Girl with a Kodak on a Winter’s Day

A girl holding a Kodak camera and standing in a snowy Washington DC smiles for an unknown photographer.

George Eastman (1854-1932) had been on a tear.  He had dreamed up a series of innovations that, when realized, transformed photography and its role in society, so much so that we may credit him with inventing this photograph and the two-Kodak family who arranged themselves around a slushy curb to take it in Washington DC.  Thanks to Eastman, private life gained a new means of preserving its own history, an advance that marked the birth of modernity, in a visual sense at least.

Before the ‘Kodak revolution,’ a family’s ability to record its own existence, its own specific reality, was limited indeed.  It helped if one were literate or could draw or paint, for art was the only direct means of capturing the look of one’s child’s face or the cut and color of the clothes one’s beloved wore.  Photographers were professionals who wrangled obdurate equipment and understood the complex alchemy of developing the imagery.  Either such a one, or a professional artist, could capture the look of a freak snowstorm as it was melting.  Without photography of an accessible kind, one’s only hope of chronicling the weather or family life was to write a lot of letters or keep a careful diary.

Eastman’s genius was mechanical and conceptual, too.  He invented a new camera and new film processes, while also envisioning a whole new social role for photography, which he realized by assuming all the burden of developing the photographs that Kodak customers made.  “You press the button—we do the rest.”  With that notion, Eastman transformed the relationship between the would-be photographer and the medium.  He gave the world the snapshot, empowering amateurs to practice photography.

Eastman’s Kodak camera hit the streets in 1888.  It was lightweight, small, and easy to work.  Instead of sensitive or messy plates, his affordable camera was the first to employ roll film (another of his inventions).  Once the pictures were taken, customers sent the film back to the company for developing.  The very earliest Kodak prints were round, like the one above.

The new technology brought an immediacy to photography that, before, it seldom achieved.  It eliminated the middleman, allowing a relationship-driven photography.   The girl in this picture epitomizes the change, as she stands stock still, grinning, hugging a new Kodak camera close to her body.  The wind lifts her coat hem.  Her style and the swing of her mother’s skirt are just as they were in that earlier century.  In the street, her father, Uriah Hunt Painter, presses a button, capturing his willowy wife and daughter as they half-stop and smile, a two-Kodak family on a winter’s day.

Image from this source.

Theodore Roosevelt Jumping, 1902

Rear view of an action photograph unusual for the time.

As one of history’s most active presidents came on the stage, photography raced to catch up with him.  This rather extraordinary photograph from 1902 shows Teddy Roosevelt, then president, jumping his horse over a split-rail fence.  Such beautifully crisp shots of objects in motion were exceedingly rare at that date. Continue reading

Ice skates circa 1850

Ice skates (1840-59) from the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

This pair of American-made ice skates, dating from 1840-1859, is part of the collection of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The ice skaters I’ve been writing about lately would have been wearing skates similar to these.

While these skates were of a style that had been used for centuries, skate design was on the cusp of dramatic change.  The 1850s saw many innovations, as ice-skating boomed in popularity.  Many different styles of clip-on and strap-on skates were being brought to market, as makers vied to make skates stronger, faster, and more stable.  The toe pick and the elongated blade extending beyond the back of the skate, both features of modern figure skates, hadn’t yet been thought of.  Stopping or turning in these old skates could be tricky!  Note the nail sticking up from the platform of the skate, which embedded itself in the heel of the wearer’s shoe, as a means of making the skate more stable.

American ice skates (1840-60), from the website "Skating ahead of the Curve"

Skating ahead of the Curve documents the newfangled skates being made at the time.  These skates, dating from 1840-60, have taken a leap forward in material and design.  Made mainly of metal, including cast steel, they feature a heel cup and thick leather straps that would have attached firmly to a boot or shoe.

American ice skates (1840-60), from the website "Skating ahead of the Curve"

The heel cup is decorated with a skating scene.

For more on 19th-century skates and skating,
see “Ice Skating in the 1860s: A Fashion and a Passion,”
a wonderful article by Betty Hughes.
This is the fourth in an occasional series on ice-skating.  Click here to read from the beginning.