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

A century before drones cruised the skies, American camera hounds made photography a personal art

Peter Crowther

When Jason Muscat proposed to his girlfriend Christina, he had a surprise planned: a flying drone. He had a hexacopter—which flies using six helicopter blades—deliver him the ring, and then, after the proposal, it launched into the air to capture pictures of the happy couple. When you see the footage, it looks like an angel is peering down on them.

The age of everyday camera drones has arrived—bringing strange new forms of photography. Camera hounds are using drones, which now cost only a few hundred dollars at RadioShack, all over the place. They’ve snapped images of models walking a Fendi catwalk, street scenes in Las Vegas, and surfers breaking waves down in Peahi, Hawaii.

And they’re causing new privacy panics. Many communities are discovering to their alarm that local police now want to snoop from the sky. And women now fret about new, sneaky forms of voyeurism, “creepshots,” from above. This summer one female beachgoer became so incensed by a man assembling his drone near the sand that she physically attacked him, grabbing his face and calling him a “pervert.”

In essence, drones are changing the face of photography—and causing big cultural upheavals. How will society change when anyone can spy from above?

We can find some clues by looking at the last great shift in photography: the rise of the personal camera and the birth of the “snapshot.” It was a moment that changed the way we recorded the world.

For what could be the first American selfie, Philadelphian Robert Cornelius took this self-portrait in 1839 using a box fitted with a lens. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
The Original Kodak, introduced by George Eastman in 1888, came preloaded with film for 100 snapshots and sold for $25. NMAH, SI

Photography emerged in the early 19th century, but well into the 1880s it was a difficult, ponderous thing to do. The reigning forms of photography recorded onto chemically treated plates and paper. Taking a picture required the subjects to sit still for a half minute or more—“torture,” as the social critic Walter Benjamin recalled. Families trooped into studios to get portraits taken, but they were a study in stiffness: everyone sitting ramrod straight, afraid to move—or even to change their expression—for fear of blurring the photo.

“Those pictures were, for the most part, pretty formal,” says Diane Waggoner, an associate curator of photography at the National Gallery of Art. “People didn’t smile much.” The conventions of photos were still “modeled on painted portraits.”

Things changed dramatically in 1888 when George Eastman introduced the Kodak camera. A small hand-held box, it cost only $25—about the price of a higher-end iPad in today’s money, which put it in the range of the well-off middle class. And it offered simplicity: It arrived with 100 shots preinstalled, and when they were taken you shipped the entire camera back to Eastman’s factory in Rochester, New York, where workers developed the photos and mailed them back to you along with your reloaded camera. “You press the button, we do the rest,” as the Kodak slogan rang.

Suddenly, photography became unmoored in space. People took the camera out into the sunshine—and were immediately entranced by the ability to capture lively, goofy everyday motion.

They took shots of themselves on bicycles, of jumping into the air at the beach, of children playing with pets. They attempted to capture moments of evanescent action, like a cat pouncing on a bird, or spectacular news events, like when a train accidentally busted through a wall. Humor abounded: When people posed for “snapshots”—the newfangled word—they mugged for the camera, even turning around to display their rear ends or pretending to milk horses, as Douglas Collins writes in The Story of Kodak. In a prefiguring of modern meme culture, people made visual jokes: One trend had people posing with their heads poking through holes in newspapers, punning on “breaking the news.” Others snapped pictures of themselves in the mirror, the original “selfies.”

“They were often playful,” Waggoner adds. Indeed, people rarely took pictures of anything sad. It was as if, after decades of morose stiffness, they were stretching their limbs, loose from the corset of the studio.

Part of the freedom came from surplus. When you had 100 possible snaps in your camera, each picture became less precious—so people could experiment with odd angles and ideas. “They didn’t have to treat them as special things,” Waggoner notes. Soon, they started developing new aesthetics, new photographic conventions. “That photo at a party where everybody piles into the picture? That wasn’t something you’d ever see in a studio,” says Todd Gustavson, curator of technology at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.

A game even emerged called “snapshooting,” a sort of photographic version of tag: You tried to escape while someone raced around trying to catch you on film. (A famous photo shows a laughing, 20-year-old Franklin Delano Roosevelt hiding behind a female relative as he plays the game.)

The idea that an event would be snapshotted changed people’s behavior. Brides began arranging their weddings and dinners specifically so they’d look good in the pictures. People were training themselves to see the world through the eyes of the camera.

“It was not only changing your attitude toward photography, but toward the thing itself that you were photographing,” says Brian Wallis, the chief curator at the International Center of Photography. “So you had to stage a dinner, and stage a birthday party.”

In 1900, Eastman produced the Brownie, a camera even more radically cheap—a mere $1—and marketed specifically to children. It sold so well that by 1905, fully a third of American households possessed a camera.

Not everyone was happy with the rise of the snapshot. Professional photographers were repelled by the weird, ungainly, often out-of-focus shots that amateurs produced. “Photography as a fad is well nigh on its last legs,” prayed the art photographer Alfred Stieglitz. Other pundits bemoaned “Kodak fiends,” camera obsessives who carried their device everywhere and were apparently so constantly taking pictures that they would space out and miss their trains.

The snapshot evolved, too. Eastman adroitly realized that people would take even more pictures if they were reminded of the power of photos to preserve memories. “Memory has a most aggravating way of storing up details for which we don’t care a crooked sixpence—and of dropping out of sight forever things we really want to know,” as one Kodak ad proclaimed. The 1943 edition of Eastman’s book How to Make Good Pictures encouraged parents to lifelog their children’s every step, producing “an intimate snapshot diary covering the entire period from cradle days to full manhood or womanhood.”

Edwin Land, the creator of the Polaroid in the ’40s, regarded his device as a powerful memory machine. Land envisioned that one day “you’d have a wall in your home, and you’d be snapping all day long and shooting all day long, and posting them there,” says Christopher Bonanos, author of Instant: The Story of Polaroid. “What he was imagining was a giant Facebook wall.”


The snapshot changed the power dynamics of photography. Now that people were carrying cameras around, a social conundrum emerged: What if your picture were taken without your permission—while you were out in public?

This was a new dilemma. Previously, in the age of the studio photo, “you had to sit there and pose. You not only had to give your consent, you had to cooperate a lot,” notes Ryan Calo, an assistant professor of law at the University of Washington who specializes in privacy issues. With a hand-held camera, a picture could be taken of you unawares.

“Beware the Kodak,” warned the Hartford Courant. “The sedate citizen can’t indulge in any hilariousness without incurring the risk of being caught in the act and having his photography passed among his Sunday School children.” The fear that your reputation could migrate into the ether, far beyond your control, was hatched.

Much like the woman who confronted the beach drone, those in the viewfinder responded with violence. In Britain, young men reportedly formed a “Vigilance Association”—“for the purpose of thrashing the cads with cameras who go about at seaside places taking snapshots of ladies emerging from the deep,” as a journalist wrote. In the United States, a writer described women on a train trying to smash the Kodak of an onboard voyeur and “shower the poor ‘fiend’ with sand.”

In 1890, only two years into the Kodak’s reign, two legal scholars—Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, who later sat on the Supreme Court—pondered these developments with alarm. In a law journal article, “The Right to Privacy,” they argued that technology was creating a new harm. “Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life,” they wrote, adding that “the latest advances in photographic art have rendered it possible to take pictures surreptitiously.” They posed four new torts that could help give citizens new ways to fight for their privacy.

The article became one of the most influential in legal history; indeed, all four torts went on, amazingly, to become law in states across the country. “It’s just incredible the influence it had,” Calo marvels.


You can see a similar cultural rupture taking place with today’s drones. With their ability to “perch and stare”—hanging in the air, often quite silently—they allow for entirely new forms of voyeurism: peering into windows, over fences, or zooming above public crowds to pick out individuals. Several states have already passed laws to try to govern their use; Texas, for example, limits most civilian use of drones, with certain exemptions, including allowing real estate agents to capture snapshots of property they’re trying to sell. One Colorado town considered a measure that would allow locals to shoot drones out of the sky. As law scholar Daniel Solove—author of Understanding Privacy—argues, these sorts of laws are likely to become much-needed subjects of debate, a modern updating of Brandeis and Warren’s concerns. “We can’t let the technologies overrun us,” he says.

Yet it’s also true that like the Kodak and Brownie and Polaroid, drones are creating new aesthetics for picture-taking by everyday people—some of which are strikingly lovely and useful. Environmental advocates have found that drones are useful for monitoring the health of wildlife in remote areas, since many animals do not seem to react to flying devices. Sports buffs are using them to capture NFL-like footage of amateur games.

Once again, creative vistas are opening up. Shots that were once the province of professionals are becoming those of amateurs—and amateurs are experimenting with shots the pros never dreamed of. For good and ill, photography is being born anew.

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