Photography Made Democratic

By Bill Dobbins

Photography is so ubiquitous today that it takes an effort to think back to a time when getting your picture taken was a complex and expensive process.  Photographic technology and processes have become more accessible since 1839 but it has been a slow evolution.


First there were daguerreotypes, then wet place colloidal photography, followed by the use of dry plates and then the introduction of film.  All of this required the use of  view cameras of different sizes and a demanded a great deal of expertise on the part of a photographer in terms of shooting the photos, developing the plates or film in the darkroom and making prints.  This required the involvement of a trained, professional or highly advanced amateur photographer.

So if you wanted a portrait photo, a picture of your family or an event, you had to recruit the services of a photographic expert – and pay a fair amount for this service.


A major break through occurred when Eastman Kodak introduced the first transparent plastic roll film in 1889.  This was the basis of all roll film to this day.  The first roll film camera, the Kodak, was a box camera with 100 exposures was sold in 1988.  The company followed this up with another camera in 1900, simple enough for a child to use, called the Brownie.  This camera was as disruptive in its day as digital is to modern times.

The Brownie was a small, simple roll film camera with no focusing or exposure adjustment necessary.  The original version was a leatherette covered card box with a wooden film carrier.  It had a detachable film winding key that was no doubt lost quite often.  This camera introduced the 2 1/4 inch square format still in wide use today.


According to The Brownie Camera information page:  This camera is considered by many experts to be the most important camera ever manufactured. The reason is that it was produced so cheaply that anyone, not just professionals or people of means, could own it. Because it was so simple to use, anyone could operate it right out of the box.

The film was also cheap, even for 1900. For less than $2.00 anyone could buy The Brownie, a roll of film, and get it processed. The February 1900 Trade Circular lists a 6 exposure roll of transparent film at $0.15, paper-negative film at $0.10, and $0.40 for processing them!
The Brownie also showed the marketing genius of George Eastman. Eastman was first a film manufacturer, but he could see what bringing photography to the masses, especially marketing to young people, via cheap but durable cameras would mean for future film sales and processing. A camera in every home meant alot of film to be sold and processed. He could not have been more correct!


The first Brownie camera was shipped on Feb. 8, 1900 and gave birth to the snapshot.

The Brownie was followed by a whole range of easy to use roll film cameras from various manufacturers.  So suddenly, instead of hiring a professional, anyone could shoot any photos they wanted of anything or anyone.  The vast majority of these pictures were not quality, artistic images.  They were “snap shots”

Snapshot etymology
snapshot. also snap-shot, 1808, “a quick shot with a gun, without aim, at a fast-moving target,” from snap + shot (n.). Photographic sense is attested from 1890. Figuratively, of something captured at a moment in time, from 1897.
Over the years, many types of cameras have been used to shoot snapshots – the smart phone being the latest.  But as the Daily Mail has pointed out in an article, it was Kodak that started the the whole thing.
While these millions of snapshot images have little artistic importance they are sociologically significant, according to Catherine Zoromskis, “Snapshot photographers are not so much creating spontaneous records of their lives as they are participating in a prescriptive cultural ritual. A snapshot is not only a record of interpersonal intimacy but also a means of linking private symbols of domestic harmony to public ideas of social conformity.”
Young Girls in the 1920s (2)
These kinds of photos are definitely not art, as we commonly define it.  But they can have huge cultural value.  And some recognize this more than others.  Collector Peter Cohen has an obsession with snapshots and rescued more than 50,000 “found” vintage photographs taken by anonymous amateurs, the subject of an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
The modern digital age has blurred some of the earlier definitions of types of photography we usually took for granted.  Street photography is not so much a distinctive category when millions of people use digital cameras and smart phones to capture moments in their lives and publish them on Instagram.  The original Brownie and its successors did not have quality lenses, nor actual exposure and shutter controls, but modern digital equipment can produce very high quality files, including 4K.  So the modern equivalent of snapshots can be very high quality indeed, which makes them no long snapshots by the historic definition.
So while the ubiquity of digital photography does not guarantee that more images being shot are going to result in an increase in higher quality or artistic photos, this does mean the creation of even more “spontaneous” photos than ever before – and that these images will be, at least in technical terms, of much higher quality than the traditional snapshot made with cheap, amateur cameras.
Photographer Matthew Rolston points out that there is an even more contemporary evolution of the snapshot – the selfie.  The Internet is full of selfies shot with or by celebrities and often these are taking the place of images shot by paparazzi and other professional photographers.  The next evolution, he feels, may be selfies being substituted for pro photos in fashion layouts and celebrity profiles.
The Brownie and other snapshot cameras meant you no longer had to go to a professional photographer to have portraits and family photos taken.
 This would be just one more step in the gradual obsolescence of professional photography. That is, until the culture changes again into something we can’t predict but which might make highly trained professional image makers relevant again.


Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in  Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:

The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)


Children Play Wearing Gas Masks, 1941