George Eastman: The Kodak Era and Popular Photography

“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.” George Eastman

George Eastman and the legacy he left for the world. Only a few professionals and enthusiastic amateurs were interested in photography in its first fifty years. It was expensive, time-consuming, cumbersome, and demanding expertise. All these adversities changed in 1888 when the American inventor George Eastman introduced a machine that was both cheap and convenient.

Who was George Eastman?

George Eastman was born on a small farm in New York. When he was 5, his family moved to Rochester. George lost his father when he was 8 years old, and his family suffered a lot during that time. Eventually, George was forced to give up his education at the age of 13 and start to work. He was eager to learn and learned many things through his efforts.

Eastman’s interest in photography started when he was planning a trip abroad while working as a bank clerk at the age of 24. When a colleague told him to record his trip, Eastman bought a camera. The machine consisted of a large, coarse box and was attached to a heavy tripod. Inside the box were individual glass plates, which were placed in large plate slots and covered with photosensitive emulsion instead of film. The plates had to be prepared for outdoor shots in a portable tent that served as a darkroom.

In 1878, George Eastman learned about “dry plates,” invented in 1871 by British photographer Richard Leach Maddox. The emulsion was coated on the plates with gelatin. These plates could be stored and used at any time. Thus, the majority of the equipment Eastman purchased was unnecessarily large. While Eastman continued to work at the bank, he devoted all his free time to finding the most competent method of producing dry plates in series.

In 1880, he founded the Eastman Dry Plate Co. In 1881, he began to produce and sell dry plates and soon decided to use a lighter, more flexible material instead of glass. In 1884, he considered rolling the flexible plate. Accordingly, the machine would have a rolling slot instead of a plate slot. The first device, known as a “detective camera” using a film roll, appeared in 1885. The roll was made of paper, and this method did not produce the desired result because the fibers in the paper were visible in printing.

George Eastman: “You press the button, we do the rest”

Who was George Eastman? The Kodak era and popular photography
35 mm roll films took over the market since 1925, when it was used for still photography. This continued until the advent of digital machines in the 1990s.

In the meantime, other researchers were working on flexible and dry plates too. Some researchers have been experimenting with nitrocellulose, also known as celluloid. Eastman launched celluloid film in 1889.

Eastman’s genius move showed that he had to expand the photography market to succeed. The way to do this was to make photography, in his own words, “as convenient as the pencil.” He had to develop a new, smaller, and reasonably priced machine. In 1888, the first Kodak machine was introduced and soon achieved great success.

The camera is equipped with a roll that can store up to 100 photos. Once the camera owner took the photos, all he had to do was send the camera to Eastman’s company, wait for the photos to come out, and take it back with a new film. The main factor in Kodak’s success has been taking photography to a level that everyone can reach. Eastman’s short statement suited the situation: “You press the button, we do the rest.”

Later, George Eastman renamed the corporation Eastman Kodak and dominated the market by offering “cheap photography.” He was never married and never had children. He assisted universities, hospitals, and dentistry clinics as a significant benefactor. He had been suffering from a deteriorating bone ailment for the last two years. He took his own life in 1932 by shooting himself in the heart. “My work is done, why wait?” he said in his suicide note.

Brownie camera

Kodak’s first camera with widespread demand had a retail price of $25. That was half the amount Eastman paid for his first camera. But it was still a high price for amateur photographers. In 1900, Eastman Kodak introduced a new, very cheap camera solution: the Brownie. Between 1900 and 1980, Eastman Kodak produced and sold 99 different Brownie models.

The first Brownie Machine was a cardboard box with a roll holder, a roll of film, and a lens. Outside the box, there was a shutter and a winder. The world’s cheapest camera was sold for $1 (approximately $30 today). Thus, the “snapshot” era began. It was able to capture the moments without requiring any preparation.


“Light makes photography. Embrace light. Admire it. Love it. But above all, know light. Know it for all you are worth, and you will know the key to photography.”

“What we do during our working hours determines what we have; what we do in our leisure hours determines what we are.”

“You push the button, we do the rest.”

“If a man has wealth, he has to make a choice, because there is the money heaping up. He can keep it together in a bunch, and then leave it for others to administer after he is dead. Or he can get it into action and have fun, while he is still alive. I prefer getting it into action and adapting it to human needs, and making the plan work.”

“I used to think that music was like lace upon a garment, nice to have but not necessary. I have come to believe that music is absolutely essential to our community life.”

“I don’t believe in men waiting until they are ready to die before using any of their money for helpful purposes.”


  1. Ackerman, Carl W. (1930). George Eastman: Founder of Kodak and the Photography Business. Beard Books. ISBN 1-893-12299-9.
  2. Brayer, Elizabeth (1996). George Eastman: A Biography. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. ISBN 0801852633.
  3. “The Wizard of Photography”PBS.
  4. Collins, Douglas (1990). The Story of Kodak (1st ed.). New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. ISBN 9780810912229.

By Bertie Atkinson

Bertie Atkinson is a history writer at Malevus. He writes about diverse subjects in history, from ancient civilizations to world wars. In his free time, he enjoys reading, watching Netflix, and playing chess.