Snapshots to Snapchat: Why amateur photography matters, part one

Snapshots to Snapchat: Why amateur photography matters, part one

People have long kept diaries, family records, and legal documents to keep track of their lives and commemorate people, events, and important information. As new technologies become available, people change the way they keep those records and memories. We moved from handwritten records to printed books to digital files. Photography is another way that people record and remember. Photographs can capture a particular moment in time as it happens, with relatively little change between what a person sees with their own eyes even if the person behind the camera is not a skilled photographer.

Amateur photography explores home and private lives and captures its subjects in the moment. Pictures taken by amateur photographers create one-of-a-kind records that preserve memories and give a glimpse of the everyday lives of regular people. The National Gallery of Art notes that “Any American who takes a snapshot contributes to a compelling and influential genre…[that has] also affected the ways in which we represent ourselves and mark life events, preserving and even creating memories.” How did the photograph become such an important part of our lives?

The first snapshot camera was introduced by George Eastman in 1888 – the Kodak. It was a small hand-held box that cost $25 (about $600 today) and was very easy to use. The Kodak camera came with 100 shots preinstalled. When all the negatives were used, the photographer would send the whole camera back to the Eastman factory, which would send back the developed photographs along with the reloaded camera. It is easy to see where Kodak got its first slogan: You press the button, we do the rest.


However, the cost meant that many people could not afford to have their own camera. So, in 1900, Eastman released the Brownie, which cost only $1 (about $30 today). The new price made all the difference and one third of American households had a camera by 1905. Cameras continued to become more popular and easier to use. The Polaroid was invented in 1948, creating developed black and white photos in 60 seconds. Instant color film was available by the 1960s. Digital cameras were already in development by the 1970s and camera phones were on the market by 2001.

Today, almost every American has access to a camera, often right in our own pockets. Most people treasure the ability to capture and preserve memories. Some people even see snapshots as a form of American folk art. But what about the people who fail to appreciate the ease and ubiquity of snapshot photography?


The Art of the American Snapshot 1888-1978, National Gallery of Art,

The Invention of the “Snapshot” Changed the Way We Viewed the World, Smithsonian Magazine,