Todd Gustavson's Posts

Todd Gustavson is the curator of technology at George Eastman House, working with the collection for more than 20 years.

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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How do you get to 500 Cameras?

Posted by on Nov 17 2011 | Other

Our recently-released book 500 Cameras is a survey of some of the most innovative and influential examples from the nearly 200-year history of cameras in our Technology Collection. The collection was featured in an earlier book, A Century of Cameras by Eaton Lothrup, documenting the 1839-1939 period— so of course this new book brings things more up to date.
The cameras are broken down into the catalogue types we use in the archive (box cameras, studio cameras, professional cameras, folding cameras, toys, etc.) and are arranged chronologically within each of those sections. This way, readers can experience how we categorize and work with the collection every day.
In my last book, Camera, we tackled a history of photography as seen through the camera and highlighted images made with them. This new book has a different focus: the cameras themselves. Each has a description and an informal narrative— somewhat along the lines as if I were personally touring you through the collection. It’s less about the technical nuts, screws and bolts and more about why they are culturally important.
The collection has over 8000 cameras, so of course picking 500 is a bit of a challenge. Right off the bat I started with those that are historically important, and that covers a lot of categories. Some were large selling products, others were milestones or ‘firsts’.
                                                                                                                                                                                                          Above (top): Giroux Daguerreotype Camera: The first  manufactured camera.  Above (bottom): Page from ’500 Cameras’ featuring the Giroux. 



Super Kodak Six-20: First automatic exposure control camera

Some were owned by well-known photographers:

Alfred Steiglitz’ Eastman View

Ansel Adams’ boyhood Brownie

Alvin Langdon Coburn’s Delta Reflex
 Then there’s important advances:

The original Leica: the first high-quality mass produced 35mm camera

The oldest known Kodak (No. 6)
For the cover image, we wanted a fairly rare camera people could relate to both from a collecting standpoint and just from its physical appearance. 

Cover Camera: Bell & Howell Foton 

The style of the book was designed to make the book look somewhat like a 1950s camera instruction manual- even the color choice.


Editor’s note: Todd will be talking about and signing his book here this Saturday, November 19 at 1:15pm. 



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Forever Brownie

Posted by on Oct 11 2011 | History, Other, Photography

The other day I received an invitation to an exhibition opening, which isn’t unusual, except the envelope was wearing a Baby Brownie stamp. As a fancier of all things photographic, I was much more interested in the stamp than in going to the out-of-town shindig. A couple of research clicks later I discovered that back on June 29th of this year, the USPS issued a set of twelve commemorative stamps honoring Pioneers of American Industrial Design. Among those honored is Walter Dorwin Teague, considered the dean of American design, who styled a number of Kodak products.

My cancelled Baby Brownie stamp


I’ve always been curious how this arrangement began. A little research brought me to transcripts in the GEH library of a 1970s interview between Reese Jenkins (now professor emeritus of history at Rutgers University) and Kodak retiree Adolph Stuber. Stuber’s father, William G. Stuber, was hired by George Eastman in the early company days; he went on to be the company CEO after Eastman retired in 1925. Adolph grew up with Kodak and also had a distinguished career in the company himself, becoming manager of the Camera Works in the mid-1920s, then ending up as a company vice president in the sales and advertising department after WWII. It was Adolph Stuber who interviewed and hired Teague, then a fledgling New York City artist, to do facelifts on some of the cameras, as the old designs had become a bit dated. Teague became a design consultant for Kodak for the next thirty years or so. Many of the milestone Eastman Kodak Company products, such as the Baby Brownie (the first injected-molded camera made by Kodak), the Super Kodak Six-20 (the first auto-exposure camera), and the Bantam Special (the first Kodak camera with the f/2 Ektar lens) were Teague designs.

Super Kodak Six-20

Bantam Special


The success of the plastic Baby Brownie would prompt the company to produce more cameras of this type. Most Baby Boomers’ photographic experience began with descendants of the Baby Brownie, such as the Brownie Tourist, the Brownie Holiday, and of course the various Brownie Star models. One of the last cameras Teague was involved with was the Brownie Starflash of 1957; it was the first Kodak camera featuring a built-in flash holder. It was also my first camera.


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44 Photographs in Chautauqua

Posted by on Jul 20 2010 | Other, Photography

I was at Chautauqua, NY for the 2010 season opening weekend when I took these images of 44 Photographs, a billboard-format display of 44 images from the Eastman House collection.

Top: Lewis M. Rutherford (American 1816-1892)

March 4, 1865

albumen print
George Eastman House Collection

Above: Lewis W. Hine (American, 1874-1940)
negative, gelatin on glass
George Eastman House Collection

My family has been involved w/ Chautauqua for a long time; My great grandfather was a mason who built the fountain in Bester Plaza; my father studied voice at the music school; one of my uncle’s played French Horn in the CSO (Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra) in the early 1970s. My first full summer was 1975; I was a summer school student studying photography at the Hall of Education with Doug Miller, which was the beginning of my formal photographic training.

The 44 Photographs display can be seen around the grounds. I noticed there were quite a few people getting their pictures taken next to some of them…

Editor’s note: To see more of Todd’s personal 44 Photographs album from Chautauqua and hear the latest about Chautauqua Institute’s Week Five Picture This:Photography (July 25-31), visit our Facebook page.

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