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Twentieth Century Photography

"You press the button, we do the rest" was the advertisement slogan created by George Eastman when he introduced his Kodak camera in 1888. He had created a lighter and more flexible negative support than glass, which was the preferred photographic process used before that time. Amateur photography took off and so did the development of the camera.

All photographs were provided by National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum docents and staff.

Click here to learn about 19th century photographic processes.

A camera is a device that records or stores images. A camera usually consists of an enclosed hollow with an opening at one end for light to enter, and a recording or viewing surface for capturing the light at the other end. A majority of cameras have a lens positioned in front of the camera's opening to gather the incoming light and focus all or part of the image on the recording surface. Most 20th century cameras used photographic film as a recording surface, while the majority of new ones now use an image sensor storing the picture electronically without the use of a negative.

A twin-lens reflex camera (TLR) is a type of camera with two objective lenses of the same focal length. One of the lenses is the photographic objective or "taking lens" (the lens that takes the picture), while the other is used for the viewfinder system, which is usually viewed from above at waist level. In addition to the objective, the viewfinder consists of a 45-degree mirror (the reason for the word reflex in the name), a matte focusing screen at the top of the camera, and a pop-up hood surrounding it. The two objectives are connected, so that the focus shown on the focusing screen will be exactly the same as on the film.

A single-lens reflex (SLR) camera is a camera that typically uses a semi-automatic moving mirror system that permits the photographer to see exactly what will be captured by the film or digital imaging system. Focus can be adjusted manually by the photographer or automatically by an auto-focus system. The viewfinder can include a matte focusing screen located just above the mirror system to diffuse the light. This permits accurate viewing, composing and focusing, especially useful with interchangeable lenses.

The simplest cameras have fixed focus and use a small aperture and wide-angle lens to ensure that everything within a certain range of distance from the lens, usually around 10 feet to infinity, is in reasonable focus. Fixed focus cameras are usually inexpensive types.


1826: Nicéphore Niépce creates the world’s first permanent photographic image, La cour du domaine du Gras (View from the Window at Le Gras), on a sheet of oil-treated bitumen. The exposure takes a full eight hours, and the resulting image is still underexposed.

1837: Louis Daguerre creates the first daguerreotype. This new format, which creates a direct image on a silver plated copper sheet, requires mere minutes for proper exposure.

1840s: Stereoscopic photographs, which create the illusion of a three-dimensional image by displaying a slightly different image to each eye, begin to be created. This follows non-photography-related research by Charles Wheatstone in 1938, and such images will become highly popular among consumers in the 1850s.

1851: Frederick Scott Archer invents the collodion wet plate process, which reduces exposure time to as little as a few seconds and allows the production of multiple prints from a single negative. Unfortunately, the entire process, from preparation to development in a darkroom, must be accomplished within ten minutes, before the plate can dry.

1859: Sutton panoramic patents the world’s first panoramic camera, which can capture an image in a one hundred twenty degree arc thanks to its spherical lens and curved plate.

1861: Thomas Sutton invents the single-lens reflex (SLR) camera, which, through a system of mirrors behind the lens, brings the exact image that will be recorded on the film to the viewfinder. This allows photographers to frame even close-up images without fear of error for the first time in the history of photography.

1871: Richard Leach Maddox invents the gelatin dry plate silver bromide process, in which photographically sensitive chemicals are suspended in a gelatin emulsion on a glass plate. As the gelatin plate is already dry, it can be premade rather than prepared in the studio, and the negative does not have to be developed immediately after exposure.

1884: George Eastman, founder of the Kodak Company, introduces paper-based roll film. This new medium is much less cumbersome than the glass and metal plates previously used in photography. The patent for the Kodak roll film camera follows in 1888.

1898: Hannibal Goodwin, a priest of the Episcopal Church, patents celluloid roll film. Like paper roll film, Goodwin’s film is lightweight and flexible. Unlike paper roll film, celluloid does not tear easily.

1900: Kodak begins sales of the world’s first mass-marketed camera, the Brownie. This camera is both inexpensive and simple to use, which encourages the rise of amateur photography (original sale price: $1.00). Subsequent models in the Brownie series of cameras will continue to be designed and sold by Kodak until the 1960’s, ending with the Brownie Fiesta R4 in 1966.

1907: Stereo Weno camera made by the Blair Camera Company, which was by then owned by Eastman Kodak. This is an example of the type of camera used to take stereoscopic photos—note the two side-by-side lenses.

1909. This photograph is 5.5 x 3.5 inches and was stored in a flip-style photobook.

1916-1947: Kodak No. 2C Autographic Junior. The body is aluminum covered in leather, and the camera can take up to ten exposures using a cartridge of roll film. This camera is designed as a "pocket" model that can be folded and closed to a relatively compact size.

1919. This photograph is 4.5 x 3.5 inches and features a young boy with a goat-pulled wagon.

1927: General Electric markets the first modern, commercial flashbulb. Prior flash photography entailed the use of bright-burning powders, which would be ignited in an open pan to create a small, semi-contained explosion.

1928. This photograph is 5 x 3.5 inches and features a young girl in a goat-pulled wagon.

1932. This is a black-and-white photograph that was hand-tinted for a hint color since color printing processes did not yet exist. The original print is only 2.5 x 3.5 inches.

1934: Kodak Brownie Junior with an original list price of $2.75. Three decades into the Brownie line, designs are still simple and inexpensive. While the original Brownie was made of cardboard, however, the Brownie Junior of 1934 is constructed of leatherette-wrapped metal.

1935: Kodachrome, a color reversal film from Kodak, becomes available. This film stock will remain available in a variety of formats for the next seventy-four years. Many professional photographs as well as amateur ones will be shot on Kodachrome, including the famous "Afghan Girl" photograph in National Geographic in 1984.

1936: Argus Ilex Precise. Original list price: $12.50. This camera has a Bakelite body, and the shutter was provided by Ilex.

1947-1973: Graflex Pacemaker Crown Graphic 4x5 camera. This model would become very popular as a press camera, as it is very lightweight. This particular camera was manufactured between 1947 and 1955, which can be determined from the presence of a side-mounted range finder.

1948: Edwin Land markets the first Polaroid camera and "instant" film. This early model works by way of the camera rollers breaking open a pouch at the edge of the film as it is ejected, causing a developing agent to be released and spread between the exposed negative and a receiving positive sheet. This film “sandwich” must then be left to develop for a predetermined time before the user peels the layers apart to reveal the finished image.

1949-1958: Argoflex 75, a relatively simple box camera with a fixed focus lens.

1940. This 2 x 3 inches sepia photograph features a young boy on a horse.

1940s. This faded black-and-white of a young boy in cowboy costume during winter has an original print size of 3 x 5 inches.

1950: Kodak Duaflex II, an example of a twin-lens reflex (TLR) camera. One lens is used for exposure of the film, while the other is part of the viewfinder system.

1951: Rolleiflex Twin Lens, another TLR camera. As with all cameras of this type, the viewfinder image is focused on a screen at the top of the camera. The camera is designed to be held at waist height, with the user looking downward into it in order to frame the image.

1954. A black-and-white photograph with scalloped edges features a young boy and his sister on a hobby horse. Original print size is 3.5 x 5 inches.

1957: Kodak Brownie Bullet and Kodak Brownie Starflash. The Bullet is a promotional version of the Brownie Holiday, yet another simple and straightforward camera in the Brownie line. The Starflash is unique in having a built-in flashgun, though the bulb must be changed every time the flash is used.

1958: Yashica 635, a third TLR camera in the exhibit. Unlike an SLR camera, where the viewfinder must be blacked out as the exposure is actually taken, a TLR system continually displays the image on its viewfinder.

1959: This is a box that would have contained a Kodak Signet 40, second in a series of cameras that came with built-in range finders. A range finder determines the distance between the camera and the object being photographed, allowing the user to fine-tune the focus of the picture.

1964. Black-and-white photograph of daughter on a donkey with parents standing close by has an original print size of 2 x 2.5 inches.

1965: Kodak Instamatic 304, which both had an automatic aperture system and could use flashcubes. A flashcube consists of four flashbulbs arranged facing outward. When one is used, the camera automatically turns the cube, readying the next bulb.

1960. Early color photograph, sized 4 x 4 inches, is of a young boy in western style clothing.

1972: Kodak Pocket Instamatic 60, a smaller version of the Instamatic. Like the full-sized Instamatic, it uses a user-friendly film cartridge.

1973: Polaroid introduces the SX-70, the first instant camera with an SLR viewfinder system, and the first camera to use Polaroid’s new SX-70 integral film stock. This instant film develops in broad daylight as soon as it is ejected from the camera, without the need for any intervention from the operator. Though instant film stocks remain visually inferior to more traditional photography, they gain widespread use in documentation of evidence, as well as other photographic applications that require speedy results.

1977: The first mass-produced autofocus point-and-shoot camera, the Konica C35 AF, is released. This motorized camera is able to use its built-in rangefinder to automatically focus the image it takes.

1977. Color photograph of young boy in chaps and cowboy hat, original is sized 3.5 x 5 inches.

1980s: Polaroid Sun 600 LMS, one member of the Polaroid 600 line. The mechanical functions of these cameras are powered by miniature batteries integrated into the film itself.

1982: Windsor WX-3, a compact, inexpensive camera.

1988: The Canon RC-250 Xapshot, possibly the first digital camera marketed to consumers, is released. Digital cameras capture images using an array of light sensitive sensors, and store images as digital files. Early digital cameras often recorded information on floppy disks.

1990s: Minolta Freedom I, a digital camera with automatic focus and exposure. Minolta and Konica merged in 2003 to become Konica Minolta.

2003: Kodak EasyShare DX7630, a point-and-shoot digital camera.

2008: Sony Cybershot; LG camera phone. The Sony Cybershot is a modern digital camera with a Zeiss glass lens. The LG phone is an example of the combination of a cell phone and digital camera in one device, which has become nearly standard in all modern portable communication devices. Camera phones generally produce images of lower quality, as the cameras built into the phones are quite simple in comparison to standalone cameras, but see wide use due to their portability and convenience.

2009. Color studio portrait photograph of young boy and girl dressed as cowboy and cowgirl.

2010: Dwayne’s Photo of Parsons, Kansas, the last facility certified by Kodak for the development of Kodachrome film, announces that it will cease Kodachrome processing in December 2010. Such large quantities of Kodachrome are submitted to the company, however, that processing continues through mid-January 2011. Many other film stocks remain in production and can still be processed at Dwayne’s Photo and similar companies, but an end has come to one of the most popular film stocks of the twentieth century.

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