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Remembering to Forget the Kodak

In 1888, the George Eastman Company put the first film-roll camera on the market. The new “Kodak” put photographic practice into the hands of many amateurs and hobbyists for the first time. This camera had immediate cultural effect, shaping how people saw and recorded things—even when they didn’t have a Kodak with them. In 1890, for example, the American journalist Nellie Bly had few regrets about her record-breaking trip around the world, except that in her “hasty departure [she] forgot to take a Kodak.”[1] Five years later, when H. G. Wells’s Time Traveller reached an astonishing future, he echoed the sentiment: “If only I had thought of a Kodak!”[2] Despite advertising campaigns urging travelers to not forget their cameras, many didn’t learn the lesson. In Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out (1915), St. John Hirst reproaches himself in South America: “What an ass I was not to bring my Kodak!”[3] Portable cameras and personal photography became ubiquitous, but everyone kept forgetting their Kodaks (figs. 1–2).

Don’t Forget the Lunch—or your Kodak!
Fig. 1. “Don’t Forget the Lunch—or your Kodak!” The Baker Advertising Agency, Limited, 1937. Courtesy of Ryerson University Library.
N’oubliez pas votre Kodak
Fig. 2. “N’oubliez pas votre ‘Kodak’” (“Don’t Forget Your ‘Kodak’”), French Advertisement for Kodak Cameras, Eastman Kodak Company, 1923. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum.

From three different works across a quarter-century, these moments of forgetfulness show how photography became a standard, even expected, means for recording experience, especially when one traveled. As Susan Sontag later reflected, “It seems positively unnatural to travel for pleasure without taking a camera along.”[4] Yet Bly, Wells, and Woolf reveal something more peculiar from the early decades of personal photography, and they do so with remarkable brand specificity: they invoke the Kodak not to mark its presence but its absence. One of the remarkable novelties of this Kodak camera—and an effect of its brilliant branding—was how people thought of it when it wasn’t there (figs. 3–5). Nonetheless, speaking or writing that alliterative word momentarily stood in for the apparatus itself, enunciating a phantom shutter’s click. This brand name spoke to some new anxiety in modern life, and these writers’ invocations of the Kodak flashed and developed the missed encounter, leaving a surrogate written impression in its place.

Take a Kodak with You
Fig. 3. “Take a Kodak with You,” Advertising for Folding Pocket Kodak Camera, Alf Cooke Ltd, c. 1913. Courtesy of the George Eastman Museum.
Take a Kodak with You
Fig. 4. “Take a Kodak with You,” Eastman Kodak Company, 1914. Courtesy of Rubenstein Library, Duke University.
Take a Kodak with You, 1910
Fig. 5. “Take a Kodak with You,” by Claude Allin Shepperson, 1910. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The Kodak was the latest in a string of Eastman’s photographic innovations and, like the Lumière brothers, George Eastman distinguished himself as much with his business savvy as with his inventions.[5] He outmaneuvered competitors in the transatlantic and global markets, developing mutually dependent products and protecting them. As Nancy Martha West shows in Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia, the Kodak story is intertwined with the rise of marketing and advertising. The company’s stated ambitions were to create a product, a market—even a new world. In 1921, their advertising manager put it this way: “Kodak inventions created photography for the world. Kodak advertising strove to create a world for photography.”[6] This claim calls to mind another made two years later by T. S. Eliot. In his review of Ulysses, Eliot wrote: “It is, I seriously believe, a step toward making the modern world possible for art.”[7] At their boldest, modernist innovations create the worlds they enter into.

Two ‘k’s’, an ‘o’, a ‘d’ and an ‘a’
Fig. 6. “Two ‘k’s’, an ‘o’, a ‘d’ and an ‘a,’” Eastman Kodak Company, 1920. Courtesy of Rubenstein Library, Duke University.

Eastman squabbled with other pioneers over terminology. When a competitor sought to patent the “combination” camera, Eastman protested that, if one could trademark “combination,” one may as well “prevent your fellow citizens from using the English language.”[8] He realized that words, like cameras, do things, and a new photographic world required a new vocabulary. So in the 1888 patent Eastman coined “Kodak,” a peculiar word, the ks affording near-palindromic symmetry (fig. 6). Eastman believed Kodak could be easily pronounced across languages, and he particularly liked its consonants, which he called “strong and incisive . . . firm and unyielding” (cited in Brayer, George Eastman, 63). Kodak soon became not just a product name but a portable idea, an imagined accessory, and a perceptual prosthesis. In the marketing and in colloquial parlance, the name became an adjective (the “Kodak girl”), a verb (“Let the children Kodak”), and a component for other nouns (“Kodakery”) (figs. 7–8).

Let the Children Kodak advertisement
Fig. 7. “Let the Children Kodak,” Eastman Kodak Company, 1908. Courtesy of Rubenstein Library, Duke University.
Triumph of Kodakery advertisement
Fig. 8. “Triumph of Kodakery,” Eastman Kodak Company, 1901. Courtesy of Rubenstein Library, Duke University.

Cameras are woven throughout Woolf’s work, as Colin Dickey shows, and they cast light on her integration of visual elements, her preservation of the ephemeral, and her navigation of foreign scenes.[9] Woolf collected albums and boxes of photographs, and she referred to them often in her letters; she also integrated photographs into her later prose, in Orlando (1928), and Three Guineas (1938). As a teenager, Woolf used a Frena model camera and later bought a more expensive Zeiss.[10] Yet, despite her own brand preferences, she wrote about the popular Kodak. There is a Kodak moment in Jacob’s Room (1922), and there is the missing camera in The Voyage Out.

In The Voyage Out, the characters travel to a coastal outpost in South America. Their furthest inland expedition is framed with familiar tropes. It is Shakespearean forest in which the characters shed social conventions amidst unfamiliar flora, confessing love to one another; and, with an unmistakable Joseph Conrad echo, the characters travel upstream by steam: “They seemed to be driving into the heart of the night . . . [t]he great darkness” (Woolf, Voyage Out, 325). On the river, their eyes grow accustomed to “the wall of trees on either side,” but as they near a remote village they see an opening (341). Suddenly, “[r]ows of brown backs paused for a moment and then leapt with a motion as if they were springing over waves out of sight.” Woolf plays with Conrad’s penchant for describing bodies in parts, as inscrutable shapes. Here there is a sleight of hand though, and the reader is complicit in the projection. Those backs do not belong to the natives of the village but to a herd of wild deer. As the animals recede in the darkness, St. John Hirst proclaims, “What an ass I was not to bring my Kodak!” Never in his life, he continues, had he “seen anything bigger than a hare!” (342).

The Kodak in The Voyage Out marks a now-familiar photographic reaction. It touches on a whole cluster of ideas that, theorized across the twentieth century, were not quite articulate in 1915. The rise of popular photography produces an experience of being both absent and present; there is a need to document something in order to make it feel substantial, and to meet the judgment of a projected future self. The fleeting glimpse of the deer prompts Hirst to see his life as a collection of views, of preserved mental snapshots. He craves a record of distinction or accomplishment, of apprehending something “bigger than a hare.” This voyage out is related to hunting, the point-and-shoot camera aligned with the gun (figs. 9–10). Conjuring this wild terrain she never had seen, Woolf captures her character’s sense of missing out, even when he is on the scene—being there gets one closer, but never quite close enough. With the consonants’ click, the Kodak manages to condense these desires (and disappointments) to travel and see the world, to capture the unusual or unprecedented. Allied with the narration, the missing Kodak gives the moment iconic and transferable form, but it also generalizes; it levels this singular experience with all the other collected Kodak snapshots, real and imagined.

If You Want It—Take It—With a Kodak advertisement
Fig. 9. “If You Want It—Take It—With a Kodak,” Cover of the Eastman Kodak Trade Catalog, Eastman Kodak Company, 1901. Courtesy of the Local History & Genealogy Division, Rochester (New York) Public Library.
There are No Game Laws for Those Who Hunt with a Kodak advertisement
Fig. 10. “There are No Game Laws for Those Who Hunt with a Kodak,” Eastman Kodak Company, 1915. Courtesy of Rubenstein Library, Duke University.

Twenty-five years earlier, in 1890, a Kodak appeared in Nellie Bly’s Book: Around the World in Seventy-Two Days. Within two years of its coinage, the word “Kodak” already was associated with travel and advertising, as well as with envy and disappointment. In 1890, Bly had just beaten Jules Verne’s fictional circumnavigation record, circling the world in seventy-two days. While she was away, her stunt commanded front-page attention in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. Her illustrated avatar, in an iconic cap and thatched-line coat, traveled through the pages of the newspaper’s sensational coverage. When Bly triumphantly returned, however, her own written account was buried in the Sunday edition with little fanfare or illustration. Strangely, her first-person account read as an after-thought, lacking the liveness of the World’s initial telling.

A few months later Bly reclaimed her experience through the publication of Nellie Bly’s Book, an edition with stock photographs of foreign scenes as well as advertisements. This is where her Kodak appears, in its absence. Near the narrative’s end, Bly writes that she forgot the Kodak and, a few pages later in the back matter, there is a full-page Eastman ad. This was the era when companies realized “that the image of a famous person could be used to sell products” and, in what we now would call a product placement, Bly appends the popular accessory to her story, like a retrospective addition to her handbag.[11] Yet in the history of Nellie Bly’s Book, this forgotten Kodak is an ephemeral flash, mentioned in neither the first version in The World, nor in the latest version of Bly’s collected writing. In the 2014 Penguin Classics edition, Jean Marie Lutes trims about a quarter of the text from the 1890 publication, omitting some digressions as well as Bly’s less flattering depictions of the world and its people. On her excursions to remote places, Bly’s travel writing takes a callous and nativist turn, which complicates her popular legacy as a crusading journalist.

Lutes also removes the Kodak product placement. In the omitted passage, Bly reflects on what she did not capture on her swift journey: “The only regret of my trip, and one I can never cease to deplore, was that in my hasty departure I forgot to take a Kodak. On every ship and at every port I met others—and envied them—with Kodaks.” The Kodak pulls Bly momentarily out of the scene, like St. John Hirst, to evaluate her trip from prospective retrospect. While Woolf’s character laments a Kodak left behind—back in the hotel, if not back in England—Bly sees Kodaks all around her. Everyone else seems to have one, and so Bly introduces a social element: Kodak envy. She mentions a German who has two Kodaks, and “his collection of photographs was the most interesting” she ever saw. These travelers move easily together, through imperial networks converted for leisure, “accumulating photograph-trophies . . . converting experience into an image, a souvenir” (Sontag, On Photography, 9). Writing almost a century after Bly, Sontag identifies the workaholic Americans, Germans, and Japanese as the people most prone to putting “the camera between themselves and whatever is remarkable” (10) (fig. 11). In 1890, the American Bly envies a German tourist in Japan for his Kodaks, his photographs, and perhaps also for the pace of his around-the-world trip.

The World Is Mine—I Own a Kodak advertisement
Fig. 11. “The World Is Mine—I Own a Kodak,” Eastman Kodak Company, 1912. Courtesy of Rubenstein Library, Duke University.

Five years after Bly returned from her trip—or by the plot, some 800,000—H. G. Wells’s Time Traveller finds himself missing a Kodak. Wells extends the period’s imperial desire to new frontiers, to the “fourth dimension.” In the novel’s primary trip to the future, the Time Traveller is acquainted with the idyllic life of the Elois, only to realize that they are raised like cattle to be eaten by the underground Morlocks. The Morlocks also steal the time machine, so this traveler descends to their realm to recover it and escape. Here, in the darkness, there is a narrative pause. The Time Traveller and the reader wait for their eyes to adjust, to discern their surroundings. The Time Traveller feels unprepared, and he reflects on what he has with him. It is strange, in the dark, to think of taking pictures: “I had come without arms, without medicine, without anything to smoke—at times I missed tobacco frightfully—even without enough matches. If only I had thought of a Kodak! I could have flashed that glimpse of the Underworld in a second, and examined it at leisure” (Wells, “Time Machine,” 66).

The 1895 travel checklist is telling: arms, medicine and tobacco, and the Kodak. Further in his list are four matches, which will be transformed into the forgotten weapons; the Morlocks are terrified of the light, and the Time Traveller wields fire against them, writing with lit matches before their eyes. The forgotten Kodak, if it were there, would provide a sort of equal and opposite reaction to the matches: it would gather light rather than producing it. Wells was ambivalent about visual technologies and the period’s emerging “filmic consciousness.” “His is a visual universe,” Sarah Cole writes, “that impresses us in vivid ways, then goes dark.”[12] The Time Traveller’s forgotten Kodak repeats this pattern, replacing fleeting hope with disappointment. While the camera doesn’t “flash” the scene, it implicitly suggests to the Time Traveller—like a negative image—what the matches can do.

The Time Traveller seeks to flash and examine the scene, but he overestimates the technical capability of the 1895 Kodak. He lacks flash-powder pyrotechnics, not to mention the capacity for quick development and printing of the images. This absent Kodak records the desire to see more in the moment, to see the unseen in general. Wells’s Kodak is both left behind and ahead of its time. It is a handheld time machine, predicting forms of photography still to come.

In the end, the narrator relays that the Time Traveller has departed again, this time with a small camera and a knapsack. We wait for “the second, perhaps still stranger story, and the specimens and photographs he would bring with him” (Wells, “Time Machine,” 90). The Time Traveller is still fugitive in time, and “everybody knows now” that we wait for his specimens and photographs—that is, to see something more. We wait for photographs of the future, anachronistic souvenirs made possible by the Kodak as much as by the time machine.

Wells’s Time Traveller—like Bly and like Woolf’s St. John Hirst—is faced with the personally unprecedented. For each of these characters or authors, to narrate or describe what they see—the world, the “exotic,” the future—is insufficient, and so they mark the perceptual excess with a strong and incisive word. The brand name shocks the moment in the surrounding literary discourse, at once splitting and doubling the reader’s experience. The Kodak makes the reader see the framed ekphrastic shot—the deer in motion, tourists comparing pictures in Japan, an ominous darkness—while all the same sharing in the feeling that we, too, have missed it, the proper view or the thing itself. Forgetting the Kodak then may be better than the alternative. Forgetting it—but recalling it—makes for a more attentive and reflective way of being in the world.

They All Remembered the Kodak advertisement
Fig. 12. “They All Remembered the Kodak,” Eastman Kodak Company, 1909. Courtesy of Rubenstein Library, Duke University.

Amid the many ads about not forgetting the Kodak, in 1909 the company showcased the results of prospective remembering (fig. 12). Five travelers lean on their luggage. They face inwards, their heads down, smiling at the camera in their midst. As their lines of sight converge on the Kodak, the advertisement sketches a picture of modern solipsism. These travelers, in looking so intently at the Kodak in their midst, seem assured to not see anything worth capturing with it.


[1] Nellie Bly, Nellie Bly’s Book: Around the World in Seventy-Two Days (New York: Pictorial Weeklies, 1890), unpag. [Chapter 15].

[2] H. G. Wells, “The Time Machine,” in The Definitive Time Machine, ed. Harry M. Geduld (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 29–90, 66.

[3] Virginia Woolf, The Voyage Out (London: The Hogarth Press, 1949 [1915]), 342.

[4] Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Picador, 1977), 9.

[5] John P. Jacob, “Foreword,” The Kodak Girl: From the Martha Cooper Collection, ed. John P. Jacob (Göttingen: Steidl, 2011), 8–16, 10.

[6] George French, “Advertise the Idea to Sell the Product: How the Eastman Company Talks ‘Photography’ So That the Public Hears ‘Kodaks,’” Advertising & Selling 30:29 (1921): 5–7, 6.

[7] T. S. Eliot, “Ulysses, Order, and Myth,” in Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode (San Diego: Harvest, 1975), 175–178, 178.

[8] George Eastman, quoted in Elizabeth Brayer, George Eastman: A Biography (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 54.

[9] Colin Dickey, “Virginia Woolf and Photography,” The Edinburgh Companion to Virginia Woolf and the Arts, ed. Maggie Humm (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2010), 375–391.

[10] Maggie Humm, Modernist Women and Visual Culture: Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Photography and Cinema (Edinburgh, UK: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), 60.

[11] Matthew Goodman, Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World (New York: Ballantine, 2013), 330–31.

[12] Sarah Cole, Inventing the Future: H. G. Wells and the Twentieth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019), 97.