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Aired May 22, 2000

The Wizard of Photography

The story of George Eastman and how he transformed photography

Film 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."


Written, Produced and Directed by
James A. DeVinney

Barbara Moran

Eric Handley

Judith Light

Voice of Eastman
Peter Gallagher

Director of Photography
Gerardo Puglia

Brian Keane

Production Assistant 
Shannon Densmore

Additional Camera
Roger Chapman
Brian Dowley

Gregg Goodhew
John Cameron
John Curtis
John Miller
Peter Winter

Assistant Camera
Karl Goldsmith
Michael Timney
Melissa Donovan

Bob Shils

Bob Watson

Set Design, Wardrobe & Makeup
Marlene Maggio

Set Dressing and Makeup
Lynn Catalano

Mark Adrian
Guy Balotine
David Burgwardt
Robert Caswell
Cachelle Guadagnino
Dick Mullaney
Karen Noske
Mark Osterman

Bruce Frank

Music Recording / Mix
Little Big Feet Studios
Brian Keane
Jeff Frez-Albrecht

Photo Animation
The Frame Shop
Ed Joyce

Snapshot Sequences
Viewpoint Glenn Robbins, Art Director

Sound Editors
Deb Driscoll
Geof Thurber

Sound Mix
Heart Punch Studio
Greg McCleary

Medallion / PFA Film & Video

On-Line Editor
Paul Deakin

Lorraine Grant

Reese V. Jenkins
Thomas J. Schlereth
John M. Staudenmaier, S.J.

Footage Provided By
Archive Films
British Film
Institute Historic
Films Hot Shots / Cool Cuts Kodak, Limited
The George Eastman House
The WPA Film Library


Lengthened Shadow of a Man film footage courtesy of Eastman Kodak Company. Kodak is a trademark.

Photographs Provided By
Bausch & Lomb
Boston Public Library
Carol King
F. Aldyth Conover and Jean Rhodes
Chicago Tribune Company
Marjorie Stuber
Cleveland Colorado Historical Society
Denver Public Library
Eastman Kodak Company (Kodak is a trademark)
Kodak, Limited The George Eastman House Library of Congress
The National Museum of Photography, Film and Television (UK)
New Jersey Historical Society
The New York Times
Rochester City Archives 
Rochester Public Library
United States Patent Office
University of Rochester, Rare Books Department

Special Thanks
Amy Barnum
George Eastman
Dryden Mary
V. Flynn
Peter Wisbey, Genesee Country Village & Museum Letchworth State Park
Ruth Rosenberg-Naparsteck
France Osterman
Rochester Film Office
Saint Peter’s Episcopal Church

On-Air Promotion
James Dunford
Maureen Barden

Post Production
Maureen Barden
Raymond Powell

Field Production
Larry LeCain
Bob McCausland
Chas Norton
Robert Thomkins

Series Designers
Alison Kennedy Chris Pullman

Title Animation
Lizard Lounge Graphics, Inc.

Online Editor
Mark Steele

Series Theme
Charles Kuskin

Michael Bacon

Christine Larson

Project Administration 
Nancy Farrell
Helen R. Russell
Andre Jones
Rebekah Suggs

Interactive Media
Rick Groleau
Danielle Dell'Olio

Daphne B. Noyes  
Johanna Baker

Coordinating Producer
Susan Mottau

Series Editor
Joseph Tovares

Senior Producer
Mark Samels

Executive Producer
Margaret Drain

A Green Light Productions, Inc. Film For The American Experience

©2000 WGBH Educational Foundation All rights reserved


David McCullough, Series Host: Hello and welcome to The American Experience. I'm David McCullough

What would you try to save first if the house were on fire? The most common answer is the family photographs. To lose them would be like loosing part of ourselves, such is their place in our lives.

We save them in albums, carry them in wallets. We put them in frames, arrange them on dresser tops and office desks...the wife, the husband, the new baby, the biggest fish of the summer.

Yet this wasn't always the way in American life -- not before young George Eastman of Rochester, New York, set to work on simplifying the apparatus of photography who came up with the famous Kodak camera. A brilliant innovator in a great age of American innovation, Eastman, like Edison, Bell, H.J. Heinz, changed how we live. With the Kodak and even more with the ubiquitous Brownie, everyone could make a picture -- a "snap shot" -- for the record, for the fun of it, and with no fuss. Everyone and anyone could be creative in a way never possible before.  

The Eastman story is the stuff of legend. He was the poor widow's son who started off as a three-dollar-a-week clerk and by dint of hard work and phenomenal determination rose to vast fame and wealth.  

But he was also a solitary, decidedly different kind of industrial giant who, on the one hand, hired Pinkerton agents to spy on his own salesmen, and who on the other hand, introduced the first profit sharing plan.

And, oh, was he methodical! Once, to learn cooking, he began by trying every known recipe for eggs.

The Wizard of Photography by producer James DeVinney.