The last century has seen Hemel Hempstead grow from a modest-sized market town to a large and thriving new town, with a large presence of commercial industry. Photography in Hemel Hempstead is a large part of the town’s history owing to the impact of the presence of two photography giants, Fujifilm and Kodak, within the town.
From the earliest days of mainstream photography in the late 19th century when photographers were relatively rare, we have a record of an early commercial photographer, Edward Sammes, working in the Boxmoor area of Hemel Hempstead. Born in 1883, Sammes produced postcards of the local area which recorded the landscape, architecture and society of the district. These photographs would have been taken on an early half-plate or field camera, and more than two hundred of his images survive, leaving us with a valuable record of Hemel at the turn of the century. He is pictured here standing on the steps of his workshop, a daylight printing frame at his feet.
The photography corporation Kodak have had a large presence in Hemel Hempstead since they moved into the large Kodak Tower building in 1971. George Eastman founded Kodak in 1888, inventing the name to be short, easy to pronounce with no ambiguity and not to sound similar to any other word or name. His company was the first to invent roll film which replaced photographic plates and could be sited inside the camera and easily transported, eliminating the need for cumbersome boxes of plates and chemicals. Kodak’s slogan, “You press the button, we do the rest” fronted their advertising campaigns and 1901 saw the production of the Kodak Brownie, the first truly mass-market camera.
Kodak led the market through much of the 20th century, with many notable innovations during this time. The “MB” camera, no bigger than a small matchbox, was designed and a thousand of them manufactured for use by underground agents during the Second World War. Kodak film was used to capture the images from the Apollo 11 space mission in 1969, with both black and white and colour film being used to record this momentous event. The world of cinematography also owes a lot to Kodak’s founder, George Eastman, whose experiments with Thomas Edison in the early 20th century paved the way for mainstream motion pictures.
In 1975 the Kodak company was the first to make a working digital camera, with this early prototype using a cassette tape to store images. By the late 1990s digital cameras were being widely produced and in 2004 Kodak stopped producing and selling film cameras altogether. For Hemel Hempstead, this decline in production and subsequently in Kodak’s size and share value meant that the company left Kodak House in 2005, and the building was sold to property developers. The Kodak Tower has since been redeveloped and rebuilt and today provides homes for many in the form of flats. Although Kodak was greatly missed as a corporation when it left Hemel Hempstead, its presence as a photographic giant remains embedded in the town’s identity through its architectural legacy.