular expression (1990.1181; 1996.438.2). The compilers of family albums often arranged the photographs in narrative sequences, providing factual captions along with witty commentary; some albums contain artfully elaborate collages of cut-and-pasted photographs and text, often combining personal snapshots with commercial images clipped from magazines (1998.103).

During the first decade of the twentieth century, a number of serious amateur photographers reacted to the snapshot craze by forming organizations dedicated to promoting photography as a fine art, rather than as a popular pastime or commercial pursuit. The most prominent of these organizations in the United States was the Photo-Secession, founded in 1902 by the photographer, publisher, and gallerist Alfred Stieglitz. To the Pictorialist photographers associated with the Photo-Secession movement, snapshot photography lacked the aesthetic sensibility and technical expertise necessary to qualify as fine art. By staking out a position in opposition to both amateur and commercial photographers, Stieglitz and his compatriots succeeded in winning a place for photography in the hallowed halls of high art.

However, it was only a few decades later that photographers such as Walker Evans (1903–1975), uncomfortable with the preciousness of much art photography of the day, began to reconsider snapshots, documentary photographs, and turn-of-the-century penny picture postcards, recognizing these unassuming pictures as forms of homegrown American folk art. In his own photographs of the 1930s, Evans aspired to the straightforward matter-of-factness and quiet lyricism of these vernacular traditions, training his lens on small-town main streets and roadside scenes in the rural American South.

By the 1950s, a number of younger photographers such as Robert Frank (born 1924) and William Klein (born 1928) had begun to embrace the formal energy, spontaneity, and immediacy of the snapshot and to emulate these qualities in their own work. Grainy and blurred, with tilted horizons and erratic framing, their photographs managed to capture the movement and chaos of modern urban life in visual form. In the mid-1960s, the idea of a “snapshot aesthetic” began to gain currency in art photography circles. Photographers like Lee Friedlander (born 1934) and Garry Winogrand (1928–1984) prowled the streets of New York with handheld cameras, producing images that seemed random, accidental, and caught on the fly. While the majority of art photographers working in this mode were using black-and-white film, in the early 1970s photographers such as William Eggleston (born 1939) and Stephen Shore (born 1947) incorporated the saturated hues of early color snapshots into their work.

Among the most influential champions of the vernacular tradition in photography was John Szarkowski, curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In a seminal book and exhibition, The Photographer’s Eye (1966), Szarkowski examined the medium’s essential characteristics by placing photographs by well-known art photographers alongside commercial studio portraits, newspaper pictures, and snapshots. This book was followed by a number of other photography compilations, including Michael Lesy’s Wisconsin Death Trip (1973), Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s Evidence (1977), and Barbara P. Norfleet’s The Champion Pig: Great Moments in Everyday Life (1979), which recontextualized images culled from rural newspaper offices, police files, insurance adjusters, and small-town portrait studios. Filled with visually arresting images by unknown amateur or commercial photographers, these books achieved cult status among artists and collectors, and contributed to a growing interest in collecting the anonymous vernacular photographs that often surfaced at flea markets, estate sales, and auctions.

By the late 1990s, vernacular photography and, in particular, anonymous snapshots from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, found a place on the walls of major American art museums. In 1998, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art organized the exhibition Snapshots: The Photography of Everyday Life, 1888 to the Present, and in 2000 the Metropolitan Museum presented Other Pictures: Anonymous Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection. Both exhibitions featured a myriad of photographs that, through some technical error—a tilted horizon, an amputated head, a looming shadow, or inadvertent double-exposure—achieved a strange and unexpected visual charm. Removed from their original context in the family album, these anonymous vernacular photographs take on new meanings, inviting interpretation as a uniquely modern form of folk art.