The Gun and the Camera: A Historical Relationship

The link between the camera and gun is evident in a shared metaphor, but is historically closer than we might imagine.

During the 2004 battle for Fallujah in Iraq, NBC cameraman Kevin Sites filmed a marine shooting an insurgent in a mosque. Jon Kudelka’s cartoon (published in The Australian) references this event and points to the similarities between shooting images and people, something we recognise through that common language.

However, as Paul Landau has written, the connection exceeds language because “the technologies of the gun and camera…evolved in lockstep,” with George Eastman of Kodak the pivotal figure 1.

In the 1860s the development of breech loading guns, using chemicals enclosed in a cartridge with an interior firing pin, gave the hunter a mobile weapon with ammunition that did not explode in the users face. At the same time dry-plate photography replaced plates hand coated with collodion, thereby solving some of the chemical restraints on mobile photography.

However, making a photograph was still a cumbersome business. Although some dry plate cameras were explicitly modelled on Colt revolver mechanisms, and cinema cameras looked to machine guns for design elements, there was still a lot of camera equipment to be carried while travelling if one wanted to make images.

After cancelling a trip to Santo Domingo because of the bulk of photographic equipment, George Eastman – later to found Eastman Kodak – resolved to produce something simpler.

Eastman partnered with William Walker, the first camera maker to use manufacturing methods pioneered by gun makers to permit interchangeable parts. But it was their use of chemistry that provided both the greatest breakthrough and the clearest link with gun technology.

Eastman and Walker developed a paper negative that used guncotton. A French inventor extended that by creating a gelatinized guncotton that could be cut into strips, thereby also permitting the first modern smokeless gun powder. When the first Kodak was released in 1888 it took 100 exposures on sheets of dry, etherized, guncotton backed up paper.

The next development involved Eastman Kodak’s chief chemist adding amyl acetate to guncotton, creating a stable “celluloid”. A year later two English chemists made the explosive cordite by adding nitroglycerine and acetone to guncotton. As Landau concludes, “breech-loading guns and the Kodak camera not only drew on the same language; they both sealed the same sort of chemicals in their cartridges.”

Have we, in the digital era, freed ourselves from photography’s’ violent genealogy?

About the author: David Campbell is a writer and producer specializing in photography, multimedia, and politics. Visit his website here. This post was originally published here.

Image credit: Cartoon by Jon Kudelka, The Australian, 2004. From a postcard representing ‘Behind the Lines’, a travelling exhibition developed and presented by the National Museum of Australia.

1 This account is taken from Paul S. Landau, “Empires of the Visual: Photography and Colonial Administration in Africa,” in Images and Empires: Visuality in Colonial and Postcolonial Africa, edited by Paul S. Landau and Deborah D. Kaspin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002), pp. 146-49. ^

  • Paddy Cassidy

    I’m surprised you did not mention the work of Etienne Jules Marey, a French biologist and inventor whose study of birds’ motion led him to create an early motion-picture camera based on a rifle.

  • Boxxerace

    “Have we, in the digital era, freed ourselves from photography’s’ violent genealogy?”   ‘Violence’ is action undertaken by human beings, it is not a term defined by what tool (if any at all) was used.      Then again, I suppose one could ponder the similarities between the Photographers Tripod, the Surveyors tripod and the machine-gun’s Tripod and declare some sort of similar strawman question that has no real answer or meaning.   “I mean, have we really freed ourselves from Photography’s Surveying & Cartography genealogy?”  

  • John Kantor

    The problem is that photojournalists (and journalists in general) think they are apart from the subjects they are reporting on. They may be operating inches from death, but they are cowards who think that they don’t have to take sides – and their message is always the same: a pathetic hypocrisy. They shed crocodile tears about the victims of genocide and terrorism, but they take every chance they have to blame the people actually trying to change things. Terrorists and genocidal dictators aren’t evil. They are just opportunists. People who do nothing – or worse – encourage others to do nothing are the true face of evil in today’s world.

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  • C-man

    john i understand your view but at the same time would disagree. if it wasnt for the initialy impartial position of potojournalists and journalists nobody with any power to do anything about it would know it was happening to be able to offer any aid. take the kony campagne for example grown form the photographs and media of journalists reaching the people who had the ability and and knowlege to make him the worlds most wanted person over night. i dont believe they are cowards, i believe their indifference offers protection from the evil they are placed infront of every day with the intention of exposing that evil to the world.