Kodak and the Rise of Amateur Toy Photography

Hobby Toy Photography can find it’s roots in Kodak’s 1929 Picture Contest. From representations of boxing rings, lounging dolls and scenic expanses, toy photography spread as cameras came into the hands of the masses. The only place, currently, that 18 of these 19 images are published on the web.

The Background

I began researching the rise of amateur photography, with the Kodak cameras available to the everyday person. This led me to this article – An Amateur Snapshot of Kodak’s Early Days and the featured image of this post.

Mrs. W. W. Blanton Still Life: Shot on a Kodak 3A Autographic Special. The photographer, who lived in Riverside, Md., won a $5 prize. 1929.

A toy photograph in Kodak’s 1929 Picture Contest. I needed to know more. A picture contest with cash prizes, cameras in the hands of regular people, and at least one toy photograph in the mix.

So I looked up Kodak Historical Collection at the Rush Rhees Library, as referenced at the end of the article linked above, and got in contact with Andrea. I owe her the utmost gratitude for her help on this. She went through the Still Life sections of each of the 4 Kodak Historical Collection’s bound volumes and sent me images she found of miniatures and toys from each volume. 19 images total – 15 from 1929, 2 from 1931, and 2 from 1939.

This number is so much more than I expected! My expectations were low. A handful at most. But people were stretching their creative juices with toys for this picture competition.

From Possibly the First Toy Photos in 1898 to a Thriving Hobby by 1929

“In just fifty years, photography had run the gamut from scientific wonder to lucrative profession, from respected art form to widespread hobby.”

You Press the Button, We do the Rest: The Birth of Snapshot Photography, Colin Ford and Karl Steinorth, Dirk Nielson Publishing, National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, 1988

In these pictures from the Library of Congress, and from these images here, we know people were pointing their cameras at toys as early as 1898. But was it a hobby, a passion, something people were practicing on the regular? I can’t quite give you that answer, unless there’s some sort of written account, someone someday stumbles upon, from the photographers later on in this post. Nevertheless, for 19 toy images to exist within the confines of the Kodak Picture Contest, we know that toy photography was a hobby practiced by a large chunk of people (as others dabbling with toy photography would have also likely existed without having submitted their images).

Snapshot Photography

“In 1853 the New York Daily Tribune estimated that three million daguerreotypes were being produced that year. Some of these pictures were the product of knowledge and skill and sensibility and invention; many were the product of accident, improvisation, misunderstanding, and empirical experiment. But whether produced by art or by luck, each picture was part of a massive assault on our traditional habits of seeing.”

-Charles Baudelaire, “Salon de 1859,” translated by Johnathan Mayne for The Mirror of Art, Critical Studies by Charles Baudelaire. London: Phaidon Press, 1955. (Quoted by On Photography, A Source Book of Photo History in Facsimile, edited by Beaumont Newhall. Watkins Glen, N.Y.: Century House, 1956, as quoted by THE PHOTOGRAPHER’S EYE, NEW YORK GRAPHIC SOCIETY, THE MUSEUM OF MODERN ART, JOHN SZARKOWSKI, 1966

Since photography’s invention, snapshot (amateur, hobby) photography has existed. However, at photography’s onset, knowledge of the photographic process was required to make and process the negatives and prints. The process was also quite cost prohibitive, and photos required long exposure times. Enter Kodak.

Kodak Cameras

“By far the most significant event in the history of amateur photography was the introduction of the Kodak #1 camera in 1888. Invented and marketed by George Eastman (1854–1932), a former bank clerk from Rochester, New York, the Kodak was a simple box camera that came loaded with a 100-exposure roll of film. When the roll was finished, the entire machine was sent back to the factory in Rochester, where it was reloaded and returned to the customer while the first roll was being processed.”

Kodak and the Rise of Amateur Photography, Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mia Fineman, October 2004

The Kodak #1 was released in 1888, making photography more accessible to the general public in that they didn’t need to know much about photography. “You Press the Button, We Do the Rest.” With Kodak’s early cameras, you’d be sent a camera loaded with film, and when done, send the whole camera back to Kodak for the photos to be developed and a new roll of film loaded. However, the #1 sold for $25 when it was released, that’s $2619 today when counting for inflation. In 1895 came the Pocket Camera for $5, which calculates to about $160 today. 1898, the Folding Pocket Camera, $10, $324 today. 1900, the Brownie, $1, $32 today.

Other versions of these cameras were released later and prices fluctuated throughout the years, but all in all, the everyday person, if they had a bit of money, was now able to take pictures of their everyday lives.

“By 1898, just ten years after the first Kodak was introduced, one photography journal estimated that over 1.5 million roll-film cameras had reached the hands of amateur shutterbugs.”

Kodak and the Rise of Amateur Photography, Department of Photographs, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Mia Fineman, October 2004

“It is this which makes 1888, the year the Kodak came into being, worth remembering for more than the birth of snapshot photography. It is the moment when photography came of age, ready to play its part on a far more important world stage than the art gallery or the portrait studio.”

You Press the Button, We do the Rest: The Birth of Snapshot Photography, Colin Ford and Karl Steinorth, Dirk Nielson Publishing, National Museum of Photography, Film and Television, 1988

The Kodak Picture Contest

“With $30,000 in winnings, it was an effort to woo amateur photographers on the eve of the Great Depression…Kodak advertised aggressively for its 1929 picture contest, spending hundreds of thousands to encourage “fortunate amateurs” to take part.”

In Rochester, a Photo Album Like No Other, The New York Times Backdrop, Kerri MacDonald and Darcy Eveleigh, 2/18/12

Kodak sent out kits to photo stores to advertise the photo contest in their windows. They also ran advertisements in a variety of magazines and newspapers, i.e. Boys Life, Sun Sentinel, etc. Initially the prizes totalled $30,000, divided between winners, and later increased to $100,000. Photographers submitted in droves.

Most of the entrants seen below received $5 for their images, the equivalent to roughly $78 today.

Click on the images to view in a larger gallery carousel and read the photographer names, locations and cameras used.

My Personal Favorites

These images below are the ones that stand out to me most, with representations of boxing rings, doll photography, and scenic displays. I also absolutely love the featured image of this post with toys taking pictures of toys.

Dick M. Cogly, Iowa, Six-20 Kodak Jr. 16B-13, Vol. 87 1939, Kodak Historical Collection #003, D.319, Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation, River Campus Libraries, University of Rochester
Richard B. Sam, Ohio, 3a Kodak Special J517, Vol. 85 1929, Kodak Historical Collection #003, D.319, Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation, River Campus Libraries, University of Rochester
WMJ. Adderly, Washinton J632, Vol. 85 1929, Kodak Historical Collection #003, D.319, Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation, River Campus Libraries, University of Rochester
Miss Adele Herring, Texas, Model C Kodak J990, Vol. 85 1929, Kodak Historical Collection #003, D.319, Rare Books, Special Collections, and Preservation, River Campus Libraries, University of Rochester

Find some non-toy picture examples at the New York Times sources below.

Which toy photo here is your favorite?

“In 1983 an English writer complained that the new situation had “created an army of photographers who run rampant over the globe, photographing objects of all sorts, sizes and shapes, under almost every condition, without ever pausing to ask themselves, is this or that artistic?…They spy a view, it seems to please, the camera is focused, the shot is taken! There is no pause, why should there be? For art may err but nature cannot miss, says the poet, and they listen to the dictum. To them, composition, light, shade, form and texture are so many catch phrases…”

-E.E. Cohen “Bad Form in Photography,” In the International Annual of Anthony’s Photographic Bulletin. New York and London: E. and H.T. Anthony, 1893, as quoted by The Photographer’s Eye, New York Graphic Society, The Museum of Modern Art, John Szarkowski, 1966

Sources:

Further Reading:

If you use information directly from this page, you must properly cite this link – Kodak and the Rise of Amateur Toy Photography. Tourmaline ., 7 July 2021, toy.photography/2021/07/07/kodak-and-the-rise-of-amateur-toy-photography.

5 Replies to “Kodak and the Rise of Amateur Toy Photography”

  1. I share some of the sentiment of the sentiment of the 1893 writer. There are too many artists in the world. Or perhaps it’s not the number of artists that exist that is too many, but the amount of art that is easily viewable. I think we need the flow of art into the world restricted, so the common work that everyone ends up seeing creates a more unified perspective. The relative accessibility of photography dilutes its impact.

    Like

  2. oh my GOSH. these are breathtaking. and kudos to Andrea for unearthing these and diligently sending them to you – i’ve said it before but i will say it again: librarians are the BEST.

    as for favourites, i am enamoured of some of the ones in the middle tier of this post – the leaning bear (the shadows!), the tiny elephant (the shadows!) in particular, but there are so many recognizable toy photo techniques in this treasure trove!

    thank you tournaline and thank you again andrea!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s really so outstanding to see recognizable subject matter to what’s used today in these photos from so long ago. Once the Kodak collection is open to researchers again and I have the time and money for the travel I so need to go to check these out for myself and perhaps meet Andrea in person.

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