From DynaTACs to Nokia: George Eastman and portable cameras
In the 1980s, cellular phones like the symbolic DynaTAC were often bulky (read: as large as a brick) and unwieldy when it comes to...
In the 1980s, cellular phones like the symbolic DynaTAC were often bulky (read: as large as a brick) and unwieldy when it comes to convenience, but people were content with it because they had no other choice until Nokia started to dominate the market and produced smaller phones that could fit their pockets in the next decade. George Eastman’s Kodak cameras were essentially “Nokia phones” in the late 19th - early 20th centuries camera industry, when photography was relatively uncommon and the ordinary camera was as big as a microwave oven, requiring more than one person to carry. Eastman himself did not invent the camera; he simply reinvented it in a way that transformed photography from an expensive, incovenient and time-consuming profession into a simple hobby that many of us today can afford and enjoy. His company’s signature product, the $1 Brownie, became one of the most important cameras in history.
Born into his family farm in New York in 1854, Eastman’s childhood was marred by tragedy and struggle. His father died when he was 8, and at 13 he had to quit school to find work to financially support his family and feed himself; as a result, the young Eastman was very keen on self-learning and self-improvement. He worked several jobs, but it was when he became a junior bank clerk at the Rochester Savings Bank at the age of 23 that his passion for photography truly started. However, Eastman was dissatisfied with the cameras at the time, as they were heavy, clumsy, complicated to use and required a lot of equipment and time to set up to actually take a photo, and so he sought for improvements. In 1878 at the age of 24, Eastman learned about the dry plate, an invention by British photographer Richard Leach Maddox that allows contemporary cameras to capture images through a series of photographic, glass-made dry plates attached inside the cameras. This invention helped photographers at the time to develop their profession and business by simplifying the technology required to take photos.
Influenced by this invention, later that year Eastman invented a coating machine for plates which proved instrumental in mass-producing dry plates later on. In 1880, Eastman worked hard to secure fundings from one of his business contacts at Rochester Bank to found the Eastman Dry Plate Company, with which he aimed to distribute dry plates in large quantities. to photographers. This was Eastman’s first innovation and it proved to be extremely successful. On top of that, in 1884 he quickly realized that he could replace the glass that was normally used to make dry plates with plastic coated with gelatin emulsion, which allows him to convert photographic dry plates into a small roll and place conveniently inside the camera (this is called the film roll). Thus, he implemented the concept into his next camera - dubbed “the detective camera” - in 1885, and while this camera was still of unfavorable size, it allowed Eastman to experiment with film roll-based cameras for the first time and was the key for him to innovate later models.
One of Eastman’s most unique and innovative ideas was that in order to succeed, he needed to expand the photography market. To do this, he sought to “make photography an everyday affair” and “make the camera as convenient as a pencil”, and thus with the experiences he gained since his company’s formative years as well as since his “detective camera” was introduced, he worked to invent a new, portable camera with a reasonably low price tag for the public. Laboriously, he finished this process in 1888 and introduced one of the most revolutionary cameras ever to the photography market, known at the time as the “Kodak camera”, and it was an instant blockbuster. The camera was much smaller than contemporaries, could be easily carried and conveniently held by one person, and was reasonably cheap at $25. Most importantly, the film roll allows customers to take 100 photos total, and once all 100 photos are taken, they can be sent to Eastman’s company where the photos will be processed and the camera will be installed with a new film roll, hence the quote “You press the button, we do the rest”.
Eastman renamed his company as the Eastman Kodak Company in 1892 after the introduction of the 1888 Kodak camera, and while the $25 price tag was relatively cheap for contemporary camera prices, it was still expensive for daily amateur photography. Thus, Eastman tried in the next decade to further minimalize Kodak cameras to make them even cheaper on the market, and this culminated in the Brownie camera in 1900. At the time of its release, it was the cheapest camera ever and was the iconic symbol of simplicity, and would eventually become Kodak’s most successful camera line. The first Brownie model was very basic in its composition and was covered on the sides with a cardboard layer. Sold at $1, it started an entire era of “snapshot photography”, whereby an user does not need time to properly set up his or her camera to take a photo and instead can capture moments quickly with imperfect shots. With the Brownie, Eastman together with Kodak cameras helped to turn photography from a laborious and expensive process into a simple hobby even for children. Eastman was instrumental in promoting mainstream photography, and the Brownie was essentially similar to Henry Ford’s 1908 Model T automobile in that everyone could now afford a camera and learn photography. From 1900 to 1980, Eastman Kodak produced and sold a total of 99 Brownie models.
Other than his photographic ventures, George Eastman was also a well known philanthropist in his later life. He gave donations and gifts of charity to universities, hospitals and dental clinics across the United States and many European cities, dedicating his support to improve the health of low-income citizens. He was very devoted to education in arts, healthcare and technology, and was instrumental in the establishment of new schools in universities in both Britain and the United States. His donations totaled more than $100 million, and in the 1920s he was one of the major philanthropists in the United States alongside other industrialists and billionaires such as John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie.
George Eastman never married and never had children. The death of his parents, especially his mother, had left a profound effect on his life, pushing him ever onwards on the path of self-improvement and advancement. He was extremely dedicated to his work, always looking to learn from not only his own previous mistakes but also from innovations made by his contemporaries and colleagues. It was perhaps due to his undying passion to photography and philanthropy that he did not look to settle down with a family for his own. In his later years, his health became a problem in 1930 when he started to suffer from intense pain caused by a chronic, irreversible spinal disease. He grew increasingly discomfort with his life, developing depression and suicidal thoughts because he had watched his own mother suffering from similar physical pain before she died in his younger years.
Finally on March 14, 1932, George Eastman, one of the fathers of modern photography took his own life at the age of 77 with a gunshot to the heart after a 2-year period of struggle with pain, depression and physical trauma caused by his illness. In his will, he dedicated all of his fortunes to the Rochester community, ensuring that his estate will promote education, appreciation of the arts and expansion of medical services. He never compromised in his philanthropic goals and even till the end he worked hard to contribute to society as much as possible, especially during his later years when the United States was shocked by the Great Depression of 1929. His final words - enigmatically written in a note he left behind when he committed suicide - were: “To my friends, my work is done - Why wait?”.
Nguyen Tai Long
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