By Diana Turnbow, research assistant for the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum
More than ever, photos are part of women’s social lives. Shared via text and social media, photos provide a way for women and girls to communicate who they are and how they experience life. These social photos share both mundane details (what’s in the fridge?) and extraordinary events (the birth of a child). Sometimes serious, but often playful, they increasingly tell the stories of women’s lives and influence their aspirations and actions.
How did making and sharing photographs become so ubiquitous? More than a century before smartphones and apps, the Eastman Kodak Company introduced the original point and shoot cameras with the phrase “You press the button, we do the rest.”
Ease of use plus low cost created consumer demand. Eastman Kodak released its most recognized brand, the Kodak Brownie, in 1900. It was a basic box camera with pre-loaded film that sold for one dollar. Although originally developed for children, adults soon became avid consumers. By the end of 1905, Kodak had sold over 1.2 million Brownie cameras and had persuaded one-third of the United States’ population to take up photography.2
Not only did the inventor of the Kodak camera, George Eastman, streamline a previously complicated and messy process, he also recognized that women were an important market for the new technology.
Beginning in 1893, a figure that came to be known as the “Kodak Girl” regularly greeted readers of leading women’s magazines. The Kodak Girl exuded youth, independence, and adventure. As she traveled the world, she recorded it with her camera and persuaded a generation of girls and women that cameras were an essential accessory.
Bernice Palmer, an intrepid young woman, not unlike the Kodak Girl herself, used a Kodak Brownie No. 2 to photograph the iceberg that sank the Titanic in 1912. Palmer was traveling with her mother to the Mediterranean on the ocean liner Carpathia when it responded to the distress call of the Titanic. She used her newly acquired Brownie to photograph both the iceberg and some of the rescued passengers. Palmer donated her Brownie camera, along with pictures taken on the Carpathia to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in 1986.
Carrying a camera became the mark of a sophisticated woman. Much like today’s smartphones, cameras carried by the Kodak Girl were not only functional but also fashionable. Kodak designers fashioned certain models to complement women’s clothing ensembles. Resembling a clutch purse, the Kodak Vanity is one example. An advertisement in the collection of the National Museum of American History highlights its availability in five colors, and describes the camera as a “costume-accessory exquisitely in key with the current trend toward color and novelty.”
Although from the beginning photography was marketed towards leisure and travel, most women took pictures in their own hometowns. Snapshots of family, friends, and pets were saved in photo albums, exchanged with friends, and sent to faraway relatives. Autographic cameras such as the one carried by the Kodak Girl in the advertisement, let its users write a short caption or message on the photographic negative.
Camera use extended well beyond the young, white, middle-class women depicted in Kodak advertising. In the photograph below, seventeen-year-old Eunice Jackson clearly enjoyed posing for the camera. Confident and smartly dressed, she could also be a Kodak Girl—except Kodak did not depict people of color in its advertising, despite a long history of African American involvement in photography.3 Jackson was a resident of the prosperous Greenwood district of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The photograph, which is part of the collection of the National Museum of African American Art and Culture, was taken about a year before the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Jackson’s family home was not burned in the fire that destroyed most of the area, keeping her family memories intact to pass onto future generations.
Taking photographs was especially important in African American families where cameras were a tool of self-representation. African Americans had been active in making and distributing photographs to refute racist stereotypes since the early days of the technology. As noted by the writer and social critic bell hooks, “The camera allowed black folks to combine image making, resistance struggle, and pleasure. Taking pictures was fun!”.4 Photo albums both gathered and dispersed memories as albums were compiled and passed on to the next generation. The National Museum of American History owns an album compiled by Mary C. Taylor. She creatively used a wallpaper sample book to display not only the photographs Taylor took of her family living in Los Angeles in the 1950s, but also family photographs passed down to her.
Women with cameras were family historians, tasked with capturing and preserving the special moments in the life of the family. Kodak recognized this pattern early on and profited from it. Although the phrase “Kodak Mother” was never used, it was implicit in the company’s advertising. Notice the placement of the camera in the advertisement below from the National Museum of American History’s collection. The camera sits next to the mother with its viewfinder open, suggesting that she was using it seconds before her daughter came up to her.
When Eastman Kodak ended the Kodak Girl campaign in the 1970s, photography was well-established as a form of communication, self-expression, and memory in the private and public spheres. Moreover, women professionals were firmly rooted in all aspects of photography working in art and commercial settings. Many families had amassed visual archives spanning multiple generations. However, at the end of the 20th century, the cost of film and photo printing still influenced how and what people photographed. Digital photography eliminated the need to carefully select the moments of life worthy of a photo. Anything became worthy of a photograph.
By the time Instagram launched in 2010, digital photography had moved from a dedicated camera to the networked communication devices we call smart phones. Photos became part of the language of real-time communication. Young and adventurous, as well as mature and savvy women did not need much convincing to use Instagram. The app had 10 million users within a year, and sharing went beyond one’s circle of friends. Before long a new type of corporate marketing emerged within social media that capitalized on the popularity of the images and other content shared by users. When anyone’s personal life and snapshots can sell products, brands no longer need to create figures like the Kodak Girl. They rely on real-life girls instead.
1 See Nathan Jurgenson, The Social Photo: On Photography and Social Media (New York: Verso Books, 2019): 1-17.
2 West, Nancy Martha, Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia (University Press of Virginia, 2000): 41.
3 Gordon, Tammy S., The Mass Production of Memory: Travel and Personal Archiving in the Age of Kodak (University of Massachusetts Press, 2020): 10-11, 65.
4 hooks, bell, “In Our Glory: Photography and Black Life” in Art on My Mind: Visual Politics (New York: The New Press, 1995): 60.