Todd Gustavson's Posts

Todd Gustavson is the curator of technology at George Eastman House, working with the collection for more than 20 years.. He is also the co-owner of Walbokat, an 18 foot 1954 Chris Craft Riviera Runabout, shown at dusk at the main dock in Chautauqua, NY.

75 years – The Super Kodak Six-20

Posted by on Jul 17 2013 | Photography


Super Kodak Six-20, 1938, Eastman Kodak Company, Rochester, New York. Gift of Eastman Kodak Company

July 2013 marks the 75th anniversary of the Super Kodak Six-20, the first production camera to feature automatic exposure (AE) control. Aimed at removing the exposure guesswork for photographers, the camera’s shutter-preferred AE control meant that the photographer chose the shutter speed and the camera would then “choose” the correct lens opening. Kodak’s engineers accomplished this feat by mechanically coupling a selenium photo cell light meter, located just above the top half of the camera’s folding clamshell.

This advancement, though groundbreaking, was not picked up by most camera manufacturers for some twenty years after the debut of the Super Six-20. These days, automatic exposure is a standard feature on almost all cameras. And it is not much of a stretch to call the Super Kodak Six-20 the first “smart camera.”

But auto exposure was not the only cutting-edge feature of the Super Six-20. It was also the first Kodak camera to use a common window for both the rangefinder and viewfinder. The film advances with a single-stroke lever, which also cocks the shutter at the end of the stroke, thus preventing double exposures. And like auto exposure, these features would not become common on cameras for many years.


Features aside, the Super Kodak Six-20 is one of the most attractive cameras ever marketed. Its lovely clamshell exterior design was styled by legendary industrial designer Walter Dorwin Teague.

All this innovation came at a rather high price and not without some issues. The Super Kodak Six-20 retailed for $225 in 1938 (that would be over $2,000 today) and it had a reputation for being somewhat unreliable—the built-in self-timer was known to lock up the shutter. Since few models were manufactured, some 719, it is highly sought after by camera collectors.





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April 15, 1840 – One of the first cameras sold in the U.S.

Posted by on Apr 15 2013 | Photography, Technology


Receipt of one of the first cameras to be sold in the U.S.

Samuel A. Bemis (1793–1881), a Boston dentist and amateur daguerreotypist, bought one of the first cameras ever sold in the United States on April 15, 1840. Fortunately, he and his heirs saved not only the camera but also its receipt. While it is likely too late to return the camera, the receipt is useful as evidence of what is probably the earliest documented sale of an American daguerrean outfit.

Thanks to the dentist’s pack rat ways, we know that on April 15, 1840, he paid $76 to François Gouraud, Giroux’s agent in the U.S., for a “daguerreotype apparatus,” twelve whole plates at $2 each, and a freight charge of $1.


Full-plate daguerreotype camera (owned by S. A. Bemis)

The apparatus, which Gouraud advertised as consisting of sixty-two items, included the camera, lens, plate holder, iodine box for sensitizing plates, mercury box for developing plates, holding box for unused plates, and a large wooden trunk to house the entire system. Quite large, the camera weighs about thirteen pounds and can produce full-plate images, 6½ x 8½ inches in size.


Full-plate daguerreotype camera outfit

Bemis made his first daguerreotype on April 19, 1840, from the window of his Boston office, and during the next several years went on to expose more than three hundred images, most of them in his beloved White Mountains of New Hampshire. The George Eastman House collection also contains a second Bemis camera and nineteen of his images.

First Bemis Daguerreotype

First  S.A. Bemis Daguerreotype

bemis 1936 inventory 1
Bemis’ Inventory in 1936 discussing the camera purchase in 1840.



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50th Anniversary of the Instamatic (1963)

Posted by on Mar 12 2013 | Photography, Technology


097.Instamatic100 (1)

March 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the Kodak Instamatic family of cameras. These cameras, featuring the instant-loading 126 (Kodapack) film cartridge, were by far the most successful of the time. Instamatics, like the Brownies they replaced, were the entrée cameras for a new generation of photographers.

L1000304 (1)

Some of the accolades associated with this iconic 1960s-era camera are:

• The Instamatic provided the amateur photographer an inexpensive, well-made, and easy-to-use camera

• The Instamatic was the most successful Eastman Kodak Company camera since the introduction of the Brownie camera of 1900

• More than 50 million Instamatic cameras were sold worldwide between 1963 and 1970, with 7.5 million sold within the first two years of production

• It was introduced at a time when camera innovation was dominated by German and Japanese companies, proving American engineering could still produce competitive products

• The Instamatic 100 was designed by Frank A. Zagara, who won a Certificate of Design Merit from the Industrial Designers Institute

• The cartridge-loading system was a bombshell success, copied by numerous camera and film manufacturers around the world

• The 126 cartridge was designed by Kodak engineer Hubert Nerwin, with patent number 3,138,081 granted June 23, 1964

• The name Instamatic name became synonymous with snapshot photography, similar to the Kodak name during George Eastman’s time


We’ve currently got one on display in the entrance gallery –  if you’re in town stop in and check it out.






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Retina Camera Research

Posted by on Aug 13 2012 | Exploring the Archive, History, Photography

Some interesting research happening at Eastman House – David Jentz of the Retina Historical Society is here, along with co-researcher, Dr. Klaus-Peter Roesner of Germany looking at our Retina cameras, accessories, and literature in the collection. Mr. Jentz is a well known authority on the Retina camera and has lectured and published numerous articles.

Here are some examples of the cameras they’re spending time with.

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Celebrating ‘Snapshots’

Posted by on Feb 03 2012 | History, Other

The following essay is from the recently published exhibition catalogue Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard. The book is published by Yale University Press, in association with the Phillips Collection, the Van Gogh Museum, and the Indianapolis Museum of Art. The catalogue is edited by curator Elizabeth Easton with contributions from leading scholars, including George Eastman House Curator of Technology Todd Gustavson. His entry, Innovative Devices: George Eastman and the Handheld Camera is excerpted below. Reproduced by permission. 

In the digital age, making photographic images is so very simple—requiring about the same effort as throwing a light switch—that we do so almost without thinking about it. It’s easy to take for granted a process that seems to involve nothing more than pressing the button and instantaneously viewing the picture. But photography has not always been a simple practice. For nearly a half century after its invention, the medium was almost exclusively the domain of professionals. Not until the 1880s, when George Eastman’s Kodak camera and other instruments intended for the consumer-photography market set the cornerstones of amateur snapshot photography, did the camera begin to become a ubiquitous device.

The photographic process, announced in 1839 by the Frenchman Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, captured and fixed the images that were viewed through a camera obscura. This was accomplished through a combination of mechanics (the camera), optics (to improve the image), and chemistry (to sensitize and process the image). Over the next forty years, improvements made to all aspects of the process—cameras, shutters, lenses, and chemistry—led to cheaper and simpler image-making, generating a growing interest for the nonprofessional photographer.

The technicalities of early photography required the photographer, first, to sensitize the media and then to process the image immediately after exposure. Although this system was fine for the professional, it was generally too cumbersome and time-consuming for most amateurs. On April 13, 1880, George Eastman, of Rochester, New York, was issued U.S. Patent No. 226,503 for his machine to coat gelatin dry plates. The following January, with the financial backing of Rochester businessman Henry Strong, he formed the Eastman Dry Plate Company, becoming one of the first commercial producers of light-sensitive photographic emulsions. With reliable plates now available, companies worldwide began manufacturing cameras designed specifically to use them.

Although they were convenient, dry plates had several drawbacks: they were both fragile and heavy to transport. Lightweight, flexible support for photographic emulsion had been investigated starting in the mid-1860s, but without much success. George Eastman aimed his emulsion-making skills at this target and, late in 1884, introduced Eastman’s American Film, which used Rives paper—both flexible and lightweight—as support for its emulsion. Yet because this material was not transparent, during processing the images had to be stripped from the paper support, adhered temporarily to glass for printing, and finally, stored on a “skin” made of a semitransparent plastic. To complement his American Film, Eastman and a partner, William H. Walker (a pioneer builder of cameras with standardized parts), designed and patented the Eastman-Walker Roll Holder, which attached to most existing cameras to allow the use of roll film. To reflect its new product line, the firm changed its name to the Eastman Dry Plate and Film Company. Around this time, Eastman built an emulsions-manufacturing plant in London to avoid spoilage problems he had experienced a few years earlier with film that had been shipped across the Atlantic. From early on, he planned to produce and sell his products worldwide; the London plant was the first of many to be located in major European cities.

All things considered, Eastman clearly needed a new product.  Introduced to the public in the September 15, 1888, issue of Scientific American, the Kodak was Eastman’s first successful amateur camera.

These earliest Kodaks and the models developed over the next decade or so represent the beginning of snapshot photography. The snapshot, a term borrowed from hunting, is one taken quickly and without careful aim. Amateur photographers of the time met with derision for this type of shooting; nevertheless, the snapshot meant lots of exposed film and big business for photographic suppliers. Soon, the many new products made for the amateur market eclipsed those made for the professional, revolutionizing the industry. In 1892, to better connect the success of its cameras to their manufacturer, the Rochester firm changed its name to the Eastman Kodak Company.

The handheld camera loaded with roll film was a collector of moments, facilitating the preservation of visual impressions. Many artists frequently used the camera as a sketchbook, a tool for quickly transcribing a likeness that could later be “developed” into a more finished work. They were drawn to its potential for capturing the fast-paced, ever-changing nature of modern life and culture. An early “mobile device,” the handheld camera advanced a fresh way of seeing based on a new way of measuring time. Although the snapshot was not exactly an instantaneously produced image, it represented shorter pieces of time than previous photographic technology had allowed. And the camera’s waist-level perspective—differing greatly from that of the human eye—is readily apparent in many works of art. Frequently, the results were unconventional images that reflected the poet Charles Baudelaire’s influential characterization of modernity as “the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent.”


Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard exhibition opens tomorrow at The Philips Collection in Washington D.C.


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