BOOK REVIEW: ‘500 Cameras’: Tracing the History of Photography Through the Wide Variety of Cameras That Turned Light Into Art

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: '500 Cameras': Tracing the History of Photography Through the Wide Variety of Cameras That Turned Light Into Art

If you’re a camera collector, Todd Gustavson’s “500 Cameras: 170 Years of Photographic Innovation” (Sterling Publishing, Sterling Signature, quality paperback, 480 pages, index, $26.95) is an invaluable addition to your reference shelf — and will make you drooling for specimens you’ve always wanted but couldn’t afford or find. If you’re not a collector and are interested in photography, it’s an ideal book to trace the history of photography through the astounding variety of cameras that made making pictures a reality.

Beautifully photographed in full color, the cameras are from the from the world-famous collection in George Eastman House — the Rochester, NY mansion that was the home of Eastman Kodak founder George Eastman. Gustavson, curator of technology at the George Eastman House, organizes the cameras into genealogical categories — from detective to digital, stereo to subminiature, to instant photography, including a variety of Polaroid Land Cameras. Alongside 35mm cameras like Nikons, Canons, Leicas, Arguses, etc., etc., you’ll see curiosities like stereoscopic cameras, postcard cameras, and spy cameras hidden in watches, buttons, and fountain pens. Digital cameras, which have pretty much taken over from analogue or film ones, are well represented, with both professional and consumer models displayed and described.


Gustavson’s brief essays are excellent, giving information about each camera and its place in photographic history. Rather than just one Leica or Nikon or Canon rangefinder camera, for example, Gustavson selects a number of them. An excellent approach that will appeal to collectors who may already know much of this information (or not) and other readers who don’t.


BOOK REVIEW: '500 Cameras': Tracing the History of Photography Through the Wide Variety of Cameras That Turned Light Into Art


Additioinally, succinct essays by experts in the field — including Robert Shanebrook, Martin Scott, and Mark Osterman — trace the technological development of the camera and provide insight into the innovators behind the lens. As a collector (even though I’m in a continuing state of denial about this!) and user of cameras myself, I was pleased to see essays by collectors like Jerry Friedman (subminiature cameras) and Rolf Fricke (history of the Leica camera firm, and president emeritus of the Leica Historical Society of America). Collectors have played a major role in preserving cameras, and have also donated items to the Eastman House’s marvelous collection.


At least two of the cameras in the book were used by famous photographers: The Anniversary Speed Graphic 4×5 on Page 304 was used by Joe Rosenthal to capture the famous flag raising at Iwo Jima in 1945. The famous image garnered the Pulitzer Prize for press photographer Rosenthal. The RB Auto Graflex on Page 158 was used by Alfred Stieglitz and was donated by his famous model and companion, artist Georgia O’Keeffe.


There are essays on toy cameras, including the famous Diana camera that spawned a whole segment of photography by people who use the Diana and its spinoffs the Holga and Lomo to take pictures that capitalize on the light leaks and other defects of these one-time throwaway cameras to create abstract photos.


BOOK REVIEW: '500 Cameras': Tracing the History of Photography Through the Wide Variety of Cameras That Turned Light Into Art


The cameras in the book are often works of art themselves, especially the beautifully designed wooden daguerrotype cameras of the 1840s and 1850s. The variety of cameras is astonishing and people who think 3D is new will be shocked to find 3D cameras from the same period. 3D enjoyed a revival around the turn of the 20th century and again in the 1950s and cameras from all these periods are in the book, including the Stereo Realist camera that’s still prized today. I wouldn’t be surprised if 3D makes another comeback in the form of digital cameras. The book is also a poignant reminder that once upon a time, America actually manufactured fine cameras.
About the Author

Todd Gustavson is curator of technology at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York. He is responsible for the cataloging, storage, and maintenance of one of the world’s largest collections of photographic and cinematic equipment, containing more than 20,000 artifacts. He has curated or co-curated many exhibitions for the museum, including the critically acclaimed traveling exhibition “The Brownie at 100.” His previous book, Camera: A History of Photography from Daguerreotype to Digital, was published by Sterling in 2009.


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