Five Cameras That Changed History and Made Photography What It Is Today

Lewis-pattern American daguerreotype camera, ca. 1852.

By Jonathan Spira on 31 July 2017
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While, thanks to the built-in cameras in our smartphones, more photographs are taken today than ever before, photography was at one time an activity that was done only on a special occasion and carried with it a significant cost.

Photo historian Jonathan Spira, FBT’s editorial director and a co-author of “The History of Photography,” named a best book of the year by the New York Times, takes a snapshot (yes, pun most definitely intended) of five cameras that revolutionized picture taking and made the idea of a Kodak moment affordable and accessible.

1.) The Daguerreotype Camera – 1839

Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, a French artist, introduced the first commercially viable photographic process to the world in 1839. The mirror-like Daguerreotype was not exactly the thing that snapshots were made of, however. It required a long exposure, multiple steps, and the use of dangerous chemicals, such as mercury vapor, to develop the image. It remained popular until it was superseded in the early 1860s by simpler and less expensive processes.

The Kodak, made by Frank Brownell for the Eastman Dry Plate & Film Co.

The Kodak, made by Frank Brownell for the Eastman Dry Plate & Film Co.

2.) The Kodak – 1888

Using the tagline “You press the button, we do the rest,” the first Kodak camera made its commercial debut in 1888 and came with a roll of film that took 100 exposures. Producing round pictures 2.5” (6.4 centimeters) in diameter, the Kodak camera marked the advent of amateur photography as it was the first to dispense with the complex gear and processes that had made photography before that time too complex for the average person.


3.) The Kodak Brownie – 1900

The Brownie, introduced in February of the last year of the century, continued the trend begun with the original Kodak camera and dramatically lowered the cost, effectively introducing the idea of the snapshot to the mass market. The Brownie itself was a very basic box camera made from cardboard with a simple meniscus lens. It was introduced to increase sales of Kodak film and priced at $1, making it popular with children as well as with adults. The early Brownies marked the first time that ordinary people would document their life and surroundings much in the manner that people continue to do today.

Click here to continue to Page 2Polaroid Land Camera and Kodak Instamatic

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