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.

Senate Clerk and Judge A.V. Lindberg and G.R. Snellman on Pohjoisesplanadi. May 1890.

Strollers on the Northern Esplanade. 12.04.1891.
Nils Wasastjerna in Antrea, in the village of Kuukaup, photograph by Sylvia Wasastjerna, 08.08.1895.
Five circular images of the eve of May Day 1889 on the Runeberg Esplanade, Helsinki. 30.04.1889
All Nils’s images would have arrived and been printed out looking like this – surrounded by black. They were usually presented with a lighter surround so each image here has been isolated against white, a perfect circle.

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.

All images : archive of Helsinki City Museum.

A man holding a “Penny Farthing” typebicycle on Pohjoisesplanadi. September 1889

Notary E. Willgren. May 1890.

On the left, the lawyer Pehr von Gerdten. 1890.

Karl Suchdorff sailing. May 1889.

Untitled, Helsinki. 1889.

Outdoor enthusiasts in the park. April 1889.
Russian migrants load a cart in front of the rental barracks of Trade Councilor Tschemischeff (Pohjoisesplanadi 7) 07.04.1892.

Student May Day celebration at Restaurant Kaisaniemi. 01.05.1891.

A little girl with her nanny on Christmas Eve on the Runeberg Esplanade, Helsinki. 1889

Boats in the North Harbor, Tervasaari, Korkeasaari and Hylkysaari in the background. September 1889.

Judge, Senate Clerk A.V. Lindberg and G.R. Snellman on the Northern Esplanade. April 1891.

Ice skaters in the North Harbor. April 1888.

A Winter landscape. 10.03.1889.

Guards in front of the main guardhouse. 18.05.1889.

Anna Sunnelius (Nummelin) and Svea Ingman (Tavastjerna) in the Triangle, Helsinki. September 1889.

Outdoor enthusiasts on the ice of North Harbor. April 1888.

Winter landscape. 10.03.1889.

Vantaanjoki, Vanhankaupunginkoski. 1890.

Guards in front of the Main Guardhouse. 10.03.1889

Strollers on the Northern Esplanade. April 1891.

Strollers on the Northern Esplanade. April 1891.

Strollers on the Northern Esplanade. April 1891.

Outdoors on the Runeberg Esplanade. April 1889.

Nils Wasastjerna’s sister Selma Wasastjerna, Lars Wasastjerna and Nils Wasastjerna.
May 1889.

Pedestrians at the intersection of Maneesikatu and Pohjoisranta. September 1889.

Student hats for the first time in Vapunvieto, Kaisaniemi.
On the right is Edith Relander (1868-1943).

Student laws in apply for the first time at the Student May Day party in Kaisaniemi. 01.05.1890.

Student May Day celebration at Restaurant Kaisaniemi. 01.05.1891.

Strollers on the Northern Esplanade. April 1891

Strollers on the Northern Esplanade. April 1891

Outdoor enthusiasts in Seurasaari. September 1890.

A young man in the North Harbor. September 1889.

Pedestrians on Pohjoisesplanadi.

Hildur Landén (Heikel) and Robert Bolton outdoors on the cliffs of Kaivopuisto. 18.05.1890.

“Secret Adviser”, Dr. A. von Collan. 1890.

Ellen Palander (Hinnerichsen). 07.10.1889.

A horse carries cargo in the North Harbor,
in the background Katajanokka and the main building of Merikasarmi,
a former sailor’s home.
September 1889.

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