Pioneers brought into focus

George Eastman - Records of the Dawn of Photography
August 2, 1996

Now, since the history of photography will probably be written some day or other, it is desirable that the different phenomena discovered should be ascribed to their first observers, with as much attention to accuracy as possible. (William Henry Fox Talbot, 1842) A century and a half after those words were written, photography is surely more widely used by more people than any other medium, yet there are still considerable gaps in its written history. These new scholarly works cover two of the most significant stories: Talbot's invention of the negative/ positive process (the springboard for virtually all subsequent types of photography) and George Eastman's development of the box camera (which took the medium out of the hands of professionals and wealthy amateurs and put it into those of the man and woman on the street). Both books draw on unpublished sources, and both cast considerable new light on their topics.

Much has already been written about Talbot (1800-77) and there is certainly no shortage of source material. As Larry Schaaf points out; "Seldom is the surviving record of an inventor and that of his inventions so detailed." Schaaf, who has become perhaps the authority, knows of more than 10,000 letters to and from Talbot, as well as some 7,500 photographic images, hundreds of pages of research notes, and dozens of diaries and notebooks.

Two of the latter - "P" and "Q" - are particularly revealing about the failures and successes of Talbot's invention of photography. But the surprise of these carefully reproduced facsimiles is that they are not merely dry records of laboratory experiments, and of this gentleman amateur's interest in photography, chemistry, electricity, light, optics and locomotion. Full of "little thoughts", passing ideas and coincidental observations, their unexpected windows into the inventor's mind make them readable and revealing.

Notebook P begins on February 6, 1839, some 12 days after Talbot first told the world about his invention. A Frenchman, Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre, had just beaten him to it, announcing his Daguerreotype in Paris a month earlier. "Upstaged, and relegated to second place right from the start", Talbot nevertheless persevered through what must have been a difficult year. Daguerre was basking in public glory and honours; Talbot's photographs were reckoned by most people (even the British) to be inferior in sharp detail and tonality.

Daguerre made a large stock of Daguerreotypes in the fine summer of 1838; Talbot struggled to make a handful of acceptable "photogenic" drawings in the bad weather of 1839. Daguerre's pictures were direct positives; Talbot wasted considerable effort trying to match them, failing at first to recognise the overriding advantage of his own process - the ability to make multiple prints from one negative. In some ways, Talbot never recovered from these unequal struggles, and was a bitter man all his life.

But, as notebook Q records, he soon took a giant step forward. His early "photogenic drawings" were printed by exposing the chemically sensitised paper in sunlight. The negative in the camera was observed through a hole (later, a red glass window) in order to determine when it was sufficiently exposed. In September 1840, Talbot discovered that a chemical developer could reveal pictures recorded on negatives still insufficiently exposed to show a visible image. This "latent image" reduced exposure times from an hour to only seconds; the resulting pictures (he called them "calotypes", others suggested "Talbotypes") were among the most striking and beautiful in the early history of photo graphy.

Notebook Q ends in 1843, and shows Talbot solving such problems as how to fix calotypes, and the naming of the various parts of the photographic process. The astronomer and scientist Sir John Herschel played an important role in both. Schaaf's full notes and exemplary scholarly apparatus make these records of four extra-ordinary years essential reading for anyone seriously interested in the "dawn of photography".

Elizabeth Brayer first became interested in George Eastman (1854-1932) in 1978 while researching the architecture of Rochester, New York - headquarters of the Eastman Kodak Company since its foundation. A few years later, she became historic consultant for the restoration of Eastman's house (for a long time home to the International Museum of Photography) and gardens, amassing a wealth of information about the elusive millionaire. The nearly 700 pages of her weighty biography contain all the facts one ever needs to know about Eastman - and some one does not.

Like so many self-made men, Eastman claimed his life started in poverty. But, though his father died when George was only eight, the family had until then been rich enough not to worry about money. Even after being widowed, George's mother was able to keep her son and two daughters in shabby gentility. If Eastman left school as soon as possible, it was mainly because he wanted to be independent. As an office boy earning $3 a week, he already carefully husbanded his resources, recording expenditure on clothes, haircuts, magazines, lectures and dancing lessons. He acquired a taste for travel in his teens and, when his employer failed to give him a rise, took another job. After one sister died and the other married, he became the focus of his mother's life: she was to wait upon his every need for much of the rest of his life.

It was travel which introduced Eastman to photography. At the age of 23, when planning a visit to Santa Domingo, he decided the best way to record what he saw would be with a camera. Though the trip never happened, he taught himself photography. With a better job as a bank clerk, he began to spend as well as save. He and his mother slowly began to feel comfortably off again, and he bought oil paintings to decorate their increasingly up-market homes. Among the many young women with whom he went out, he was particularly attracted to a music student who left Rochester to go to music school. Years later, as a rich man, Eastman gave his home town a music conservatory, a symphony orchestra and a fine concert hall -all, perhaps, as a result of this loss.

A year after this apparent heartbreak, photography became an obsession. He bought a camera and all the apparatus (it was "a pack horse load", he complained) for the wet collodion process. This required a photographer to coat a scrupulously clean plate of glass with egg white, spread a sticky chemical emulsion smoothly on it, and put the still-wet plate in the camera - all in the dark. Like most amateurs, Eastman found it all very cumbersome and fault-prone, even after taking lessons, and so was very excited when he heard of the British development of dry plates. Seeing the possibilities of commercial production in the United States, he took $400 from his savings account, and set off for London - financial and photographic centre of the world -to patent a plate-coating machine and to raise capital.

The story of Eastman's success, the development of the roll-film holder, and the invention of the first Kodak camera (he chose the name because it was "short . . . not capable of mispronunciation" and truly original) has been told often enough. It made photography accessible to anyone who could afford $25. Brayer's strength is her clear revelation that Eastman's biggest contribution to photography was not so much chemical or technical, but his realisation that the future of the medium lay with amateurs, not the professionals who were the main exponents of its unwieldy technology. As he sold shares, recruited senior staff, developed equipment and processes, and ruthlessly acquired competing companies, his constant aim was "to reach the general public".

The apogee of Eastman Kodak's ability to produce a camera for all consumers, of whatever age, gender or financial circumstance, is best exemplified by the Brownie - "designed to make average pictures in average light at average speed with film of average sensibility". It was a runaway success throughout the world. But Eastman, knowing he had to market a system and not just a camera, had coined the famous slogan "You press the button, we do the rest" years before. Far more of the huge profits the company were to make would come from the sales of film (in its instantly recognisable yellow box, introduced in 1906) than from cameras.

Brayer's painstaking biography (the first since Eastman's death) comes into its own in the years after the most famous part of his story. She writes at length about his interest in architecture - of his house and the many other buildings with which he was involved - about his gardens, his philanthropic foundation of six dental schools in different countries (London's, which cost Eastman $1 million, is part of the Royal Free Hospital, Gray's Inn Road), his pioneering and unfashionable funding of institutions for the education of black Americans, and his single-handed creation of a professional musical life for Rochester.

After his gradual withdrawal from the day-to-day running of the great company he founded, Eastman had a long and productive life, but in some ways a rather sad one. Chronically shy, dubbed "America's most modest and least known millionaire", he was seen by many as a cold fish, and never formed a really close, enduring relationship. He himself explained that his passion for Kodak stood in the way. When, at the age of 78, after five years of increasing pain and immobility caused by a damaged spine, it seemed that he would never recover, he simply went to his bedroom and committed suicide. His mother was dead, and he probably felt that very few people would really miss him. ("There isn't much to live for", he said. "All that most people come here for is to have me sign on the dotted line.")

But what an influence he has had on all our lives! If he and Fox Talbot opened a Pandora's box, it is impossible to imagine a world without their contributions. They were two of the fathers of the 20th century's relentless march of the media and, if neither of these books is exactly aimed at a popular readership, all those seriously interested in the birth and growth of photography will need them on their shelves.

Colin Ford is director, National Museums and Galleries of Wales, and was founding head of the National Museum of Film, Photo-graphy and Television.

George Eastman: A Biography

Author - Elizabeth Brayer
ISBN - 0 8018 5263 3
Publisher - Johns Hopkins University Press
Price - £.50
Pages - 688

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