The Box Brownie camera

Classic Projects: Kodak Brownie

The snappy little gadget that put photography into the hands of amateurs, and into the heart of society.

"You press the button – we do the rest" was George Eastman's famous marketing slogan for the small cardboard box that reinvented the way we saw the world. According to Eastman's company Kodak, the Brownie handheld roll-film camera was so easy to use that even a child could take pictures with it. A box camera – essentially a dark chamber that held photo-sensitive paper in place to receive light passing through a simple lens – the design may have been simple, but it was a classic case of engineering bringing about societal revolution.

Eastman's dream was to simplify photography to the point where it was available to anyone who wanted to try. As far back as 1883, he had announced the invention of photographic film in rolls and in 1884 he patented a process of coating strips of paper so that they would work in a camera.

It was with this patent that the first seeds for modern photography were sown, and it was only five short years later that Eastman founded the company Kodak and his first Kodak camera went on sale. The idea was as simple as the camera's design, with the unit pre-loaded with sufficient film to take 100 photographs. Once all the film had been exposed the camera would be sent to the Kodak Company in Rochester, New York, where the film was developed, prints printed, and new photographic film loaded. Camera and prints were returned to the customer and the whole process began again.

Eastman's idea had always been to make his money on consumables – film, chemicals and paper – rather than the hardware, and so getting a camera into everyone's hands was the commercial objective. His big break came with the Brownie, which hit the market in 1900 with a price tag of one American dollar. This meant that even children – Ansell Adams got his first Brownie at the age of 14 – could buy into the process, while their (presumably) encouraging parents paid the development costs.

Shaped like a small shoebox it featured meniscus lenses and rotary shutters, and took pictures that were two-and-a-quarter inches square – the 'medium format' that is still in use today – on a flexible celluloid film that was passed from the 'full spool' to an 'empty spool' by means of a mechanical winding mechanism. The exposure of the film was performed by a mechanical shutter, which could be held open for photographing in low-light conditions. Apart from this discretionary and quite sophisticated feature, the Brownie enjoyed none of the variables we now take for granted such as shutter speed, aperture setting and focus.

This meant that the camera worked best for mid-distance, slow-moving or stationary subjects, and so the 'snapshot' of posed people and holiday scenery was born. Once the empty spool was full of exposed film, it could be removed and sent away for processing and the user could reload the Brownie with a new roll of film.

As the Kodak company said: "this small simple box launched a new industry, and forever changed the way we communicate. Every technology we use to communicate with pictures can trace its ancestry to that first black box."

After holding a dominant market position in consumer cameras in the 20th century (at one point 90 per cent of the market was using Eastman's technology), recent years have not been so kind. On 9 February 2012 Kodak announced that it was to stop making digital still and video cameras, although the name would be available to other manufacturers wishing to use the brand under licence.

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