|Kodak boxes for mounted medium-format 6x6 cm transparencies (as per Rolleiflex or Hasselblad use).|
But in the early 2000s, Kodak faltered. Digital cameras using charge-coupled devices (CCD) began to appear at a price suitable for general consumers. Kodak's well-funded research laboratories invented much of the technology for digital imaging, and their professional-oriented digital cameras were based on Nikon bodies. But they never successfully made the transition to digital imaging and kept hoping that film sales would persist. In January of 2012, the company filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection. People were shocked - how could this possibly happen? How could management have so totally fouled up an astonishing legacy?
There had been plenty of warnings. In 2011, a Forbes Magazine contributor wrote about How Success Killed Eastman Kodak. On January 4, 2012, the Wall Street Journal wrote:
Was it a failure of imagination? Was it entrenched convictions and provincial thinking? Was it one restructuring too far?
For Kodak—perhaps the iconic American brand of the 20th century—it was all those things.
In an age when global competition has radically altered business overnight, when companies have had to be fleet of foot, Eastman Kodak was the unblinking deer in the headlights. Wednesday, the extent of the roadkill became fully apparent, with the news that Kodak is readying its papers for Chapter 11.
This company failed long ago. Kodak, based in Rochester, N.Y., claims to have invented digital photography but ceded that market to competitors such as Nikon, Sony and Canon. It hung onto its identity, film, and watched it fade before its eyes.
Then there were the restructurings, one after another, a thrashing-about that found Kodak selling unrelated products and finally pitching headlong into the savagely competitive printer business. It got savaged.An analysis in Forbes underlined the real issue:
Answer: The organization overflowed with complacency. I saw it, maybe in the late 1980s. Kodak was failing to keep up even before the digital revolution when Fuji started doing a better job with the old technology, the roll-film business. With the complacency so rock-solid, and no one at the top even devoting their priorities toward turning that problem into a huge urgency around a huge opportunity, of course they went nowhere. Of course strategy sessions with the BIG CEO went nowhere. Of course all the people buried in the hierarchy who saw the oncoming problems and had ideas for solutions made no progress. Their bosses and peers ignored them.I recommend this article from the ieee usa's today's engineer, titled, "The Kodak Moment is Dead; Long Live the Kodak Moment" for a short summary of George Eastman's pioneering brilliance in popularizing the photographic process for the ordinary consumer and then how the great Kodak corporation missed the conversion to the digital era.
Let us take a short walk through photographic history and see some examples of how Kodak affected us all. Here are some professional examples.
|Atlantic City, New Jersey, March, 1920. From U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey|
According to the metadata:
From the Annual Report of the Director, U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey June 30, 1920 (p. 88): "In March 1920, the Army Air Service photographed the coast line of New Jersey from Cape May to Seabright. A single flight was made, using the k-1 camera. The plane flew at an altitude of 10,000 feet, and under very good air conditions. The camera was mounted in gimbals, with a lead weight at its lowest point to assist in maintaining the optical axis of the camera in a vertical position. Level bubbles were placed on the camera to aid in keeping the camera in the proper position. The photographs are being used to revise the charts of the coast of New Jersey. The individual photographs are 18 x 24 cm. in size, and the approximate scale is 1:10000. The photographs are mounted in strip mosaics, for convenience sake, not over 4 feet in length. The length is generally determined by the position of control points. This composite photograph is compared with the topographic sheet of the same area and control points identified. The scale of the photographic mosaic is determined, and by means of pantograph the data are reduced to the scale of the chart and transferred from the photographs to tracing paper."
"The photographing of the 120 miles of coast line took less than 2 hours time in the airplane. The development of the films and printing took 2 days’ time of one man. Two rolls of film were used, a total of 183 photographs. The work of interpreting the photographs, assembling mosaics, comparison with topographic sheets, and reduction to the scale of the chart of the outside shore line required 15 days office work by one engineer."
|Hurricane damage, Atlantic City, New Jersey, Sep. 15, 1944. From Beach Erosion Board archives, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.|
|Damage of the boardwalk at Atlantic City, New Jersey, Sep. 15, 1944. From Beach Erosion Board archives, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.|
|Time Magazine cover, November 2, 1953.|
|Book describing use of the German-made Retina camera.|
In the 1940s and 1950s, GAF, Ansco, Dupont, and 3M competed with their own films, but Kodak continued to dominate the market. Overseas, Agfa, Ilford, Adox rebuilt from the war and offered excellent black and white emulsions. But for personal use, Kodachrome was Kodak's crowning achievement in color photography. Kodachrome slides had brilliant color (maybe not "natural," but vivid). The early Kodachrome was only ISO 10 speed, and later 12, but photographers managed. I laugh when fanboys on camera forums complain that brand xx digital camera "only" works up to ISO 6400 or so. Obviously they never practiced real photography with film.
On a personal note, early family photographs were almost surely taken on Kodak film and printed on Kodak paper. We would not have had access to German or French products then.
|Revere Beach, Massachusetts, approx. 1911. Photographer unknown. Scanned from a paper print.|
|The family in an open touring car, approx. 1915. Scanned from a paper print.|
|At the Parthenon, Athens, Greece, approx. 1953. Kodachrome transparency.|
|Harbor of Genoa, approx. 1954. Kodachrome transparency.|
|Ctesiphon, Iraq, 1957. Kodachrome film.|
|Shwedagon Pagoda, Rangoon, Burma, 1957 or 1958.|
|Bangkok, Thailand, 1957|
|Vendor on a beach, somewhere in Attica, Greece, 1963|
|Waiting at Ellinikon International Airport, Athens, Greece, 1964.|
|New York harbor, 1967|
|The railroad cut from Belmont Street, Vicksburg, Mississippi, 2002. 4x5" Tri-X film.|
|Residence room, St. Francis Convent, Vicksburg, Mississippi, 2003. Kodachrome 25 film.|
|Shotgun shacks, Vicksburg, Mississipi. Ektar 25 film, Rolleiflex 3.5F camera.|
|Camel in Üçhisar, central Cappadocia, Turkey, taken with a compact Kodak LS743 digital camera.|
|Kodachrome 25 packages, last production before discontinuation|
|1950s and 1960s Kodak film cans|
|Super-8 Tri-X film packages.|
Some of Kodak's great new ideas were so poorly conceived, you wonder what corporate talking mouth approved them. The Instamatic camera and film system of the 1960s was a great success, with millions and millions sold. Then they tried 110 - a smaller format film that produced mediocre optical results unless you used top-quality lenses. Then they introduced the disk, with an even smaller size film. Consumers were even less impressed. And finally, there was APS (Advanced Photo System but really the Amateur Photo System), which had a smaller film size then traditional 35mm but no obvious benefit in equipment size. Do major corporations develop boneheads in-house? Ken Rockwell has a scathing article on the APS fiasco. As Mr. Rockwell wrote, "APS gave crummier results, cost more to buy the film, and there were fewer places to get it developed. Who cared? No one did, so it died on the vine." Oddly, APS lives on as the size of the smaller sensors in digital cameras (now you know where the name comes from).
The good news for still photographers: you can still buy excellent black and white film from Kodak, Fujifilm, and Adox. Adox is the world's oldest film company, in production since 1860. Some of the emulsions are derivatives of the classic Dupont thin-emulsion films from the 1940s and 1950s. For many years, they were produced in Yugoslavia/Croatia by Fotokemika via a complicated set of transfers and licenses, but Fotokemika ceased production in late 2012. The Adox web page will provide information.
I still occasionally use 4x5" Tri-X in a wood Tachihara view camera and 120-size Panatomic-X film in a Fuji GW690II rangefinder camera. The Panatomic-X is 25 years expired but has been frozen and is just fine. I develop it in Agfa Rodinal developer. Those of you who have never used film: buy a used camera and go analog - that will be the most educational thing you can do to improve your photography. You can't call yourself a photographer if you have never used film.
This was written on December 31, 2013. Happy New Year to all readers, and thank you for reading!
My advice once again: Buy and use film!
Excerpts from a Kodak article in Forbes Magazine, September 7, 1998.
(Added Feb. 6, 2014)
UPDATE Jan. 2016: The Online Photographer blog had an interesting description of a visit to the treasure vaults at the George Eastman House. The author described how Kodak was a pioneer in digital technology and had predicted the fall in film sales, but was unable to make money on digital hardware.
Update June 2019: The Online Photographer blog featured an interesting article in 2012 about Kodak filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Read some of the comments from readers who shared their experiences with Kodak products or customer representatives.
The Economist wrote about how Fujifilm was more nimble during the tumultuous switch to digital imaging.