Standing on the edge of a cliff, I took my time setting up my tripod and camera in anticipation of a sunset. The light would soon be bathing the mountains in front of me, illuminating the confluence of the Indus and Zanskar rivers. One of the most beautiful sights my eyes had ever seen, the two tributaries have very distinct colors at the place where they join. The Indus is jade green, while the Zanskar has cyan blue hues. I had big plans for capturing the magic of this place in a photograph. After futzing around with my gear for a while, I had my composition and focus set. All I had to do was press the shutter when the time was right.
As I waited, I peered over the edge and saw a group of off-duty paramilitary servicemen taking selfies with their backs to the scene. They were capturing the moment using nothing but the cameras on their smartphones. The irony wasn’t lost on me. Here I was, standing high above, with a camera rig that cost as much as a second-hand sedan, waiting for the perfect light as I took great care to keep my own shadow out of the frame. And there they were, recording the same moment with faint regard for the quality of the light or the image itself. Instead, they were letting the chips figure it all out as they strained to document their own presence.
That moment reinforced for me the extent to which the iPhone had changed not just the act of photography, but the very notion of photos. Before other smartphones followed suit, it marked the introduction of a new language and the beginning of a new volume in the annals of visual communication.
Photography as we know it has been around for about 150 years, though its origins can be traced to earlier civilizations. But it has never been so visceral, and so much a part of our daily lives, as it is now. In short, the arc of photography’s history is that it has always been about getting more and more people to take photographs. Our desire to know more about ourselves means we must have more of them, more often, in more places, and of many more things. Whether it was new chemicals or new film or new sensors, technological advances in this area have — by and large — been about making it simpler for us to capture the moment. All of it has brought us to today, when we have quietly passed the cultural tipping point where taking a photo is as second nature as breathing. There’s no art to it. It is just something we are always doing.
In many ways, the iPhone reminds me of another groundbreaking camera: the Brownie. Launched at the turn of the last century, the original Brownie was the catalyst of change that helped us record our own history — exactly what those servicemen were doing more than a century later as I labored at my art.
For a very long time, photography was confined to the very wealthy. They were the only ones who could afford to spend money to have professional photographers preserve their likenesses for posterity on expensive plates.
It all changed in the 1880s, when George Eastman, a bank clerk and photography enthusiast, created what would become the forefather of film. His invention allowed photography to escape the limitations imposed by complicated cameras and laboratories. Eastman went on to start a company, Eastman Kodak, which would redefine photography.
Before Kodak, there had been professional photographers, who made photos for commercials or sit-down portraits on glass plates. There were amateur enthusiasts, who pursued creative and fine art photography. Kodak, on the other hand, appealed to a third category: The snapshotter — someone who wanted to take photos without any pretensions of art or professionalism.
Eastman had a knack for marketing. Through his company’s advertising campaigns, he introduced the idea of informal photography to the masses. “In our grandparents’ times, picture taking meant long sittings in uncomfortable, strained attitudes — with success always more or less in doubt,” read one advertisement. “There was an excuse in the old days for not having pictures taken at frequent intervals. But today, clever photographers in comfortable studios with fast plates and fast lenses at their command, make the experience a pleasure. And you owe this satisfaction to yourself and to your friends.”
The film allowed new camera designs to emerge, the first of which was the Kodak single-body camera, which had enough film in it to capture 100 photos. “The Kodak combines in one compact instrument all the attributes of a view or hand camera,” the company boasted. The first Kodak camera cost anywhere between $5 to $35, which was still a lot of money at the end of the nineteenth century (between $150 to $1059 in today’s dollars). Released in 1898, it is said to have sold around 15,000 units – quite a substantial number for that era. More significant than the sales was the effect it had on the public’s approach to photography. Suddenly, people were bringing the camera into places where they could not have lugged its heavy, clunky predecessors.
The camera that took this one giant leap further, arguably changing the human relationship with photos and visual communication, was a humble, innocuous little brown box known as “The Brownie.” Designed by Eastman Kodak engineer Frank Brownell, it was made out of cardboard, wrapped in cheap imitation leather, and secured with nickel fittings. While it sounds unremarkable by today’s standards, it was something to marvel at the turn of the twentieth century.
Eastman wanted people to pop in a film cartridge, look through the viewfinder, and turn a switch to capture the photo. It was spectacular in its simplicity and ease of use, and it was perfectly geared toward a new category of photographers. “Any boy or girl can make good pictures with a Brownie,” an early advertisement for the product claimed. Like any ad, it was an exaggeration, but not a huge one. The Brownie had drastically and undoubtedly simplified the photography experience.
The first Brownie cost one dollar. A film cartridge cost even less — about 15 cents, which would be roughly a dollar in today’s money. Its portability and affordability gave popular photography a jump start. Eastman Kodak sold about 150,000 Brownies, which was a jaw-dropping number at the time, and they would go on to sell millions of variants over the course of eight decades. Eastman become a millionaire many times over. Photography, meanwhile, became common.
No camera has democratized photography as much as the Brownie. Photojournalism, street photography, and even fashion photography all became preeminent because of this little brown box. In fact, much of what we know about our cultural history from the early twentieth century can be traced back to this cheap-and-cheerful camera.
Prior to the Brownie, a photo trip to capture a far-flung environment was an expedition that often involved porters, mules, and explosions. The adventurous photographer would need to carry heavy gear, lots of toxic chemicals, and the patience to deal with an inexact process. Contrast that with the Brownie: a box measuring roughly five inches on each side. After it came along, it was almost as if anyone could take pictures anywhere.
In 1912, Bernice Palmer was carrying her Brownie on board the RMS Carpathia. She had recently turned 17, and had received the camera as a birthday gift. When the Carpathia was diverted for a rescue mission, Palmer’s photos of the iceberg that sunk the Titanic and passengers who were rescued became the only recorded images of that early tragedy.
Just as the Brownie was not the first portable camera, the iPhone wasn’t the first phone that let people take pictures. It wasn’t even the best camera phone when it was launched. That honor went to Nokia, which felt particularly proud of its N95 phone, designed to resemble a point-and-shoot camera.
But what both the Brownie and the iPhone accomplished went beyond technology. Separated by almost 100 years, they were decidedly utilitarian. The Brownie put photography in the hands of amateurs, and so has the iPhone.
They each contributed to the rise of the informal photograph in their respective eras. With the Brownie, people were taking the camera out to the beach, on cruise ships, and to other vacation destinations. Of course, the smartphone is even more portable. We are all carrying one now, and we have the ability to make pictures immediately wherever we are and share them almost simultaneously.
My own personal journey in the world of photography began with the iPhone. I didn’t even know that I could create photos until it came into my life. For about seven years, my iPhone was my only camera. Everything I knew about photography, I learned on that device. It wasn’t until March 2015, after nearly eight years of owning an iPhone, that I would buy a “real camera.” The Brownie was transformative in exactly the same way, acting as a gateway camera for many and allowing those with even just a passing interest to produce decent photos — at least, most of the time.
Photographers bemoaned the rise of the Brownie, just as they do its modern-day equivalent. “It’s really weird,” said Antonio Olmos, a London-based photographer, in a late 2013 conversation with The Guardian. “Photography has never been so popular, but it’s getting destroyed. There have never been so many photographs taken, but photography is dying.” His reasoning? “The iPhone has a crap lens. You can take a beautiful picture on the iPhone and blow it up for a print and it looks terrible.”
A century apart, many professionals still miss the point. Photography is about people and their creation of their own narratives. As Dr. Michael Pritchard, President of the U.K-based Royal Photographic Society, said in an interview, “The Brownie was transformative because it allowed people to take photographs, get decent results most of the time and then share those photographs through the family album, in a way it was much quicker and simpler to do without having any technical knowledge.”
The professional photographers often get caught up in the technology, forgetting that how people engage with image making is just as important, if not more so. It should also be acknowledged that casual photographers are the ones who have given the industry its much needed scale, helping further the development of new technologies.
Informality can foster information. The snapshots enabled by the proliferation of the Brownie captured much more about people than would otherwise have been revealed. People started taking photos of the everyday — babies, neighborhood scenes, and family gatherings. If you look at Instagram, people are generally doing the same thing, with a few obvious exceptions. It would be a while before everyone felt compelled to photograph their food.
The lives of the underprivileged became increasingly documented as the number of photographs taken each day started to increase dramatically, a trend that has yet to let up. The smartphone is part of that trajectory. Throughout the world, millions of people with smartphones — despite living in regions where analog cameras failed make inroads for more than a century — are now taking and sharing photos of their communities. Like the snapshots taken with Brownies back in the day, these casual photographs will become cornerstones of our historical understanding of ourselves.
“Brownie changed people’s relationship with photography, and then what happened to those pictures, and it did change people’s relationship with themselves, with their family, and their friends,” said Dr. Pritchard, the author of A History of Photography in 50 Cameras. “Brownie changed people’s awareness of the visual world because of the things were being recorded and shown in a way that hadn’t been done before.”
The Brownie also moved the conversation away from the quality of the image. Photography became less about aesthetics, and more about the moment, the snapshot, and the feeling. The iPhone, with its “crap lens,” has done the same.
Neither device was necessarily built for the sake of disrupting the art of image taking. The Brownie was built to sell film. The iPhone’s camera was built, improved, and advertised to sell the phone. But Apple quickly realized that photography, as something that connected with humans at an emotional level, was the killer app for the iPhone. That insight has paid off handsomely. Brownie certainly hastened the demise of the old-fashioned photography, but the smartphone cameras really made a meal of the demand for consumer standalone cameras. Erstwhile giants, such as Nikon and Canon, have been left to fight over scraps.
Of course, I was grateful to have reserved a few of those scraps — which, as I mentioned, are not cheap — for myself as I stood there at the intersection of the Indus and the Zanskar. But I could see the appeal of what we might as well call the Brownie 2.0, as one serviceman held up his iPhone to snap a picture of himself with all his friends and maybe just a bit of the confluence in the background. It is portable, attainable, so simple that a child (not to mention a grown man, even when not paying full attention) can operate it – and most importantly, a whole lot of fun. George Eastman would be proud.