The Camera Story (Gelatine Plates, Box Cameras and Silent Films)

The year 1871 was a momentous year in the history of the camera. It was a year that saw a discovery that would bring about far-reaching changes which would finally bring photography into the form we are familiar with today. This was the age of the collodion glass plate, the system which had established its supremacy over all previous methods. The process, particularly for the outdoor photographer, was an arduous one, but over the years professionals had begun to look with pride upon their skill and ability to coat their own plates. Amateurs were few and far between. The manipulations were much too laborious for the casual snapshotter to even think of taking up the art. Among the handful of people who took up the craft for pleasure were Julia Margaret Cameron who is known for her fresh, new approach so evident in her portraits of celebrities; while in America, Lewis Carroll (author of Alice in Wonderland) went on to experiment with children’s portraits using wet plate.

Then in 1871 came news of a discovery by an English doctor named Richard Leach Maddox who showed how gelatin could serve as a convenient substitute in place of collodion. A thick gelatin soup (or ‘emulsion’) containing silver bromide mixed in, when flowed over a sheet of glass astoundingly retained its sensitivity to light even after the plate had dried. What is more, this sensitivity, it was discovered, could be boosted several fold simply by pre-warming the emulsion (a process known as ripening), so that exposures in a camera need be now only in fractions of a second. Further, gelatin plates were found to have a stable ‘latent image’ : the image on the plate did not deteriorate with time, and could be developed several hours after camera exposure. These features, if exploited, would mean that the photographer would be finally freed from the burden of carrying around a darkroom tent and processing chemicals which had made picture taking such a drudgery all along.

Gelatine plates were a startling discovery; they seemed to possess all the properties that an ideal plate would seem to demand. Nonetheless, the new discovery did not find immediate application, for professionals, already used to collodion, were understandably reluctant to experiment with a new medium whose outcome seemed uncertain. Thus when George Eastman who was to later found the Kodak empire, first took up photography as a pastime in 1878, he took lessons from a local photographer who taught him the art of the collodion wet plate.

Eastman, then a young man of twenty four living in Rochester, had stumbled upon photography while planning a trip to Hispaniola. He spent a whole month’s salary on photographic kit and soon found himself so absorbed by the art that the trip was put off. Eastman now devoted as much time as he could to his new craft, but soon began to grow frustrated at the cumbersome load of equipment he had to carry around. In photography he had found his true calling but, as he was only too well aware, the process, painstaking in every detail, deterred even the most ambitious and enterprising individuals. He resolved he would set about making improvements “to make the camera as convenient as the pencil.”

Eastman had read of Maddox’s discovery and now turned his attention to gelatin dry plates hoping that the new invention would be simpler to work with. He found himself appalled with the enormous complexity of the process. Gelatine plates held great promise but as Eastman would soon discover, the process was still in its infancy and little headway had been made in his country in the field of emulsion manufacture and coating.

Eastman who worked as a clerk at the Rochester Savings Bank was a self-taught experimenter, and began to work preparing gelatin emulsions and perfecting a machine that would deposit an even layer of emulsion on a glass plate. The machine proved to be a success and Eastman took out a patent in 1879. Two years later the Eastman Dry Plate Company was set up in Rochester specializing in the manufacture of dry plates for cameras.

It will be helpful to review the developments that were taking place in the world of photography during this period. Eastman’s patent of a plate coating machine came at a time when most of the technical advancements were being made in Britain. In 1877, the English firm of Mawson & Swan (who later bought Eastman’s patent) had begun commercial production of dry plates, to be followed by the firm of Wratten & Wainwright, and the Britannia Works Company which was to later become Ilford Limited. The future of photography clearly lay in the new medium which was steadily seeing improvements each year.

Although the world stood poised on the brink of a revolution, the new invention did not seem to hold immediate appeal for the amateur. The landscape photographer still needed to carry a heavy ‘view’ camera, a tripod and a box of plates. He would set up his camera on the spot, focus on the ground glass using a dark cloth, insert a plate and make the exposure. Back in the darkroom, he developed his negative and printed the result on gelatin bromide paper which became available from about this time. Results were exceptionally good, but the camera manipulations were still much too cumbersome for the casual hobbyist to undertake the craft. For those looking for convenience, a compact form of a view camera was offered. Another innovation was the magazine plate camera which could be loaded with a number of plates, a handle when rotated lowering a plate after each successive exposure into a compartment below.

These cameras of the early twentieth century from the firm of
R. & J. Beck Ltd use sheet film, and are typical of the 'view'
cameras so common at that time.  

A folding camera from London, 1902

The pictures above show what 'view' and 'folding' cameras of the time were like. Eastman’s first step towards simplification of photography for the amateur was to develop film. The Eastman ‘stripping’ film which appeared in 1885 was a novel idea : it was made up of a band of paper on which was deposited a layer of gelatin emulsion. After exposure, the roll of paper was sent back to the company where the emulsion was floated off the paper support by soaking in water and transferred to a transparent support. The result was a negative as clear as a glass plate. Stripping film (also known as American film) was marketed in a special roll holder which adapted it to the view cameras then in use. The holder was the joint invention of Eastman and a camera maker William Walker, but the idea did not prove to be as popular as Eastman had imagined. The roll holder was after all an add-on accessory to an already bulky wooden camera; what was needed was a compact system where both the film and its winding mechanism were an integral part of the camera.

Success finally came in 1888 when Eastman came up with a new design of a camera that was to create a revolution in picture taking. The world’s first box camera cost twenty five dollars and was a rectangular shaped box small enough to be held in the hand which came factory-packed with a 6 meter roll of American film. Everything had been done to simplify matters for the snapshotter : the lens with an aperture of f/11 was pre-focussed to give sharp pictures of everything beyond 8 feet, and this together with a shutter set to 1/25 second gave a fully exposed picture in favourable outdoor light. Eastman's camera was thus a 'fair weather camera.' The roll of American film gave 100 circular pictures each 6 cm in diameter. After the roll was exposed the camera was sent to the Kodak factory where the film was unloaded, stripped from its paper base, processed, and the prints sent back to the owner with the camera reloaded with a fresh roll of film, all for a fee of only 10 dollars.

Eastman's camera was called the Kodak, a name coined by Eastman himself, and soon took the world by storm. All the user had to do was pull a string to tension the shutter, aim a V painted on the camera towards the subject, press the button and wind on the film by turning a key. So popular did the camera prove to be that by the end of 1888 a total of 13,000 pieces were sold. A whole new breed of amateur snapshotters emerged, encouraged by the company's catch-phrase: "You press the button—we do the rest." Photography had finally been simplified to the point where anyone with little or no knowledge of the subject could easily take a picture.

Other interesting developments soon followed. In 1889, the paper based emulsion was replaced with celluloid roll film. In 1892 the Boston Camera Company launched a box camera called the ‘Bull’s Eye’. Designed by Samuel Turner, the Bull’s Eye was the first camera to use film rolled in black paper with a red window at the back of the instrument to show numbers printed on the paper. When three years later Eastman introduced a compact box called the Pocket Kodak incorporating these features, he was required to pay royalties for using these innovations until August 21, 1895. Eastman's company went from strength to strength ; its founder went on to become a legend. Many of Eastman's cameras were designed by Frank Brownell, a camera designer who remained associated with the company for nearly seventeen years. At the turn of the century Brownell came up with a design that was to set a milestone in camera history. This was the Kodak 'Brownie' many of us are familiar with, a camera so simple even children could take pictures with it. A basic model shaped in the form of a rectangular box, the Brownie cost only 1 dollar giving a great boost to amateur photography. The general design of the camera proved to be outstanding, so much so that for several years to come the Brownie served as the standard on which other manufacturers based their own designs.

A Brownie Six - 20 camera made by
Kodak Limited, London.
Picture courtesy of James Mitchell 

The last few decades of the nineteenth century saw the most exciting developments taking place in the world of photography brought about by man’s inventive genius working on the new possibilities opened up by gelatin plates and films. Some of these discoveries would prove to be transient attractions, while others had far reaching implications.

Although from 1890 onwards Eastman’s new flexible roll film on cellulose base continued to find increasing application in cameras, it did not entirely displace the use of glass plates as a photographic medium. Plates with their generous size (a large sized plate would measure 8 inches by 10 inches) gave excellent print quality, and thus many photographers preferred plates and sheet films, retaining their use well into the twentieth century.

At the other end of the scale, manufacturers also made use of miniscule plates, often an inch across or even smaller, as the medium in a range of detective cameras which appeared in the 1880s and 1890s. Rarely used for espionage work, detective cameras were tiny, unobtrusive devices often disguised in the form of commonplace objects such as  a book, a ladies purse or vanity case, or even binoculars, and were designed so that the user could take pictures without the subject being aware. Detective cameras became very popular during the mid-1880s; they used ingenious arrangements to change plates between exposures, but with the exception of a few, most were unreliable in their operation and gave poor results. Lancaster’s advertised their ‘Watch Camera’ as a new departure in cameras ….  The camera when closed is exactly like an ordinary watch. The camera is opened in an instant by rotating button when a series of about half a dozen tubes instantly shoot out into position and by means of another spring an instantaneous exposure is made. The lens is a very rapid one and can be adjusted for taking portraits, groups or views….

The Kodak with its simplicity of operation held immediate appeal for the man unversed in photography. The ‘serious’ amateur on the other hand, wanted something more than a push-button device : he wanted a camera small enough to be carried around easily and yet offering the controls of a professional plate camera. The twin lens reflex  which first made an appearance in 1880 was a hand-camera with two lenses mounted one over the other; the lower took pictures while the upper one projected a view via a 45 degree mirror on a ground glass used for focusing, an arrangement clearly borrowed from the camera obscura. While the amateur preferred compact plate cameras, others found the convenience of the folding roll film camera irresistible. The folding camera which first appeared in 1895 was a collapsible camera with bellows and could be easily carried around in a large pocket. Some of the simpler models in this class were no better than box cameras with everything set for outdoor pictures in the sun, while better versions offered a choice of several stops and shutter speeds. With a range of models to choose from and with its unique feature of portability, the folding camera had come to stay, and would remain a favourite with the serious amateur for well over thirty years to come.

Other than the box camera which brought photography to the masses, Eastman’s roll film also paved the way for one of the greatest inventions of all time—the motion picture. Early moving-picture devices were fascinating little toys known by such names as Phenakisticopes, Zoetropes, and Praxiniscopes, often involving rotating drums with a series of animated drawings clipped on the interior which when rotated presented the viewer, peering through a slit, with an illusion of movement. With the coming of dry plates and films, instantaneous exposures in fractions of a second became possible and many inventors busied themselves in trying to record and analyse movement.

Thomas Edison, working on the problem using Eastman’s roll film, invented a motion picture camera he called the Kinetograph, taking pictures on 35mm film introduced by himself. Edison believed that the idea of using motion picture film for public performance on a screen held no future, and in 1893 he put out the Kinetoscope, a one-man peepshow device for fun-fairs and parks with an endless band of film within which presented a short performance to the viewer when a coin was dropped in a slot.

Meanwhile in France the Lumiere brothers, using the newly introduced films, were experimenting on the very idea that Edison had rejected. They invented a camera-cum-projection machine, and in 1895 gave their first demonstration of a projection of their first fifty feet film, "Lunch Hour at the Lumiere Factory." The age of silent films had begun.

Ravindra Bhalerao