- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 6, 2000


His heart thumping, 10-year-old Douglas Kirkland steadied the old Brownie box camera while his parents posed by a neighbor's house aglow with holiday lights. "Click-clock" went the shutter, and the boy smiled with delight.

The occasion sticks in Mr. Kirkland's mind even now because that cold Christmas Day in 1944 got him started down an exhilarating road as a professional photographer.

Though the snapshot is lost, the family heirloom used to capture it survives, held snugly together with an elastic band.

The Brownie was his first "fantasy machine," a camera that, more than any other before the 1960s, captured the everyday world of the 20th century in pictures.

Eastman Kodak Co. came out with the Brownie a century ago. Priced at $1 the equivalent of about $20 today it transformed photography from an arcane pursuit into a hobby for the masses.

Bought by tens of millions of people, the point-and-shoot contraption was designed simply enough for anyone to use, even children. Through 1910, its cardboard exterior was adorned with Canadian author Palmer Cox's "brownie" elves the most famous cartoon characters of the day.

"I consider the Brownie the most important camera of the 20th century, just like the Model-T is the most important automobile of the 20th century," said Todd Gustavson, curator of the technology collection at George Eastman House.

"Once the Brownie came along, just about anybody who wanted to own a camera could. It starts to really allow families to document their history."

The world's oldest museum of photography, housed since 1949 in Kodak founder George Eastman's Colonial Revival mansion, is staging its first exhibition devoted to the Brownie.

"The Brownie at 100" opened May 13 and runs until Nov. 5. It features many of the 120 Brownie models, from the first to roll off the production line, in February 1900, to the Fiesta R4, the last Brownie model, made from 1962 to 1970.

In between were Brownies with supplemental names like Hawkeye, Target and Vecta, some with integrated flash or lenses that folded inside the box, some in colors other than generic black, some larger than the palm-size standards that produced 2 and 1/4-square-inch prints.

While a few famous photos were taken with Brownies notably the 1954 Pulitzer Prize-winning shot of a truck hanging perilously off a bridge near Redding, Calif. the bulk were snapshots destined for photo albums or shoe boxes.

This was an entry-level camera designed to take average pictures in average light. But all the way through the Depression and World War II, it was often the only camera in a household and therefore precious. Months might go by before all six or eight exposures on a roll were used up.

Still, Brownie scenes didn't have the stiff, staged look of formal portraits taken in the 19th century. With the growth of popular photography came spontaneity.

"You see a lot more pictures of pets, little kids running around and just goofy things," said Kathy Connor, curator of the George Eastman Collection. "Now you could have fun with photography a little bit more because it was less expensive."

Eastman's revolutionary "Kodak" camera in 1888 had dispensed with heavy glass plate negatives and came pre-loaded with flexible cellulose film. But the $25 cost, equivalent to six weeks' wages, was prohibitive.

Kodak sold only 900,000 cameras in 51 models up to 1900. In the Brownie's first year, 150,000 of them were snapped up, and 8 million by 1920. In 1930, Kodak held a virtual monopoly on the industry, and Eastman gave away 500,000 Brownie cameras to children turning 12.

The marketing maestro's goal, of course, was to draw more people into photography and profit from film, photofinishing and more expensive cameras.

Nowadays, "anytime anybody goes to just about anyplace in this country, they take a camera with them," Mr. Gustavson said. "If the Brownie hadn't come along, that probably wouldn't have been the case."

In the 1960s the Brownie was displaced by mass-market cameras that could take 24 and 36 pictures per roll. From 1963 to 1970, Kodak sold more than 50 million Instamatics. Kodak also got competition from Polaroid cameras, which produced instant snapshots.

Generations of famous photographers from Ansel Adams onward got their start with a Brownie. Those were the days when taking a photograph was still a big deal.

"We'd dress up in our best clothes, and there was an enormous excitement associated with it," Mr. Kirkland said.

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