TCS Daily

Our Lives in Snapshots

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - January 21, 2004 12:00 AM

There is an old suitcase sitting in a room above our garage in Ligonier, Pa. It's one of those old cardboard suitcases with a "leatherette" covering. They used to be called "Please-don't-rain" suitcases. It belonged to my grandmother, Alice McDonald, and it is full of photographs.

It is a precious family archive, and it is there largely thanks to a simple little box camera called the Kodak Brownie. That trove of photographs and the little camera that took most of them came to mind when I read a Wall Street Journal headline, "Ending Era, Kodak Will Stop Selling Most Film Cameras."

Eastman Kodak Co. is bowing to the growing eminence of filmless digital photography. The company built the first prototype digital camera back in 1976 and is now one of the biggest sellers of digital cameras in the U.S. But it has been losing money on its film camera business for several years. Kodak plans to stop selling reloadable film-based cameras in the United States, Canada and Europe by the end of this year. They will still sell film cameras in markets where demand is strong and growing -- Eastern Europe, India, China and Latin America. But Kodak's move is dramatic evidence that the age of digital photography is here.

Up until 1888, photography (which had been around since the 1820s) was largely the province of professionals or wealthy amateurs. Equipment was bulky and expensive. The taking and developing of pictures took a lot of time and dedication. Both the preparation of photographic plates and the development of the pictures were tedious and messy. Incidental photography was virtually unknown among the masses.

Then, George Eastman brought out the first Kodak camera and began to popularize photography. "You press the button -- we do the rest," was the slogan that launched a revolution. But Eastman's cameras were relatively expensive and photography still seemed technically daunting to most people.

Then, in 1900, a man at Eastman Kodak named Frank A. Brownell designed and produced a simple box camera. Although it employed low-cost materials, it was extremely well made. It wasn't brown. It was black -- about half the size of a shoebox, with a hole in one end for the "meniscus" lens. It was named for the sprightly cartoon characters that were then as ubiquitous as Mickey Mouse is today -- the little Brownies created by author/illustrator Palmer Cox. The Cox Brownies were used in the initial advertising and promotion of the camera.

It was an instant hit. 150,000 Brownies were sold the first year at a dollar apiece. They were the precursors of many millions. The impact of this cheap, reliable little camera on American life and eventually on the whole world is difficult to overstate. Now everybody could take pictures.

The 20th century would be the photographed century. We would know not just what Herbert Hoover wore at his inauguration, or Charles Lindbergh at his child's kidnapping trial -- but what grandma's winter coat looked like, and Uncle Ed's hunting outfit, and what we looked like that day when we were eight years old and went sled riding. A record of private life unparalleled in all of history would be produced in little rectangles -- snapshots 8, 12 and 24 at a time.

The term "snapshot" -- an old hunting term for a shot taken suddenly and without careful aim -- was first applied to photography around the time of the American Civil War (the first fully photographed war). But it wasn't until the advent of the Kodak Brownie and its many imitators that the term became a household word.

The musty pile of photos in my grandmother's suitcase puts the Brownie in complete historical context. There are early studio photographs from the late 1870s and 1880s, those stiff, formal portraits so common at the time. Men and women in their best suits and dresses sit in a chair or stand by some pedestal or floral display, every hair in place, collars neatly starched, jewelry carefully arranged. Serious looking babies in baptismal gowns repose regally on ornate pillows or a padded wicker chair.

There are family portraits -- everyone gathered on a lawn and on the front porch in the background -- the shot taken by a professional photographer hired for the occasion. There are other posed shots, taken before and during World War I, showing my mother, her sister and two brothers. In those days, itinerate photographers still plied city streets and country roads in equipment laden wagons, offering to make portrait or "novelty" photos. They usually had costumes and props and a pony or donkey in tow.

One favorite from the suitcase was taken on the street in North Braddock, Pa., in front of my grandmother's house, probably about 1914. A pony dutifully and docilely holds my Uncle George, all got up in a cowboy outfit provided by the photographer. Seated behind him in their best Sunday School dresses, with ribbons in their hair, are his two sisters, Virginia (my mother) and Inez.

But these posed photos are almost lost in the suitcase amid a sea of snapshots -- hundreds of them. These are the photos that really give life to those of my family now long gone. I never knew my Grandfather McDonald, who died in the great Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918. But there he is in a straw hat and rumpled suit, necktie blown in the wind as he squints in the sunlight and holds a fat baby (my Uncle Robert) on some summer outing long ago. There's my mom and my aunt, little girls during World War I, dressed in nurses' outfits and holding tiny American flags.

I remember my mother telling me of a particularly "happy afternoon" when she was about 12 and won a cake as a prize at a church picnic. There in the suitcase, I found a picture of her in a calico dress, smiling and holding the cake.

One of our favorite family stories when I was a kid centered on my grandmother's brother, Walter, who was a plumber in North Braddock. He had a Model T Ford truck he called "Old Faithful." It was filled with his plumbing tools and pipes and fittings and he drove it all over the East Pittsburgh area plying his trade.

He liked to fit its tires into the grooves of the streetcar tracks along Braddock Avenue because it made for a smooth ride along the old brick pavement. One day, the Model T stalled on the tracks in the midst of rainstorm. Walter was trying to get the Ford started (his nephew was out front cranking it) when a streetcar came up behind him. The conductor clanged his bell and shouted at the immobile "T." The bell kept clanging until Walter, exasperated, leaned out of the truck's seat, looked back at the conductor and yelled, "Go around me, damn ya,' go around me!"

I always loved that story, although Walter was only a dim memory to me. He lived with us during World War II and died when I was 5 years old. But in the suitcase I found a little black album of snapshots with captions penciled in. "Uncle Walter and Old Faithful," read one caption. There was the redoubtable Model T truck and a brawny, middle-aged Walter in his work coveralls with one foot on the running board.

I know, we've all had similar experiences -- those shoeboxes or drawers or overstuffed albums filled with snapshots, some of them blurry, some of them at cockeyed angles, some almost incomprehensible close-ups. But there they are, frozen in time -- at a barbecue, at the old swimming hole, on the walk in front of the little house, on a tricycle or a horse or a post-and-rail fence -- the people we have known, loved, hated, wondered about.

Of course we are going to continue to take pictures of our post-prom parties, class trips, family picnics, fishing expeditions, cruises, soccer games, bike outings, day trips to the mountains -- you name it. And the pictures will probably be better composed, because digital gives us a chance to check and reject the photos almost as we take them.

Indeed, the digital capacity we now have lets us "enhance" pictures, obviate poor lighting, even eliminate someone from a picture later. What you originally saw may not always be what you eventually get. Which brings us back to these old film photos of girls mugging at slumber parties, soldiers posing in their new dress uniforms, Mom in the garden or Dad under the hood of the '67 Camaro. There is an innate, even embarrassing honesty to them.

It may not be great photography, but it's a real and priceless record nonetheless. I mean, let's face it, we're not Ansel Adams. And by the way, back in June 1916, Ansel Adams was a young boy on a trip to Yosemite with his parents. They gave him his first camera and he promptly began shooting the wonders he saw around him. He climbed up on a huge tree stump so he could get a clear shot of the magnificent rock face of Half Dome off in the distance. Just as he was composing the shot in his viewfinder, the rotting stump gave way. Adams tumbled head over heels. On the way down he pressed the button on the camera.

When the film developer in Yosemite Village asked the boy how it was that one picture on his film strip -- a shot of Half Dome with sunlit clouds above it -- happened to be upside down, Adams explained his inadvertent tumble.

Take a look at that shot of Half Dome (it's right here and click on "Brownie Stories" and then click on "Read the stories"). It's not bad. And it was taken with a Brownie.


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