Time travel back to 1950 with a Best Buy circular and you basically blow minds with every page. Flatscreen TVs? Crazy. Computers? Crazy. Smartphones? Double crazy. And then you get to the cameras, and the fedora-wearing fellow with the I Like Ike button whose world you just turned upside-down leans in for a closer look, squints a little bit, and says, “Oh, yeah, we’ve got those too!”
A Visual Compendium of Cameras, the latest from Pop Chart Lab, shows a hundred of the most important cameras ever produced, starting with the the original Kodak in 1888. And seeing all that history lined up, you can’t help but notice: compared to other gizmos, at least in terms of basic form factor, our picture-taking things have remained surprisingly consistent over the years. Not identical, perhaps, but definitely identifiable.
Which isn’t to say that photography hasn’t changed over that period. Of course it has. The most popular camera in the world today isn’t even really a camera–it’s an iPhone. We’ve ditched film for files, we’ve seen it become just as easy to capture video as individual snapshots, and we’ve even started celebrating our unaltered photos. So commonplace is the ability these days to transform our pictures with the touch of a button.
And clearly, even just in terms of outward appearance, it hasn’t been one long half-century of iterations. There was the ultra-slim Minox, that standby of Cold War-era espionage, and the Graph-Check, which used eight lenses and shutters to capture a sequence of shots. There was a detour to boxier forms during Polaroid’s hey day in the ’70s and ’80s, and the introduction of ergonomic bulges during the DSLR era.
And still, the period that saw the most radical change in the appearance of these devices came not at the dawn of digital but rather at the turn of the century. “We’re of course now very used to the notion of a high-quality camera in the palm of your hand, but even the jumps from the 1888 Kodak to the first Leica in 1925 show design with portability and distillation in mind,” says William Prince, Pop Chart’s managing editor. “Whereas one might have to roll the 1897 Gandolfi Quarter Plate around on a cart (the lens was mounted in a brass-bound wooden box), the Leica A could be held in much the same way as a modern DSLR.”