Cold War Cameras

By Sarah Bassnett Posted July 22, 2013

Figure 1. Kodak Advertisement, Life Magazine, 27 May 1946, p 51.

Medium kodak monitor six 20


Who was the focus of Cold War photography?

An advertisement for a Graflex camera proclaims, “great news for photographers, the great new pacemaker graphics are here!” Boasting convenience, easier operation, and new features manufactured from materials tested during the war, the ad promises that the new cameras make it straightforward for photographers to get great pictures. Known for their speed, portability, and durability, these cameras were used by press photographers and dedicated amateurs. Similarly, an ad for a hand-held folding Kodak camera, the monitor six-20, tells readers it is light to carry and simple to use. Providing assurances that it would safeguard pictures from accidents such as double exposures and blurring, the ad copy draws attention to new developments in optics and mechanics achieved in wartime. With these improvements in technology, good quality cameras were not only readily available, but also good results were virtually guaranteed.

Figure 2. Graflex Advertisement, Life Magazine, 12 May 1947, p 120. 

These two camera ads appeared in the American magazine Life in the late 1940s. A popular weekly news magazine, Life was heavily illustrated and renowned for telling stories with photographs. At the time, its circulation was higher than any other news magazine in the United States at over a million readers a week. The readership, which was predominantly white and middle-class, also comprised the main consumer market for personal cameras. The convergence of picture magazines such as Life and easy to use yet professional quality cameras signaled the growing importance of photographs in stories for and about this demographic. Owning one of these cameras was a license to chronicle the events of daily life, and reading picture stories complemented the activity of taking pictures. From photojournalists producing accounts of the political events of the day to amateurs taking photographs for their personal photo albums, photography came to define the way stories were told in the postwar US. What we should also note, however, is that both the cameras and the picture stories were aimed at an educated audience with financial means. When we think about who was featured in Cold War picture stories, we should also consider who was left out of the picture.