‘Snapshot Photography and the Flapper’ – Nicola Goc

“Snapshot photographs from the first decades of the twentieth century provide a rich resource for understanding the subject position of females at this transformative moment in history.

While women’s battles over personal freedoms were fought on many fronts at this time the struggle most often occurred over issues of self-presentation. Through snapshot photographs we can come to better understand the ways in which young women in particular challenged traditional social conventions. The young woman of the new century was often looked upon with concern and criticism by her mother’s generation. Social, political and religious discourses were preoccupied her appearance. “Vesta”, the Women’s editor of the Argus newspaper in Australia, articulated these concerns about the modern woman as early as 1911 in an article titled “Women to Women: The girl of the period; problem of the ‘flapper’”:

These girls are enjoying the freedom which neither their mothers nor their grandmothers knew. Their grandmothers, at their age, never appeared in the streets at all except under the eye of their elders. They never went even to school unaccompanied. […] Manners counted for something with them and modesty for a great deal more. But this generation of girls knows no restraining influence. The open-air cult, the field sports cult […] have had a very real effect […]. In a big city, where girls have to travel some distance to school, they are for long hours out of their homes, and the mothers do not, as a rule, in these days, spend hours when their daughters are at home in exercising control and guidance.[1]

The debate about the ‘dangers’ of the new generation of young women continued to dominate critical press discourse throughout the next two decades and was the forerunner to the ‘teenager’ anxieties of the post World War Two period. The Australian National Council of Women framed the young adolescent female as preoccupied with pleasure seeking:

Out of school hours they are allowed to go off to tennis and croquet with their friends – to cricket and football matches, to theatres and parties with an indulgent father or an equally indulgent chaperone. One is constantly meeting girls of fourteen, fifteen or sixteen who have seen everything that has played at the theatre for months past. They discuss these performances, some of these performances which they had far better never have seen, with all the assurance and sang froid of women of forty. At dances and balls “Cinderellas” are of rare occurrence, they are absolutely lacking in the girlish shyness and awkwardness which would have characterised their mothers at that age.[2]

Through the snapshot photographs in my collection we see this new young woman in all of her glorious exuberance, her joy de vivre, with her sense of herself as worthy and entitled. She was making her way in the new century at the same time as Kodak advertisements encouraged her to visually explore her newfound freedoms through photography: “Let Kodak keep a picture record of your every outing,” a 1911 advertisement depicting a girl on board a yacht with her Kodak camera suggests. “There’s a new pleasure in every phase of photography – pleasure in the taking, pleasure in the finishing, but most of all, pleasure in possessing pictures of the places and people that you are interested in”.[3]

Kodak’s campaign to reinvent amateur photography as principally a female hobby was a success due in no small part to the introduction of the iconic ‘Kodak Girl’, the new photographer who was the personification of the independent modern woman. A new verb, “Kodaking”, was used to describe picture taking and promoted the practice as central to the enjoyment of the modern woman’s pursuits of leisure, in particular the new outdoor activities of swimming, cycling and motorcar driving. Kodak advertisements promoted the Kodak Girl as a tourist with camera in hand ready for the next Kodak moment: “Sunburned, with hair flying in the wind, she travels in a canoe, on a steamship, in a motorcar; she walks, rides a bicycle, plays tennis, journeys to Japan”.[4]

At first the Kodak Girl was represented in the form of the quintessentially feminine Gibson Girl promoting the simplicity and ease of snapshot photography–“no dark-room, few chemicals, little bother”.[5] Then in 1910 leading poster artist, John Hassell, created what was to become the iconic Kodak Girl, wearing her characteristic striped blue and white dress she would, in her various iterations, be the personification of the modern woman and popular photography in the public imagination for the next half century. The Kodak Girl had the freedom to travel and enjoy leisure experiences in public spaces and with her small, hand–held camera, she captured candid moments in her life. But as Nancy Martha West argues, the Kodak Girl reflects “her culture’s tangled web of opinions about female behaviour and capabilities”. She both represents advertising’s “troublesome yet prevalent association of femininity with technological simplicity” and:

Her adolescent look, for example, visually reinforces the female photographer’s status as amateur. Measured against the man she can never become, the Kodak girl is frozen at a liminal, intermediate stage of womanhood. As such, she can never achieve the status of professional photographer, her position forever remains that of a novice, dependent on technological simplicity. [6]

The rethinking of the female self in Western societies at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century was taking place against a background of contradictory representations of female identity. It was still a time when the ‘Angel in the home’ and the ‘domestic goddess’ ideals were still central to mainstream public and private discourses on the role of women in society. At the same time women were collectively and individually politicising their lives, organising and lobbying for suffrage and equality and making for themselves a life outside the domestic sphere. Traditional patriarchal ideals were being both reinforced and challenged as new visual cultural products – women’s magazines and the cinema in particular – were exhorting women to transform their appearance and it is in this complex environment that females negotiated their individual subjectivity in the early twentieth century.

As they were gaining freedoms never imagined by their mothers, young women were also being objectified through the new consumerism of the late 1910s and 1920s, a consumerism that focused on female sexuality. The female form was inscribed with new meaning as women were persuaded to mould, shape, adorn – to transform – their bodies to conform to and reflect the new visual female ideal. The advertising industry, the cinema, woman’s magazines and fashion reinforced gender stereotypes by emphasising physical attractiveness as the most important feminine characteristic. While women photographers, Kodak’s “snapshooters”, were documenting their lives and the lives of their families and friends, they were also appropriating the camera as a tool in their own objectification”. – Dr Nicola Goc, September 2013.

[1] Argus (Melbourne), Wednesday 4 October 1911, “Women to Women: The girl of the period; Problem of the ‘flapper’ by Vesta.

[2] Argus (Melbourne), Wednesday 4 October 1911, “Women to Women: The girl of the period; Problem of the ‘flapper’ by Vesta.

[3] Kodak advertisement 1911. “All out-doors invites your Kodak”, Girl on sailboat wearing blue dress. George Eastman House. Item No. 2006-0144-0001-1911.

[4] Nancy Martha West (2000), Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia, University Press of Virginia, p 54.

[5] Kodak advertisement  Good Housekeeping, Advertising Supplement 1905.

[6] Nancy Martha West (2000), Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia, University Press of Virginia, p53


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