In 1912, Kodak released the Vest Pocket Kodak, a camera that would not only bring with it a new type of film, but an entirely new way of life for countless people. Suddenly, photography was accessible, portable, and relatively affordable. Everyday people from all walks of life could use the new camera to shoot whatever they like. And the public took notice. The VPK quickly became the best-selling camera of its time.
More than a hundred years later, we recognize the Vest Pocket Kodak as one of the most important cameras ever made. And though this model today today has been virtually forgotten by the younger generation of the film photography community, the VPK is worth remembering.
A Brief History of the Vest Pocket Kodak
The first model in Kodak’s Vest Pocket camera range was introduced in April of 1912, and sold for $6, which, when adjusted for inflation, equates to $180 today. This was quite expensive for a camera that wasn’t technically ground-breaking.
The first model came with a single element meniscus lens mounted alongside an aperture mechanism (the maximum speed of which was f/11), and a simple ball bearing shutter capable of four speeds (1/50th, 1/25th of a second, plus Bulb and Time modes for long exposures). The lens element itself was sharp in the center and that’s about it. Which explains why many photographs from this time period are relatively sharp and mushy everywhere else. Lens optics from this period, compared to where they would be only a few decades later, can be described as primitive. Primitive optics however, didn’t hamper sales. The first Vest Pocket Kodak sold over 200,000 units.
Interestingly, a British variant of the camera received a proper f/6.8 lens from Koritska, an Italian optics designer.
In 1915, Kodak released the Autographic model. This model would not only go on to be the best selling of Kodak’s cameras to that time, but a very important milestone in the history of photography. It was offered with the meniscus lens, or what’s known as a U.S. speed 8 rapid rectilinear lens, which is a lens that reduces radial distortion, as well as four shutter speeds (same as the previous model).
The most notable feature of the Autographic model was the ability to write directly onto the film. That’s right, Kodak essentially laid the foundation for EXIF data. How was this possible? The Autographic featured a metal, hinged flap on the back of the camera. By opening this, the photographer could access the backing paper of the film within. Sandwiched between the film negative and the backing paper was a thin carbon tissue. By writing notes on the backing paper, this would transfer the writing directly onto the negative beneath. When the negative was developed or a print made from the negative, the writing could be seen.
Kodak was quite clever for this, since they were marketing this camera as the tool for family photography and daily archiving by way of the photograph. They also positioned the Vest Pocket Kodak as the camera for everyone, such as the everyday worker just wanting a basic camera, the high roller who desired a luxurious gadget, and last but certainly not least, the ambitious amateur with aspirations of professional status.
During World War I, the vest pocket Kodak was advertised as the soldier’s camera. A way for soldiers on the front line to document their experiences of the war as well as keep in touch with loved ones back home. Military superiors did not approve of this. However, that didn’t stop soldiers from documenting the war or documenting in general.
The VPK Autographic sold an unprecedented 1.75 million units. Following this success, every subsequent model of Vest Pocket Kodak would feature the ability to write information onto the film. Daily photographic archiving was here to stay.
After the Autographic, Kodak released the Autographic Special, which came equipped with a variety of lenses from numerous makers, including Kodak themselves, Bausch & Lomb, Cooke, Ross, and even Zeiss. These various lenses were fitted with either f/6.9 or f/7.7 as maximum aperture.
Later versions of this model would be made with true focusing lenses as opposed to the fixed focusing lenses of all earlier models, with the most desirable version being fitted with the Zeiss Tessar f/4.9 with an eight speed Compur shutter.
The Autographic Special didn’t sell as well as the original Autographic, but still managed to shift approximately 300,000 units. In the mid-1920s, towards the end of production of the Autographic Special, Kodak changed the design of the camera to a drop bed style rather than the tong design of earlier models.
In 1926, the VPK Model B was introduced as a more bare bones folding bed design marketed as the Boy Scout and Girl Scout Kodak. This model also received a new front plate design from Walter Dorwin Teague, who not only designed cameras for Kodak but Polaroid as well.
The optics in the Model B are very similar to the prior models. The aperture however, was numbered 1-4 whereas on previous models, aperture was indicated by weather descriptions such as “brilliant,” “clear,” “gray,” and “dull.”
The major difference between the Model B and previous models was the way in which film was loaded. Previous models were loaded in a similar fashion as the Leica M3, with the film pulled apart into a take up spool and loaded into the top (instead of the bottom like the M3). In the case of the Model B, the entire bed and bellows unit had to be removed and film was loaded through the front of the camera.
Alongside the Model B, Kodak also produced the Series III. This model was styled and operated similar to the Model B and featured either a Kodex or Diomatic shutter. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find much information on the shutter speeds or aperture of these lenses.
What About 127 Film?
I mentioned earlier that this camera introduced an entirely new type of film type that not very many people mention or even seem to really bother with these days – 127 film. This film is 120 film’s little brother, smaller than 120 but larger than 35mm film. In square format, it makes negatives measuring 4 x 4 centimeters, and in rectangular format 4 x 3cm and 4 x 6cm are the most common; of course this will depend on the type of camera being used.
127 film declined in popularity along with the Vest Pocket Kodak, which ended production in 1935. The 1950s saw a resurgence in popularity of the little big film that could. Although, photographers mostly preferred 127 for slide film since it was larger than 35mm but small enough to use in slide projectors once mounted. Kodak ultimately ceased production on 127 film in mid-1995.
Today, it can be found here and there on eBay and Film Photography Project, Lomography, and B&H Photo have stocked and sold various types of film in 127 format at various times. (Just now we can buy Kodak Portra in 127 from B&H Photo! What a treat!)
What Makes the Vest Pocket Kodak Important Today
Why should we consider the Vest Pocket Kodak to be among the most important cameras ever made? Sure, it’s over a century old, it even probably witnessed the invention of sliced bread. And it sold a lot of units. And it photographed important people and events. But that’s not what makes it important. For me, the reasons are much deeper and more philosophical in nature.
This camera found its way into the pockets and homes of people from all walks of life. It showed everyone that a camera could be considered an essential appliance of everyday life, as important as any tool or gadget or invention that could be found on any kitchen countertop or in any tool box.
And not only was the VPK a tool to preserve that which would have otherwise remained just a memory, for some, the VPK was also a stepping stone to a higher career in photography. Julius Shulman, who went on to be one of the most prolific architectural photographers of all time, began his journey with a Vest Pocket Kodak. And if it was good enough for Shulman…
So, what happened to the Vest Pocket Kodak? What ushered the once ubiquitous camera into obsolescence? It was simply replaced.
By 1935, the end of production for the Kodak Vest Pocket, Leica and Contax had established themselves as the highest quality in 35mm cameras. In October of that same year, Canon, a small company from Japan, released its first rangefinder camera as a budget alternative to those made by Leica and Contax. By this point, it was clear that 35mm photography was the way of the future, leaving the once-loved Vest Pockets virtually obsolete.
But that doesn’t mean the Vest Pocket Kodak went away overnight. Families for generations would keep a Kodak Vest Pocket solely for documentation and special occasions. Through the Vest Pocket Kodak, photography was established as the dominant affordable medium for preserving memories, recording families, and documenting lives in a way that would last for generations. Photography was no longer a novel magic. It was now a way of life, a way of expression; a way of passing on history to those who did not yet exist.
That said, I must admit that the Vest Pocket Kodak is not the most practical camera to use in the 21st century. The film is expensive, hard to find, and not many labs develop it anymore. The cameras are ancient, often needing repair, and image quality from their primitive lenses leaves much to be desired.
However, that doesn’t mean that VPKs should be relegated to antique stores, tossed in the landfill, or left to wither away on a shelf next to a bunch of unopened Star Wars Pez dispensers. A better fate for these wonders of photographic history is that they be displayed; in museums, homes, schools, libraries, and any other place that would cherish having one upon their shelves.
The city museum of Dublin, TX has an entire section of photography history, and within the glass cases, alongside the Crown Graphic that the local newspaper once owned, sits a Vest Pocket Kodak. This warms my heart. The museum doesn’t point out the portable Kodak specifically, but people’s faces light up in remembrance when they see it. This alone makes a strong case for the VPK’s preservation.
Long before the Leica M3, before the Canon AE-1, the Pentax K1000, and before the Brownie Hawkeye became the cameras of history, the ones that would be passed down along the family line to dutifully document every day life, there was the Vest Pocket Kodak.
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