I mentioned in November’s Picture This, that it was cameras such as those in the Tullie collection, the old (and quite glorious) field-cameras, boxes and folders, that were in at the start of the world’s most detailed social record. However, photography isn’t just about pictures of us and our surroundings, photographs often are our surroundings.
Almost everywhere you turn these days there is a photograph. Your kitchen worktop and cupboard fronts might be covered with photographs of wood, likewise the “walnut” trim in your slightly flash car; your bathroom tiles and floor covering with a photo of the designer’s patterns. Photography is used to check your holiday jet’s wings for metal fatigue; it is used to look inside your body when you are ill. And where hasn’t been photographed? Google Earth can show us the whole world, with much of the inhabited areas, in particular, in astonishing detail – right down to the number on your front door. And it started “for real” when the camera came to the ordinary person in 1900.
While the little 1900 Kodak Brownie we looked at last month can probably be regarded as the most significant camera ever in popular photography, the one pictured here is a close second.
The Kodak Vest Pocket camera was the first “ordinary” camera to go to war in numbers. British Army regulations forbade the troops to carry cameras on active service, but the rule was often ignored, to the point where during the First World War this little folder (with a mechanism unlike any other previous folder) was actively marketed by Kodak as “The Soldier’s Camera”. American soldiers were less restricted and Kodak’s advertising encouraged them to make their own records of the war.
The little VPK was a ground-breaking design. Its body is pressed from steel. Cost was kept down with the use of black lacquer rather than giving it a leather-like covering. The shutter has ball-bearings for durability. The pull-out expanding-strut folding system is clever, but it is more complex to make than a hinged front panel and it relies on the photographer pulling it out correctly to make sure that lens and film are parallel. Its other drawback is the film loading system, which involves taking one side off the camera* and slotting the film in sideways. In the trenches of the Western Front that might make a smaller hole for dirt to get in, but once it is in, getting it out again is very difficult indeed.
It is also an Autographic camera. An idea Kodak bought from inventor Henry Gaisman in 1913, a modification to the film roll allowed the user to write a note onto the film through a trap door in the camera back. The writing comes out on the final print.
Kodak made 1.75 million Autographic VPKs, with a selection of models with varying degrees of sophistication, from 1915 to 1926. It took 127 film and made images 1.5×2.5in. The first VPK cost £1 10s (£1.50 then, the equivalent of £155 today).
*127 film was very popular, only going out of production in 1995. But this apparently awkward way of loading the camera ultimately was not very popular. Kodak abandoned it. Only one other maker stuck with loading film this way (arguing that it made the camera more rigid than a hinged or removable back). This firm persisted with the system from its earliest pre-1920s prototypes right up to the film cameras it still makes today.
Brownie (ha ha) points if you can say which firm that is.
Blog by Andy Whysall – Curatorial Assistant