Through a Soldier’s Lens Part 3: Vest Pocket Kodak

Through a Soldier's Lens: Jack Speed's WWI Photography is currently on exhibit in the Filson’s Nash gallery. The exhibit is open through July 27, 2018 and showcases the photographs of Jack Speed, a young soldier from Louisville, Kentucky who served in World War I. In this third installment of a four-part series, we take a look at the camera Jack most likely used during the war, a Vest Pocket Kodak.


Vest Pocket Kodak: A Visual Democracy
By Hannah Melvin, Commonwealth Center for Humanities and Society Intern

As a college student, I consume considerable media content every day, whether it is classwork or through social media. I see pictures from places I have never been or even knew existed and I have been privy to more information than ever before. Personally, I think accessibility to information and art is exciting and I am excited to see others expressing their voices through imagery. The Filson’s current exhibit, Through a Soldier's Lens, does just that.

The Vest Pocket Kodak (VPK) was released in 1912 and was popularized over the next several years.  Without such a camera, Jack would not have been able to share his perspective of the war. As he mentions in one of his many letters to his family, his photographs were largely prohibited to send home, at least for the first few months. After his deployment to France, the regulation changed and Jack was able to send a few images back to the U.S.

Jack Speed in his quarters at Fontainebleau, France in 1917. This was the first photograph Jack was able to send home to his family. [Speed Family Photograph Collection, 007PC282.0139]

The VPK camera’s advancement and popularity allowed the soldier’s experience to be visible to the public. During the earlier years of the war before U.S. entrance, photos of the battlefield were leaked because the VPK provided soldiers with the agency to do so. In my opinion, the portable camera was arguably the most important innovation for historians pre-WWI.

The Filson will have the honor of hosting military historian Jon Cooksey for two lectures this summer. Cooksey was educated at Carnegie College, Nottingham University and Dalhouse University and has written many published works on military history, two of which he will discuss at the Filson. On June 19 at 6:00 p.m., he will discuss The Vest Pocket Kodak and the First World War, which describes the camera that made Jack’s photographs possible. On June 20 at 12:00 p.m., Cooksey will discuss his book Harry’s War: The Great War Diary of Harry Drinkwater. This lecture will consider the diaries of Drinkwater who wrote “one of the best diaries of the First World War.”

This Vest Pocket Kodak camera is just like the one we believe Jack used during his deployment.

As I await these lectures, I did a little preliminary research. It seems to me that Jack wouldn’t have had the opportunity to share the life of a soldier without George Eastman, the founder of Kodak. Earlier cameras were about the size of a microwave, not including all the addition equipment needed for its functionality such as a tripod, chemicals, and glass plates.  Eastman was a curious and hardworking high school dropout who was fascinated with this process and tried to make improvements to photograph technology. Thus began Eastman’s Kodak Company and the development of portable cameras. Originally named the Eastman Company in 1888, the company of amateur photography grew in popularity in the economic market into the early 20th century. As a result, cameras were smaller, lighter, portable – and most importantly, cheap (or at least comparatively). Inexpensive cameras made photography accessible to the general population, including soldiers.

Many soldiers became amateur photographers and took pictures that were honest and truthful about WWI. According to Cooksey’s book, one in five British soldiers had a VPK before they were banned in 1915. One way Kodak accomplished this was through marketing. Kodak targeted soldiers with sayings like, “Wherever you are going, however cramped for space, this wonderfully compact little camera can accompany unobtrusively. It is always ready for action” – a true allusion to the unpredictable life of soldiers in training camps and in combat. Despite some attempts at censorship, photographs taken by soldiers spread far and wide, showing the reality of war.

Join me at the Filson to listen to Jon Cooksey lecture more on the VPK and visit our exhibit to see the camera itself!

Jana Meyer

Jana Meyer is an Associate Curator of Collections. She received a degree in History from the University of Louisville and a master's degree in Library and Information Science from the University of Kentucky. Jana specializes in arranging and describing the Filson's manuscript collections. In her free time, she enjoys playing board games and hiking with her husband and three-legged dog, Rascal.

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