BitDepth 820 - February 07

Kodak invented the idea of photography for the masses and went on to dominate the industry for most of the 20th century. How did things go so terribly wrong?
The end of big K
An early Kodak Brownie camera. Photo from the Malden Camera Club.

Kodak isn’t dead; it’s just resting. Well, that’s how Monty Python might have described the photography giant, but every serious photographer who has used their products over the last few decades knows the cruel truth.

The company that single-handedly introduced ordinary people to the idea of using a camera to make their own photographs is increasingly looking like it’s done for, finished, ended, breathed its last.

I had the same vibe about Palm when it struggled to reinvent an ageing OS for the 21st century and manage to come up with WebOS, an unimpressive mobile operating system that never stood a chance in today’s superheated development environment.

When I began taking photographs in 1979, the default for any photographer was the film in the yellow box. The stuff wasn’t cheap, but it was dependable and consistent. Every roll of Tri-X behaved the same way when you souped it in developer. Prints from Vericolor across years and many different batches has the same smooth, even skin tones.

In the mid-seventies, the company owned 90 percent of film sales and 85 per cent of camera sales in the US and wasn’t far from those numbers in other countries. That market dominance seemed to have bred inertia and overconfidence at Kodak.

During the 1980’s company responded sluggishly to the challenge of Fuji’s new films, led by Velvia, a super-saturated colour transparency film that didn’t require the special processing of Kodak’s flagship Kodachrome.

In the 1990’s, the company leveraged its pioneering work with digital camera technology with the introduction of the first professional grade digital SLR, the DCS system, which was available, in an unheard-of accommodation, with mounts for either Canon or Nikon lenses.

Kodak also introduced a revolutionary scanning service for film, which output high quality digital files to a proprietary format called PhotoCD.
Both pioneering technologies should have positioned Kodak as a cornerstone of the fledgling digital photography market, but, inexplicably, the company lost its nerve and instead put its muscle behind manufacturing film and processing supplies.

By 2001, the year I ordered equipment and supplies for the first all-digital photographic department at a local newspaper (The Wire), nothing from Kodak was on the shopping list. The cameras were from Olympus, the memory cards were from SanDisk and the software was from Adobe.

The company enjoyed a brief spike of success in the mid-2000’s with its EasyShare line of simplified cameras and printing systems, a clear line-of-sight throwback to the philosophy of its market-defining Brownie camera, but this was a whole different market.

There are lessons aplenty in Kodak’s demise for companies who underestimate how quickly a core business can disappear in the digital age.
Kodak ultimately got pincered between the sudden and sharp decline in film use, the commodification of cheap digital cameras and the rise of the camera phone.

They also managed to forget one of their most successful marketing hooks, the lure that amateurs feel to work with the tools that professional photographers used. Many of Kodak’s advertisements between 1970 and 1990 featured professionals and their photographs, all shot and printed using Kodak products.
By the turn of the decade, those tools came from Nikon, Canon and Epson, not Kodak and amateurs looked to those companies for affordable versions of their professional gear.

Will I miss Kodak? Not really. The company hasn’t done anything for me lately, and the last time I tore open a package of D76 developer was in the last century. The lion’s share of my film archive was captured on their film, but it won’t be staying there as it migrates to bits that may preserve some of the character of the film the company created but none of its physical reality.

Kodak moments
1880 - George Eastman begins manufacturing dry plates for photography.
1885 - Eastman invents roll film, the basis of the photographic and film industry.
1889 - The Eastman Company is founded.
1900 - The Kodak Brownie is introduced.
1935 - Kodachrome is introduced.
1963 - The Instamatic camera is introduced (I shot my first published photo on one.)
1975 - Steve Sasson invents the digital camera.
1976 - The Bayer filter array, still in use on most digital cameras, is invented by Bruce Bayer.
1986 - Introduces the first megapixel sensor.
2003 - Introduces the EasyShare camera line.
2006 - Begins selling off parts of its business, beginning with its digital camera manufacturing operations.
2009 - Ends production of Kodachrome.
2010 - Removed from the S&P 500 Index.
2012 - Files for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
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