Cameras That Made History- Part II

By Paul Sergeant Back to

O-Series Leica, Paul Sergeant, George Eastman O-Series Leica

This is the second installment of a two part series that describes unique objects held within the collection of George Eastman House. This section reviews cameras of the 20th Century. All images are shot by Barbara Galasso and used with the permission of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film, Rochester, NY.

O-Series Leica
It was a simple idea, a small reliable pocket camera to take on hikes and photograph the beautiful landscapes encountered. This is what Oskar Barnack had intended to design and produce in the early 20th Century. During this time the most common camera size was 5×7, which usually required a tripod and a variety of other equipment, not the ideal camera to take out on a hike. In 1913 when Barnack was working in the experimental department of microscope maker Ernst Leitz Optical Works,he began to design and hand build several prototypes of a small precision camera that produced 24 x 36mm images on left over pieces of 35mm motion picture stock.

The camera is the O-Series Leica, serial number 109; it is one of three known examples with the original Newton viewfinder. The resulting cameras changed the way a photographer could capture unique moments. It allowed for the highest quality photographs to be taken in the easiest, least obtrusive way. Before long photographers such as Alfred Eisenstadt and Henri Cartier-Bresson were using Leicas to capture such iconic scenes of street life in Paris and V-J Day kisses in Times Square.

This camera was the first in a long line of small, reliable cameras that allowed photographers unprecedented freedom to photograph what they wanted, when they wanted. This camera paved the way for future generations of cameras with names such as Contax, Canon and Nikon. This camera and its compact format helped develop a new type of photographer and photograph, giving it a place in camera history.

Lunar Orbiter Camera. George Eastman, Paul Sergeant
Lunar Orbiter Camera

Lunar Orbiter Camera payload-1967
NASA’s Lunar Orbiter Program was developed in the early 1960’s to photographically map the entire surface of the moon. The intent was to aid in the site selection for the planned lunar landings of the Apollo space program. The Eastman Kodak Company was awarded a major subcontract to develop a photographic system for the mission. Their design was for a 65mm film media for image capture, which incorporated two lenses and onboard film processor that used the Kodak Bimat process to eliminate the use of ‘wet’ chemicals in the development. It utilized a scanner and video system.

The photograph would be taken and then the film developed and electronically scanned. The negative images would be transmitted as analog video to ground receiving stations back home on earth. The images were then written back to film and shipped to Kodak in Rochester, NY for the final reconstruction process. Kodak built a total of eight subsystems, five of which made the one-way trip aboard an Orbiter spacecraft between 1966 and 1967. The apparatus in the pictured image was originally unfinished, since by the time it was built it was no longer needed. It was donated later to George Eastman House.

This camera is different than the previous ones mentioned in this series, and it is for that reason it has been included in this historical overview of photographic technology. This is a very unique object, essentially an entire photographic studio packed into one camera. Not only that, but it sent the images it photographed back to Earth. It was also responsible for capturing the first image of Earth from the vicinity of the moon. It may not have been something that the everyday photographer could use, but it did allow everyone to view images never seen before, thus changing the history of the photograph, as we knew it then.

Polaroid SX-70 Land Camera, George Eastman House, Paul Sergeant, photo technique
SX-70 Land Camera

SX-70 Land Camera
Introduced in 1972, the SX-70, a folding, motorized SLR, was unlike any camera ever seen before. “The most amazing camera ever produced” even appeared on the cover of LIFE magazine.

Its un-camera-like bizarre design was a leap for- ward into the unknown, and it was even quite elegant, as the camera resembled a leather case when closed. The film pack was also an extraordinary piece of engineering and design. All you had to do was unwrap the flat pack and simply insert it into the camera base. The film pack contained its own battery that powered the print eject motor, electronics and flashbar. Once the shutter button was pressed a quiet whir would follow as the camera pushed out the picture. An image would slowly begin to appear on the blank white sheet, and after a minute or two the image would be fully developed. There was no concern about the peel-off waste or chemical residue of Polaroids from the past. Everything was contained within the print and only activated when the whirring motor squeezed it through a pair of rollers. This amazing piece of technology was available for a list price of $180.

Although not the first Polaroid camera model to be introduced, the SX-70 did offer something that no other camera could at the time: an image that developed, appearing right before your eyes as you held the small square print. It revolutionized the photographic process and allowed you to share your photograph with anyone almost instantaneously. It produced a new and engaging form of photography that has never been duplicated.

Sasson Digital Camera, Paul Sergeant, George Eastman House, photo technique
Sasson Digital Camera

Sasson Digital Camera
In the early 1970’s, a young engineer working for the Eastman Kodak Company was given the task of building a complete camera system using an electronic sensor. It was known as a charge- coupled device, or CCD, to capture optical information and digitally store the captured images. Steven J. Sasson was this young engineer who predicted that new digital technologies might impact the way photographs are taken in the future. Compared to today’s cameras, this prototype was primitive. The CCD provided by a Fairchild Semiconductor produced .01 megapixels and consisted of black and white optical information.

Sasson constructed his camera with this CCD and Kodak movie parts, other commercially available components, and circuitry of his own design to produce the world’s first digital camera in 1975.

His camera weighed more than eight pounds and measured roughly the same size as a toaster, not quite a personal portable camera that people had grown accustomed to.

This box of a camera required 23 seconds to record an image to cassette tape and another 23 seconds for the image to be read from the tape to a stand-alone playback unit for display on a TV screen. However, Sasson’s groundbreaking research helped introduce digital technology in camera and photography systems and claimed for Eastman Kodak Company its first digital camera patent in 1978. Although it took a few more decades for the digital camera to pop up everywhere, it was thanks to this original idea and prototype that we have the luxury today of creating digital photographs, wherever and whenever we want them. This camera has by far had the greatest effect on camera technology and the way in which images are disseminated.

This concludes our look at some cameras and camera systems that changed how we look at the world. Many of these technologies evolved and then died to become recognized now as museum pieces and specialized processes, such as the daguerreotype. Others such as Kodak, Polaroid and early digital cameras have also enjoyed immense success but then later succumbed to changing technologies.

One thing that has remained constant is our enjoyment of the medium─we still love to take pictures of each other─of family and friends─at weddings, at birthday parties─but today we do it with our iPhone or a much advanced digital camera, and many people do not print, but post our images. We have come a long way in photography, and the story is not over yet.

This selection of cameras does not do justice to the massive collection of photographic technology of George Eastman House. If you are interested in the other spectacular objects held within the Museum not mentioned here, please visit them in Rochester, NY, or check out their Curator of Technology, Todd Gustavson’s new publication, Camera. This excellent book gives a detailed listing of the major camera collection and was a valuable resource for the creation of this series.

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.