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Program Description

In the summer of 1888, ads began to appear for a camera with a mysterious name: the Kodak. No one had ever seen anything like it. "All of a sudden this little device means you could go into the back yard, you can take a picture of the baby splashing around in a mud puddle," says John Staudenmaier, S.J., a historian at University of Detroit Mercy. "You can go to a picnic or a ballgame. You can do it. And you know how hard this is, because you in your memory have seen professional photographers all over the place. The hiding of the professional chemistry involved in photography is a stroke of genius."

"The Wizard of Photography" is the story of how George Eastman struggled to overcome fierce competition and embarrassing failures to make photography easy and affordable for everyone. Produced, directed, and written by James A. DeVinney, the program is narrated by Judith Light.

In 1877 Eastman purchased a camera to photograph some land he was interested in buying. But he immediately found that the technology of the time -- wet-plate photography -- was a cumbersome process with bulky paraphernalia: a camera the size of a soapbox, fragile glass plates and a big plate holder, a heavy tripod, a dark-tent, a nitrate bath, and a container for water. "I could do nothing with my first outfit until after I had paid a professional photographer five dollars to give me lessons," Eastman groused.

When he learned that British photographers were experimenting with a dry-plate process, Eastman became determined to make his own dry plates -- even though he was a high-school dropout who had never studied chemistry. He worked into the night in his mother’s kitchen, stirring chemicals, pouring them onto plates, baking them in the oven, then testing them by taking pictures of the house across the street. When a local photographer saw the pictures, he recommended the plates to a leading photo supply store in New York City. It was Eastman’s first big break. In January 1881, at age twenty-six, he opened a dry plate factory in Rochester, New York.

Before long, competitors began to spring up, but Eastman was already at work on a bold innovation. He created a lightweight, flexible film by coating paper with emulsion, and a roll holder that attached to the back of the camera. Glass plates, he thought, would become obsolete. "We’ll be ready to scoop the world in the next few weeks," Eastman boasted. Although the device’s roller technology was admired, the film did not meet professional photographers’ standards. Without their support, Eastman’s endeavor was in jeopardy.

Eastman responded with a revolutionary idea: if ordinary people could take pictures, maybe they wouldn’t be as fussy as professional photographers. He set out to create a camera so simple that anyone could use it. The Kodak camera made its debut in 1888. It came loaded with enough paper film to take 100 pictures. When the roll was done, the entire camera was shipped back to Rochester, where the film was developed and the camera loaded with more film. Then the camera and the pictures were returned. Within a year, Eastman had sold 13,000 Kodaks. His factory was developing more than 6,000 pictures daily.

Despite the Kodak’s popularity, there were troubles. Few could afford the camera, which cost $25, the equivalent of a few months’ wages for the average person. The process needed to print each photo was complicated and time consuming. Eastman was a demanding, often paranoid employer. He monitored employees’ bathroom breaks and told janitors how to use a broom. He hired Pinkerton detectives to keep tabs on his own salesmen. Plagued by troubles with the film’s coating, Eastman hired, and fired, a succession of emulsion makers. For two years, bad emulsions forced him to keep the film off the market, and the company went into debt. Then, in 1893, an economic depression swept the world. Employees saw their boss turn into a "nervous, ragged wreck."

Finally William Stuber, not a chemist but an award-winning photographer, produced a quality emulsion. When the new Kodak film came out, it was so good even professional photographers began to use it. It even helped start a new industry -- the movies. Within years, motion picture film became Eastman’s biggest seller. The company was back on its feet, and the world economy was recovering from the depression. "The manifest destiny of the Eastman Kodak Company is to be the largest manufacturer of photographic materials in the world, or go to pot," declared Eastman.

In 1900 Kodak released Eastman’s Brownie. At only one dollar, it was a camera almost everyone could afford. "That was the camera that really revolutionized or democratized photography," notes cultural critic Nancy West of the University of Missouri. Eastman shrewdly named the camera after a popular storybook character, luring in a new group of consumers: children. One hundred thousand Brownies were made in 1900 -- more cameras than Eastman had sold in the twelve years since he introduced the Kodak.

In 1912 Eastman, now fifty-eight years old, began to consider what legacy he would leave. "Eastman Kodak is, in a sense, his child, and he’s doing everything he can to bring that child to full maturity so that the child can live on after George Eastman," says Reese Jenkins, a historian at Rutgers University. He used his vast personal fortune -- estimated at $100 million -- to establish a research laboratory at Kodak Park, build a theater, and create a School of Music in Rochester. Funds also went to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where many of Eastman’s best scientists were trained.

After his retirement in 1925, for a time the seventy-one-year-old traveled extensively on camping trips and safaris. Faced with a painful and debilitating illness, he died by his own hand in 1932. Thousands came to his funeral.

"He was definitely a businessman first and foremost," says photo historian Colin Harding. "But he did introduce this element whereby we can all record our lives, capture our memories, and lay down something for future generations -- that must be Eastman’s legacy."

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