Reframing China: Kodak and the Growth of Amateur Photography, 1920–45

Friday, January 5, 2018: 11:10 AM
Columbia 10 (Washington Hilton)
Matthew Combs, University of California, Irvine
This paper examines the hows and whys of the technological and social shifts behind a rising boom in amateur photography in China of the 1920s and 1930s that was not limited to just the elite class. To elucidate these trends this paper explores the marketing and business of cameras in China, especially in treaty port cities like Shanghai and Tianjin where the Eastman Kodak company opened offices as early as 1921. Around the same time factories in China began producing celluloid, the plastic substance used as a backing for rolled film. As the camera widened its audience and became more affordable to the point that a personal camera was an option for more and more people, photography clubs blossomed. Articles about photography, both as a practice and a technology, were commonplace in Chinese newspapers and magazines. The Kodak company made presentations to school children. Engineering professors took their students on tours of Kodak offices. Photography became associated with modernization. Previous scholars have presented the history of photography in China by looking at the famous photographers, Euro-American and Chinese, and their photographs. Several have noted that the introduction of snapshot cameras popularized or “democratized,” photography world-wide, including in China. One of these cameras was “the Kodak” produced by the Eastman (Kodak) company in 1889 and marketed with their famous slogan “You press the button, we do the rest.” which allowed, for a time, the word “Kodak” to stand in for “camera.” But how did this adoption of a new and foreign technology come about? And what meaning did the new Chinese photographers ascribe to their cameras and their photographs? By examining a broad range of new amateur photographers, from housewives to engineering students, we can see how everyday Chinese citizens began to literally reframe their world and their place in it.