Cameras That Made History Part I

By Paul Sergeant Back to

Giroux Daguerreotype camera, Paul Sergeant, George Eastman, historical cameras Giroux Daguerreotype camera

This is the first of two articles that describe unique objects held within the collection of the George Eastman House. This first section will review cameras of the 19th Century, while the next section will focus on camera technology of the 20th Century. All images are shot by Barbra Galasso and used with the permission of the George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and film, Rochester, NY.

George Eastman House is the world’s oldest photography museum and one of the world’s preeminent film archives. The museum opened its doors to the public in 1949 and combines the world’s leading collections of photography and motion picture film with the pleasures of the Colonial Revival mansion that George Eastman, founder of Eastman Kodak Company, called home from 1905 to 1932.

The technology artifacts housed within the archives of the museum are regarded as one of the largest collections of photographic and cinematographic equipment in the world. It is one of the most comprehensive collections held by any institution in North America and only equaled in quality by three other holdings around the globe. It contains photographic objects from the 19th Century to contemporary forms of photographic technology. This includes cameras, processing equipment, motion picture devices, film and a plethora of other examples of historic photographic apparatus. A number of pieces within the collection are unique, representing disting- uished historical ownership or significant scientific achievement.

The Giroux Daguerreotype camera
Let us look first at a camera that created a name for itself—literally. The year was 1839 and the world was told of a new invention that could capture and preserve the likeness of a person. Just two days after that announcement, on August 21, 1839, an advertisement was published in La Gazette du France. The Giroux Daguerreotype camera would be the first camera commercially introduced and manufactured in great quantity. Roughly two months before François Arago announced the new Daguerreotype process, a contract was drawn up between the partnership of Daguerre/Niépce and Alphonse Giroux. This contract granted the rights to sell the materials and equipment required to produce the daguerreotype photograph. This camera was an adapted version of the one used by Daguerre to create his first images on silver plated copper plates. It was sold as a complete daguerreotype system including the camera, lens, plate holder, iodine box for sensitizing, mercury box for development and a variety of other objects needed to successfully produce these unique images.

This camera allowed the individual the chance to produce a new form of visual technology. It took unique photographic positives that measured 8.5 x 6.5 inches (whole-plate). The camera cost roughly 400 French Francs in 1839, an average yearly salary. Although not affordable to everybody, it did allow certain individuals the opportunity to experiment with this new technology and, in turn, an ever-increasing amount of people the chance to get photographed. For these reasons, the Giroux Daguerreotype camera deserves to be seen as one of the main cameras that helped shape photographic history.

Disdéri’s carte-de-visite camera, Paul Sergeant, George Eastman, historical cameras
Disdéri’s carte-de-visite camera
Disdéri’s carte-de-visite camera, Paul Sergeant, historical cameras, George Eastman
Carte-de-viste print. Duc de Coimbra, 1860, André-Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri

Disdéri’s carte-de-visite camera
Andre-Adolphe-Eugene Disdéri was a French photographer who had started out utilizing the Daguerreotype process, but he is best known for his creative version of the carte de visite, a small photographic image mounted on a card. He patented a method for producing multiple images on one wet- collodion plate, thus maximizing the available space. The camera was specially constructed by an unidentified French manufacturer from Disdéri’s specifications to produce these multiple imaged plates. The camera is a double-box type with a repeating back; this allowed the plate holder to easily side from side to side, doubling the number of photographs per plate. The invention of the carte-de-visite camera by Disdéri not only allowed the production of multiple photographs on one plate, but it also lowered the cost of photography, making it more accessible to the masses. This new form of the photograph quickly spread throughout the world. Disdéri’s status as a photographer grew very quickly and was escalated even further when in May 1859, Napoleon III, as legend has it, interrupted his march to war to pose for his photograph in Disdéri’s studio.

The newfound fame that surrounded Disdéri and the fact that these photos could be easily reproduced inexpensively and in great quantity brought about the decline of the daguerreotype and ushered in the age of the wet-plate. Disdéri’s carte- de-visite camera played a pivotal role in the evolution of the photograph and is another camera that changed the world of photography.

Kodak, Paul Sergeant, historical cameras, George Eastman
Kodak camera, 1888

Kodak Camera 1888-
Before the name “Kodak” became synonymous with photography and film, it was not the name of a company, but that of a small hand-held camera. Frank Brownell of Rochester, New York manufactured the box camera for the Eastman Dry Plate & Film Company. One of the first mass- produced point-and-shoot cameras, the Kodak helped revolutionize the photographic market with its simplicity of use and total freedom from the hazards of darkroom chemistry. When it was released in 1888 the Kodak cost $25, which was quite expensive for the time. However, with this initial cost, the purchase included a pre-loaded roll of sensitized film, enough for one hundred 21⁄2-inch circular images. Once you had finished shooting the roll, you would pay an additional $10 and the roll-loaded camera would be returned to Rochester, NY. Once received there, the film would be developed, prints made and a new roll loaded before being sent back to the owner. This ease of use became Eastman’s main selling point and helped him to coin the slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest.”

This was the first successful camera to use roll film. This camera also marked the beginning of photography as a tool and pastime for the common person. Just as the carte de visite had allowed a fast and inexpensive photograph, the Kodak camera shifted the evolution of the photograph, taking it out of the professionals’ hands and putting into your own. Thanks to the development and success of this first roll film camera, the Eastman Kodak Company would grow to become the largest photofinishing company in the world.

About the Author

Paul Sergeant
Paul Sergeant studied at the Ontario College of Art & Design where he was the recipient of the prestigious photographic art medal in 2006. He has his Master’s in Photographic Preservation and Collections Management from Ryerson University. This allowed Paul the opportunity to study and work at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, in Rochester, NY. He is a founding member of the Tintype Studio, a Toronto basedteamofwet-platecollodionphotographers. Paul is also the Archive and Print Manager for Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky.