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R.I.P. Kodak--the Kodak bankruptcy is a sad lesson for all of us

The Eastman Kodak Company, the 133 year old once-proud firm that brought photography to the masses, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection today. This may not be the end of the company, but it is another major stumble towards its eventual demise. It's almost certain that this company that completely dominated photography for so many years will at most be a dim shadow of its former self, if it exists at all. This is a sad day for old photographers like me.

Photography charmed and dazzled me when I was just 11 years old and received a Kodak Brownie Starflash camera. I wanted to learn how to develop pictures, so my parents gave me a Kodak Brownie Darkroom Starter Kit, little more than a tank and a thermometer, so I could develop negatives and make tiny contact prints. The magic of seeing any image emerge from the darkness was so powerful and compelling. Every step of the way, the guiding yellow hand of Kodak was on my shoulder, showing me the way. The paternalistic, sometimes arrogant, all-knowing, professional, and technologically advanced company was everywhere through my photographically formative years--Kodachrome, Ektachrome, Tri-X, Panatomic-X, D76, Dektol--these were the strongest, in fact, the only brands in my photographic life.

In retrospect, Kodak's problems began about the time I felt restless about using only Kodak products. In the 1980s, Kodak sold off its processing labs, and the difficult job of processing Kodachrome was apparently too much for the company that bought the processing facilities. Kodachrome's processing was different than every other film and only Kodak and the company they sold out to could do it. The new firm started returning unusable slides that were off color and often with tiny bubbles in the emulsion that were very visible. Professional photographers all over the world started to look for an alternative to Kodachrome. There was a new film, Fujichrome 50, with saturated color and fine grain that was processed in E6 chemicals using a simpler and less demanding process. It wasn't quite as good as Kodachrome, but it was consistently good, and the processing could be perfect. Then in 1990, Fuji introduced Velvia, a slow slide film with great sharpness, high contract, very saturated colors and low grain. It quickly became popular with most landscape professionals who shot slide film (which was almost all of them) and started a shift away from Kodak towards Fuji films. Despite what you may have read recently, I don't feel this shift was influenced by price--Fuji film was a little cheaper--but by Fuji listening more carefully to what professionals wanted, and delivering it. Kodak had a habit of telling photographer what they needed and giving it to them, and that worked OK only as long as they were the only game in town. I switched to Velvia and never looked back, except when I was working on a book "Day in the Life of California," that was sponsored by Kodak, and was forced back to Kodachrome for a single day. I was glad I had switched.

Also in the eighties, Motorola was developing the cell phone. The CEO of Motorola was later quoted as saying that this development was very controversial internally. Some in the company were afraid that the cell phone would demolish their very profitable pager business. The CEO told them, "We can't be afraid to eat our own young; if we don't do it, someone else will. Better that it be us."

Here's a scary parallel: Kodak in the 1980s developed the first digital cameras. The first one I ever saw was in 1992, a Kodak/Nikon collaboration used by a press photographer in Vancouver. Don Strickland, the Kodak V.P. in charge of digital imaging in those years, today says he begged Kodak management to develop and sell a consumer digital camera. They refused (and he left the company and went to Apple) because they were afraid that digital cameras would destroy their very profitable film business with its 40 percent profit margins. They were afraid to "eat their own young," and someone else did it. By contrast, Fuji, in virtually the same situation then as Kodak, decided early on to diversify and put their energy into digital. They're still a profitable business today.

My own switch to digital came in 2002. My good friend Brian Lawler convinced me to borrow his new Nikon D1, Nikon's first digital SLR produced without Kodak. I was hooked. The ability to instantly see results and correct errors on the spot was intoxicating. The quality then wasn't quite up to film standards, but by the time I bought my first digital camera, a Fuji S2Pro, the results were comparable to film and very usable professionally. (Digital far surpasses film now.) I began to visit camera stores less with no reason to buy film and pick up processed slides. The Kodak brand became inconsequential to me and millions of other photographers.

Now with cell phones taking a huge bite out of the consumer-oriented digital camera business, I'm not sure that just switching totally to digital would have saved Kodak in the long term. Successful companies like Nikon, Canon, and Olympus have innovated and diversified away from consumer cameras, not making everything from digital microscopes  to digital endoscopes. Kodak still has a huge portfolio of digital patents, worth, some say, about $3 billion dollars. What a shame they didn't bring these ideas to market.








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About

I've been a photographer and writer for a long, long time. There's a lot I wanted to write about and photograph, but my full-time career in association management got in the way. Now that I'm retired I have no excuses for not fulfilling this part of my life. I'll be writing about photography, especially for "serious seniors," travel, politics and my beloved city of San Luis Obispo. I hope you enjoy it.