Experience the Helsinki bubble of Nils Jacob Wasastjerna. If a Finnish student had an Instagram account back in the late 1800s, it would have looked something like this.
These wonderfully spontaneous small bubbles of Helsinki life in the late 1880s were captured by the Finnish writer, interior designer and art critic, Nils Jakob Wasastjerna (1872-1951). Overall these bubbles make up one larger bubble. The bubble of Helsinki lifestyle that Nils inhabited. He would have been in his late teens when he took these pictures. Many of them show of his student friends, student life. Some are clearly surprise grab shots of local personalities, (a lawyer, a judge, a notary), others simply shots of nature. These are soldiers, Penny Farthing type bicycles, wonderful contemporary fashion. Most pleasing however, is that there’s a freshness, a playful spontaneity about these images. That is what’s unusual.
In short, this imagery is exactly what you’d expect when you give a teenage student a fun new toy, a point and shoot camera today. In 1888, for Nils this was clearly fun.
Nils owned a point and shoot camera at the very moment they were invented. Before 1888, photographs didn’t look, or feel like this.
The Kodak 1 was introduced to the public by the American, George Eastman in 1888, with his own, self-penned tagline, ‘You press the button, we do the rest.’
The “we do the rest” part was spot on. Once you’d exposed a full roll of film you had to take the entire camera to Kodak to process and re-load it with your next roll. The round image was a clever design decision, partly to make sure the photographer didn’t have to hold the camera exactly level with the horizon (with a circle you can simply turn it till it’s level – genius!) and partly to compensate for distortion and vignetting at the corners of the image. It also saved Kodak having to fix the problem.
The first consumer point-and-shoot cameras were exactly that. Point and shoot. There was no viewfinder, you simply pointed the camera in the general direction of what you wanted to shoot and pressed the button. Nils took these images on one of those, likely the Kodak 1, a mass produced leather-encased box with a key to wind the film, a string that set the shutter release and not much else.
So our Nils was an early adopter of the “shoot from the hip” approach. He clearly loved to stealthily point and shoot.
It’s worth thinking of these images as a kind of study of what in life was considered photo-worthy at the time. No need anymore for those stiff “keep still for a few second” long exposure portraits that previous cameras. For the first time those, like our Nils here, who could afford it were in snapshot territory. These snaps offer us a glimpse into an attitudinal reality, a more immediate, fresh and informal, relaxed and spontaneous everyday existence at the very dawn of popular photography.
These are exactly what happens when you give a teenage student a fun new toy, a point and shoot camera, in 1888.