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26 June, 2013
The "Brownie"
Yesterday, I discussed some of the names and chemistry from the distant past that went into making photography the "people's art"--an artform everyone in the civilised world can use to create and enjoy. Thanks to these persistent pioneers, anyone who can aim through a viewfinder and press a button can, if not create art, at least capture the moment. And thanks to Edwin Land, who pioneered today's Polaroid technology, the results of that effort can be held in your hand in about a minute. And with cutting edge digital photography or video tape, you can view your creative genius in mere seconds. Talk about your instant gratification. Can you recall the first time you ever held a Polaroid print; or peered into the back of a digital camera and gasped in amazement as the image slowly appeared on the tiny, colour, LCD screen? Showing this to someone who has never seen a digital before is one of the great joys of owning one. Louis Robert or Louis Daguerre, if not rolling over in their graves, must surely be blinking their eyes in amazement.

As much as we owe these two men, and others, their efforts, despite some commercial applications, were largely along the line of what we could call to day, "basic research." The man who really put photography in the hands of the common man was George Eastman. And the marvellous little gadget which he used to do it is today, one hundred years old. He called it the "Brownie." The name originally came from Canadian author Palmer Cox's "Brownie" elves, cartoon characters that once adorned the plain little cardboard box camera. The first Brownie camera cost just one dollar (the equivalent of $20 today) and came already loaded with film allowing approximately six to eight exposures. Once the pictures were taken, you mailed the whole thing back to Eastman Kodak for processing. In a week or two, you got back your photos and an identical camera once more loaded and ready to go. And while this system went a long way in "democratising" and popularising photography, one didn't exactly go around snapping off pictures of any momentary creative impulse. You were creating precious, documentary treasures. People dressed up in their Sunday best, squinted into the bright sun, posed stiffly in neat little rows, and "said cheese." Click-Clock.

Improvements came quickly, more film, wooden cameras you could load and unload yourself (the post office must have been grateful for that development), better lenses, faster film, faster shutters, flash attachments, bigger pictures, colour pictures, plastic cameras, flash cubes, flash bars, built in flash, and always, lower and lower prices (adjusted for inflation, of course). Their names were as colourful as the pictures they took--Hawkeye, Target, Vecta, and the last Brownie, the Fiesta R4, which was made in 1970. By that time the best cameras were no longer made in America nor bore the totally fabricated name, "Kodak."

The 35 mm format invaded, first from Germany, aimed at "serious" photographers, then in ever greater numbers and ever more simplified forms from Japan with names like Nikon, Yashica, Minolta, and Canon aimed at everyone (and everything) else. And while the loveable old Brownies were quite simple to operate, it was very easy to take bad pictures at the click of a button. I know, I did so with several of them. Today's "brainy" cameras with their high-speed, highly forgiving, colour film, which have long since replaced the Brownies, we call "idiot cameras" (any idiot can use one and seldom take a "bad" picture). While years ahead in design and technology, they somehow just don't seem nearly as friendly, loveable, or wholesome as that which Eastman wrought. So from a nostalgic artist who created his first "art" with a Kodak Brownie--Happy Birthday, old buddy, you don't look a day over sixty!

Contributed by Lane, Jim
27 May 2000

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