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Taking pictures has been a common thing for people to do ever since the 1930s, but doing a picture today is very different from what I remember in the early 1940s. Taking a picture was once a rare and rather costly task.

Today, people snap pictures with their phones without even thinking, and the camera apparatus saves the picture automatically for later printing, emailing or posting to social media. Cameras, as such, began to appear in the late 1800s, beginning about the time of the Civil War.

Early cameras were large, bulky, heavy box-like instruments requiring coated glass plates to be inserted before snapping a picture. The exposures had to be rather lengthy, so the people being pictured had to sit still for many seconds. Moving a head or arm during the exposure, or changing one's facial expression, could blur the resulting picture. So, in early photographs the people are often starkly posed and very solemn in their expressions. Taking pictures of young children was especially challenging, because they often moved without thinking, and had a hard time enduring the long, still exposure times.

When I was young, in the early 1940s, probably the best known camera company was the Kodak Camera Company. They had pioneered roll-type film for cameras, eliminating the older plates, and making practical cameras of relatively small size and at a price that common families could afford. This meant that families could have do-it-yourself photography sessions. It became unnecessary to hire a professional camera man or to go to a photography studio in order to have family pictures made.

Nevertheless, early on, even my family still would go to a photography studio when they wanted to have formal pictures made, pictures intended for long endurance and preservation of memories. I remember going to a popular photography studio on South First Street in Rogers, just about a block from the big hotel on Poplar Street. I can't remember the photographer's name now. There was also a similar studio on South Main Street in Bentonville, in the first block south of the city square. These photography studios were often self-contained businesses, in which the photographer also developed the film and made the prints that would be picked up a few days later by the family.

My family, from the time of my earliest memory, owned a Kodak box camera.

(Kodak cameras became so common that for years people called cameras Kodaks, even if they were made by other companies. Similarly, across northwest Arkansas, refrigerators were called Frigidaires, even if not made by Frigidaire. And, even a few years ago, a copier was often referred to as a Xerox machine, even if it was not manufactured by Xerox.)

The Kodak camera was basically a box about 5 inches wide, 7 inches long and 6 inches tall. The camera required a roll of film, which wrapped around the inside rear of the box, moving on rollers, and wound by a knob on the camera's side. The camera lens focused the light on that portion of the film at the rear of the box when the shutter snapped the exposure. To put in a new roll of film, you first went into a dark room or closet, because exposing the film to light would ruin it, then remove the camera cover and tear open the film package, insert the end of the film in the drive roller, and wind the film to an indicated point. Then, finally, you put the camera cover back on, and wound the film until the first number appeared in the little window. You were then ready to shoot as many as eight pictures on that roll of film.

Like today's smart phone cameras, the Kodak box camera could be used upright, or turned on its side, so as to produce pictures of portrait or landscape orientation. The box camera had viewfinders on the top and on the side, to accommodate those orientation options. When all the pictures were exposed on your roll of film, you carefully removed the film from the camera in a dark room, firmed up and fastened the film roll to be sent to a development lab. My wife Nancy remembers sending film to St. Joseph, Mo., to be developed and to have prints made.

After a couple of weeks, your pictures would be returned to you by mail. So, unlike today, there was no way of verifying what a picture would look like until you received it back from the film processing lab. One thing about those old pictures, they were usually high-quality and long-lasting pictures, with a potential to last a 100 years.


Editor's note: Jerry Nichols, a native of Pea Ridge and an award-winning columnist, is vice president of Pea Ridge Historical Society. He can be contacted by e-mail at [email protected], or call 621-1621.

Editorial on 06/12/2019

Print Headline: "Is It New, or Old?" Cameras -- then and now

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