Saturday, January 5, 2019

The Brownie and the mobile phone - surprising effects

In recent years, many of us have given a great deal of thought to how mobile phones have changed photography. To say that they've made photography widely available is an understatement. They've created new (often online) communities; for example, Facebook groups, Instagram, Flickr groups. There are also Meetup groups centering around mobile phone photography, and contests for, exhibitions of, and awards for mobile phone photography.

But this is not the first time that access to photography has expanded rapidly. A recent article by Eric Shewe (which summarizes an academic journal article by Marc Olivier) describes how, in 1900, Kodak's Brownie cameras - many of which use our lovely 127 film - increased access to photography as never before.

Shewe describes how Kodak introduced the first camera with easy-to-load film in 1888, but because of its expense, photography was still inaccessible to most people. The Brownie, at 4% of the price of Kodak's prior camera, "allowed women, children and the working classes to take pictures where, when, and how they wished." The parallel to the ubiquity of mobile phones seems clear.

The articles explain that the Brownie was named for fairy-tale sprites originating in Scottish folklore and popularized in a series of books and plays by Palmer Cox. (There is an image of an original advertisement for the Brownie, with the sprites looking at it and climbing on it, on p. 8 of Olivier's article).  Olivier saw Kodak's marketing of the Brownie as an attempt "to portray snapshot photography as a phenomenon both modern and magic" (p. 2) ... sound familiar?

Olivier also describes the beginnings of "snapshot culture" and Kodak's creation of the Brownie Club of America (p. 15) - although open only to children and younger teens, perhaps a in some sense forerunner to some of our contemporary online photography websites and groups.

Thanks to Mike Maguire for alerting me to Shewe's article!

1 comment:

  1. To be perfectly frank, photography has almost always been "widely" available. At least in the last 100 years or so. Cell-phones didn't really change this. What I don't understand is why almost everybody is now blindly snapping away with their phones, when they could have done that before with a camera, but they chose not to. What changed? I think it's the fact that people spend so much for their smart phones that they have to somewhat justify owning them by using them for more than just calling people. (Which is what a phone was invented to do.) My feelings about this phenomenon don't really go over too well, I suppose because a whole lot of people are in that position of having expensive phones which need to be used. I've been shooting film for over 40 years and find that cameras really work well for taking photographs. It's a no brainer.