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Ever since the invention of photography, we’ve been deeply fascinated by cameras and the images they produce. Historically, we’ve used them to capture portraits for sharing with families and followers alike, as well as to document political upheavals and our visits around the world; more recently, we’ve come to use tiny cameras in our phones for selfies, cats, and coffee porn. As cameras have become increasingly ubiquitous (at least in the West), many of us have forgotten what a recent invention they are. Looking through these advertisements from 1848 onwards, we can see how different the technology was back then, a familiar impulse to document, and what the camera meant to society when it was still new.
The above ad for a daguerreotype photo studio is a remnant of a time when photography was so rare, cumbersome, and technically demanding, only professionals or wealthy and savvy hobbyists possessed cameras. The first fully successful daguerreotype was produced in 1837 by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre; soon after, photo studios like the one advertised here began popping up in big cities. These were the only places where one could obtain a photograph. They were expensive, poor quality, and near magic.
Notably, this ad emphasizes the studio’s talent for photographing dead loved ones, claiming that the photos will appear “so natural as to seem, even to Artists, in a quiet sleep.” I love imagining a time when artists were awarded capital As and considered the definitive authorities on vision. Also note the promotion of two ladies onsite ready to help women arrange their attire and choose appropriate colors for the process. This was a formal affair, reserved for important life moments.
Ambrotypes were invented in the early 1850s. They were cheaper to produce (note the “25 cents” prominently advertised on the right) and possessed a less metallic sheen than the rival daguerreotype. As always, we Americans loved a bargain and quickly left the daguerreotype behind.
Due to demand and obvious commercial value, the camera was made portable as quickly as possible. While professional photo studios remain even today, the real money has always been in selling the technology itself. Thus, early ads like the one above focused on the camera’s portability and ease of use. Now consider for a moment that only 131 years after this ad, my phone and laptop both come equipped with cameras I didn’t even request. I can comfortably walk around with five cameras once. I wonder how ancient our contemporary cameras will look in another 131 years …
Finally, in the late 19th century, film photography comes around, and with it the Eastman Kodak Company (Kodak). Eliminating the need for heavy and often fragile glass or metal plates, the invention of film made cameras much easier to use: they were lighter and smaller, ideal for ordinary people wishing to use them as an addition to everyday life. The Kodak ad above emphasizes cameras only “weighing 2 or 3 pounds.” What’s more, that line “The new method of making photographs on the continuous web” seems perfectly suited for a Google Glass ad. I’m somehow comforted by the fact that we were thrilled at the idea of a continuous stream of imagery even over a hundred years ago. Once we got photographs, all we wanted was more.
I laughed at this ad at first, but it represents an interesting moment when photography was finally becoming common in the West. It really was a lawless frontier. I’m curious to research this period and learn what laws and social norms arose in response to the new technological possibility of the camera. Today we have strictly defined laws about photography in public, privacy, copyright, and more, but those had to emerge and adapt as cameras appeared and evolved. Plus, emerging technologies for sousveillance and aerial photography are once again complicating privacy rights. Who knows what new laws will emerge.
The first really popular camera was Kodak’s Brownie, first sold in 1900. The ad above promises that the Brownie will provide quality photographs, as well as a process in which “every step is easily understood and mastered.” Brownies started at the amazingly low price of $1 — so cheap you could even let your kids take photos of whatever they wanted, including a creepy elf.
This is the oldest American advertisement for wildlife photography that I could find. While today’s wildlife photography features almost exclusively exotic animals, I love the idea of that field beginning on the farm, connected to a more pastoral country and time.
Even in the 1920s it seems camera ads still had to explicitly reestablish the purposes of photography for the reader. I can easily imagine skeptics, much like today, bemoaning society’s obsession with documenting “real life” experiences. Early ads often emphasized activities one could do with their camera, making it a lifestyle purchase as much as an artistic one.
“Hasn’t a Guy Got Any Privacy?” Can you believe that the same issues we’re debating so heatedly today were felt, to some degree, in the 1940s? This ad (above left) for a motion-picture camera jokes about how a young boy will be documented all the time by his doting parents. Just wait till they get Facebook, kid.
When, in that same decade, the US finally joined World War II, so too did camera advertisements (above right). In a world before FaceTime, Skype, and Google Hangouts, servicemen would bring photographs of their loved ones on tours of duty. Kodak emphasizes how real and important these shots are to the men serving abroad.
These ads depict a transformation in our access to image making, but little else. The excitement and arguments surrounding cameras don’t seem to have changed much; while the novelty has worn off, we’re still debating our privacy and craving ever-more accessible, cheap, and small cameras. If there’s one thing these ads illustrate, it’s not how ridiculously outdated the old cameras are but how similarly we feel about our cameras today.