Eastman House marks start of a new industry
05:07 AM, Oct 20, 2013
George Eastman had a problem.
His dry photographic plate business having done decently, Eastman decided to move into films focusing on the professional photography market.
However, those films didn’t really catch on. “He really was trying to figure out, ‘OK, what can I do?’ ” says Todd Gustavson, George Eastman House curator of technology. “He’s really at a crisis point: ‘Is this going to work or am I going to have to go find a job?’ Certainly things could have been better.”
So Eastman opted to aim instead at something that didn’t exist the novice photographer.
“This was pretty out there,” Gustavson says. “People are either professional photographers or the serious amateur. There really was no novice photographer market. It did not exist. This was completely new.”
So in November 1887, Eastman ordered six prototype cameras from Brownell Manufacturing, a cabinet maker across the street from Eastman’s State Street film business. And by summer 1888, the company had launched its roll-film camera line, the Kodak.
Today, one of those original six prototypes sits in a case at George Eastman House, a cornerstone of a new long-term display at the museum marking the 125th anniversary of when Kodak got into the camera business.
“This is the beginning of amateur snapshot photography,” Gustvason said.
That camera changed everything. From it came Eastman Kodak Co.’s subsequent Brownie camera, and the idea of photography being something anyone can do relatively cheaply (to the point that practically everyone today carries a camera with them as part of their mobile phone). It also spawned a company that largely defined Rochester’s economy and very identity for decades.
The Eastman display includes first-generation Kodak cameras, as well as a number of photos taken with them and related materials. It took over space that once had been dedicated to a variety of Kodak digital consumer products (a business the company exited in 2012).
The new display also marks the first of what eventually will be a revamping of the museum’s various interpretive displays and exhibits about George Eastman, Gustavson says.
That Brownell-made camera, serial No. 6, is the oldest known Kodak camera in existence. It has been in the George Eastman House collection since the early 1990s, when it was donated by Kodak. The photos and cameras all came from Eastman House archives.
Kodak, the company, has no collection or archive of antique gear, having donated its product collection to the Eastman House and its historical materials to the University of Rochester library years ago, said spokesman Christopher Veronda.
Work on the display started in May. The research turned up a variety of gems tucked away in the George Eastman House’s own materials, like a letter Eastman wrote in 1906 to John M. Manley, a University of Chicago English professor and expert on the works of Shakespeare and Chaucer, explaining the derivation of the word “Kodak” (short answer: it’s short, tough to misspell and “vigorous and distinctive”).
The display features a dozen Kodaks from the late 1880s and early 1890s, including one made in 1890 and used by Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary on his second Greenland expedition. All handmade and of relatively simple mechanical components, they all still work today, Gustavson says.
“I thought it was important to celebrate this specific camera right now,” he says. “I’ve listened to all sorts of things about the company a lot of it not so good. But if you get into the fact they had an amazing run for years, highly successful company, it really goes back to the business model George Eastman established when he came out with the Kodak. This is pretty much the business model for the city of Rochester for 125 years. This set Rochester’s economy for a long time and it was successful for a long time. This is just a great story.”