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Decline in technicolor.
December 3, 2011 6:19 PM   Subscribe

Kodak's long fade to black. 'Like the passing of distinguished individuals, the passing of great corporations should prompt us to ponder the transience of earthly glory. So let's pay our respects to Eastman Kodak, which at this writing appears to be a shutter-click from extinction.'

'Kodak was once such a pervasive part of our lives that the "Kodak moment," defined as a personal event that demanded to be recorded for posterity, entered our lexicon.

Now when even the most private Kodak moment seems to unfold before the digital gaze of a hundred iPhones, it looks as though Kodak's moment has passed. The circle of life in business is a natural phenomenon, the lesson of which shouldn't be overlooked by companies that seem to have cemented themselves into permanent spots at the top of the world today — including Apple, Google and Facebook. The lesson is: Nothing lasts forever.'

'As late as 1976, Kodak commanded 90% of film sales and 85% of camera sales in the U.S., according to a 2005 case study for Harvard Business School. Such seemingly unassailable competitive positions tend to foster unimaginative executive cultures, and Kodak's was no exception.

Even after Fuji Photo crept into the U.S. market with lower-priced film and supplies, Kodak refused to believe Americans would ever desert its sacred brand. Complacently, the company spurned the chance to become the official film of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics; the bid went instead to Fuji, which exploited its sponsorship to win a permanent foothold in the marketplace.

Then came digital. Far from scorning the new technology, Kodak ramped up research and development to nearly 10% of sales in the mid-1980s and integrated digital features into its product lines, including video systems, scanners and photo enhancement software.

But its executives couldn't foresee a future in which film had no role in image capture at all, nor come to grips with the lower profit margins or faster competitive pace of high-tech industries. At one meeting with Microsoft's Bill Gates to discuss integrating Kodak's photo CDs with Windows, Kodak Chairman Kay Whitmore fell asleep.'
posted by VikingSword (63 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
At one meeting with Microsoft's Bill Gates to discuss integrating Kodak's photo CDs with Windows, Kodak Chairman Kay Whitmore fell asleep.'

Hey, just because a meeting is important doesn't mean it's not also unbelievably boring.
posted by The World Famous at 6:37 PM on December 3, 2011 [8 favorites]


How sad. A company that changed the world of photography, now a plump corpse full of intellectual property sought after by folks that say things like "This whole patent area has become really hot.”

.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 6:38 PM on December 3, 2011 [8 favorites]


Kodak, to be fair, had some amazing products. Kodachrome 64 and 200, Ektacolor Gold 100 (available at every K-Mart in America in the '80s and '90s in both 35mm and 120, and it would be cheaper than even the terrible store-brand color print films), Tri-X Pan, T-Max 3200... these people understood images and photography. Velvia is a curse word in some circles.

Then they went and gave us 110, the Disc, and APS, and laughed at Fuji until Fuji went and gave us Velvia and Provia F... Kodachrome was still better, but processing was difficult and expensive and had to be shipped to specialist labs. Ektachrome was never in the running. This was a harbinger of the MBA miracles about to tank yet another American industrial mainstay with their lack of vision and complacency.

Their failure in the modern era is purely a tale of top management - the same sort of bozo who ran the Big Three in Detroit into the ground at full speed. On the front lines, the engineers and scientists were slathering to get their mitts on digital technology, and a lot of innovation in computer imaging came from (still comes from) Kodak labs. The failure of Kodak to capitalize on that innovative drive is a criminal shame.

Even now, with their amazing granny-friendly kiosks in every pharmacy and Wal-mart, the company is still in trouble.

It needs an outsider CEO like Mullaly who understands investment and quality, or an Obama-style GM intervention. It really does - the company, at its best, drives innovation and spreads prosperity among its suppliers and customers. It employs scientists, scholars, engineers, technicians and factory workers that are the envy of the world. If Kodak goes down, it would be a blow to the American economy and psyche like if IBM or Boeing went down.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:39 PM on December 3, 2011 [25 favorites]


The circle of life in business is a natural phenomenon, the lesson of which shouldn't be overlooked by companies that seem to have cemented themselves into permanent spots at the top of the world today — including Apple, Google and Facebook. The lesson is: Nothing lasts forever.

I like the idea that somewhere in the business world there are people who actually need to be taught that lesson. Who are sitting around thinking to themselves: "Hey now, that Facebook. There's a company which will definitely be on top of the world forever. Nope, no doubt about that. Anyway, let me just open my copy of the LA Times here and WHAAAAAAT"
posted by penduluum at 6:40 PM on December 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


seemingly unassailable competitive positions tend to foster unimaginative executive cultures

True, but I've had first hand experiences of Kodak, and second hand impressions, from people skilled at assessing corporate cultures. Kodak was peopled with some pretty smart, honest, and respectful executives. Kodak was the least screwed up, in terms of personal interaction by upper management, of any of those big companies.
posted by StickyCarpet at 6:41 PM on December 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Anybody know where I get get some 4x5 negative tungsten film? No? That's what I was afraid of.

*sigh*
posted by mrhappy at 6:46 PM on December 3, 2011


Damn, sometimes it sucks to be young. I never got to use Kodak photo paper or Kodachrome (or Polaroid peel-apart film for that matter). Now I have to start hoarding Tri-X.
posted by book 'em dano at 6:47 PM on December 3, 2011


The problem was that once digital photography hit, it ran over Kodak like a tsunami. Digital photography benefited from the massive design and manufacturing infrastructure built up over 30 years for computers, so when it began to threaten Kodak (and Polaroid, another sad story) it was already mature and it was improving both in terms of performance and price at a huge rate.

There really isn't any excuse for Kodak not having jumped on this revolution. Nikon and Canon did, and now they dominate the market.

But I guess the difference is that Nikon and Canon made cameras, but didn't make film. So they didn't have the emotional investment in the entire idea of "film", which was the foundation of Kodak's business. (And Polaroid's, too.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 6:50 PM on December 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


Fun tangent: I found an old 1960s Kodak point-and-shoot at a rummage sale this spring with film still in it. I pulled it out, developed it at home, and whammo- someone's Maine vacation photos from 1973, complete with a giant brontosaurus on the roof of the family car. 38 years, and light still hadn't gotten in to ruin the film.
posted by dunkadunc at 6:52 PM on December 3, 2011 [17 favorites]


Kodachrome, they give us those nice bright colours
They give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world's a sunny day, oh yeah
I got a Nikon camera, I love to take a photograph
So mama don't take my Kodachrome away


.
posted by Poet_Lariat at 6:55 PM on December 3, 2011 [11 favorites]


One of the world's great films will remain T-Max 400. It does 400, it does 100, it does 1600.

First trip to India; 2 cameras, a Canon digital prosumer, and an old Canon SLR. The Canon digital sadly did not make it very far due to a variety of conditions, some human-related, some scooter-related, and others livestock-related. After five years of digital, a time machine backward a bit.

I had about ten rolls for backup, a few colour and a variety of T-Max 100, 400, 1600. When those ran out, I managed to find another 10 rolls of T-Max 400, and proceeded to shoot everything from dawn to dusk, with rolls of T-Max at 100, 400, 1600 -- even 50.

For all its forgiveness in the field, T-Max was tricky in the darkroom. Dilution, temperature, and timing tolerances seemed tighter than other films. However, the net result was reliable. That film could get the job done.

It was a joy to use, from high school and twenty years hence. I always thought it was cool that Kodak really mastered film. They kept pushing the quality of their films until achieving really appealing product ranges. T-Max 400 is just one of many.

After returning from India and developing the prints, I remained in appreciation for the chemists and engineers that sorted out T-Max. The grain really pops out when the film is pushed, yet it is a soft, analog grain -- a pleasant signature to the film that lends just a bit of credibility and wisdom to images.
posted by nickrussell at 7:04 PM on December 3, 2011 [6 favorites]


What is interesting to me is the shift in photography in cultural terms. We went from posing for snapshots on special occasions,the inevitable wait for processing and sealing the prints into an album forever only to be dusted off every couple years to a constant downpour of digital pictures. And it seems like it happened overnight.

Even if Kodak could start doing something like, supplying software and integration services for camera manufacturers I don't think that business could support a corporation of that size. Even an end to end solution including camera firmware, integrated cloud services with cool features like online photo editing won't save the company, that would be one line for a company that size. The never really made consumer hardware so it would be tough for them to break into that against camera manufacturers that moved into that space.

Obviously there is always going to be some diminished market for film, maybe they can start spinning off divisions as ultra-high quality niche brands? A much smaller company spun off from kodak could still service the peeps that want to buy and proccess film.

Or they can shut down and watch as other small companies spring up to service the much dimninished markets they once had.
posted by Ad hominem at 7:05 PM on December 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


dunkadunc, I've taken a picture with that dinosaur before. You can see the wrinkles on his face in this picture.

My picture was taken in Valley City, ND at a Sinclair gas station. The green dinosaur has been a mascot of theirs for a while.
posted by fake at 7:08 PM on December 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've been slowly getting into old-school black and white film photography as a hobby and as a way to try an exercise my (extremely modest) artistic impulses. I wanted to be authentic, so I bought (for next to nothing) a few cameras spanning the original box brownies up through near the end of the film era.

(An aside, now is a great, great time to pick up film photography equipment of every sort. It is obsolete, viewed as irrelevant, but still widely available and hence is nearly free for the taking. Give it time and, as things become more rare, I bet good qualify film equipment is going to get expensive again.)

The experience has been interesting and full of learning. On one hand, you can really see that Kodak had tremendous technical chops for the better part of a century. On the other hand, it's easy to see that what they really cared about was film. Period. Sure, they made lots (and lots, and lots) of cameras, but you really get the impression that they existed only as a means to sell more film, and especially more formats of film. 828 format, anyone? 127? 620? 110? Disk? APS?

I can't help but wonder if management made the mistake of thinking that they were in the film business instead of, more abstractly, the imaging business.

But yeah, I hope they make it. They're an American Institution of the fine sort.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 7:08 PM on December 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Anybody know where I get get some 4x5 negative tungsten film?

Monolights with modeling lights are so cheap as to be criminal these days. Remember, Tungsten-balanced film is balanced for quartz studio hotlights and the even-rarer photofloods, not tungsten-filament floodlights like you'd mount on your garage, or theatrical lighting - this is why you still need color correction when using it with those light-sources.

Let me also say, hot-lights are amazing for black&white work, but the liquid luminosity is lost once you bring in color... to get it back, you need some really nice strobes, softeners and reflectors, and twice as many lights for the same setup.

One of the world's great films will remain T-Max 400. It does 400, it does 100, it does 1600.

And makes it all look like grain-free security-cam footage. Bleah! It has the subtlety of a red rubber clown nose, and the character of cold oatmeal. Tri-X and Pyro or death, baby.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:13 PM on December 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


If you read about the guys who founded Intel, the guys at Xerox Parc or the guys behind Pixar you see a common pattern. The lesson is that if you are smart and have big ideas about the future get the hell away from a big company as soon as possible. The suits on top of the sprawling corporate hierarchy will never get your idea, because you are just a number to them. In fact they will often oppose your most innovative ideas because it will "demolish the business model." Of course your idea is going to demolish their business model eventually anyway.
posted by humanfont at 7:25 PM on December 3, 2011 [13 favorites]


Well there is a problem with "demolishing the business model", and it is more than just corporate momentum. All the thousands of people involved with manufacutring print stock want to keep their jobs.

Nowadays corporations understand this, and we get the situation we are in now. Outsource everything, keep pesky employees to a minimum.
posted by Ad hominem at 7:39 PM on December 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


I guess they got flushed down the Technical Pan.
posted by scruss at 7:46 PM on December 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


I know a few people at LaserPacific, a post firm owned by Kodak, who left specifically because "upper management didn't understand anything but film."
posted by infinitewindow at 7:53 PM on December 3, 2011


May I contribute this?
posted by tomswift at 7:57 PM on December 3, 2011


Film speed equals shutter speed at F16 in the bright, bright sunshine of faded memories.

.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 8:00 PM on December 3, 2011 [2 favorites]


As a child of Rochester, New York, this makes me terribly sad. This is not the least bit surprising -- their corporate culture is and has been a damn mess for at least as long as I've been alive -- but it's terribly sad.
posted by Harvey Jerkwater at 8:20 PM on December 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


So there will never be an all-powerful scion of the future, Kodak of Kodak? You can't even trust sci-fi books anymore..
posted by rainy at 8:20 PM on December 3, 2011


It's a pity this couldn't be posted the same day as the as "Lipitor goes of patent" FPP.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 8:22 PM on December 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Slap*Happy writes "Then they went and gave us 110, the Disc, and APS, and laughed at Fuji until Fuji went and gave us Velvia and Provia F."

Consumers desperately wanted pocket-able, foolproof cameras which meant some other than 35mm. Somewhat ironically that ideal film camera turned out to use 35mm just in a disposable camera.
posted by Mitheral at 8:43 PM on December 3, 2011


Eastman Kodak engineers invented the digital camera in 1975; but now that you can point and click with a cheap cellphone, even the stand-alone digital camera is becoming an
If the Cellphone market hadn't been locked down by carriers, Kodak could have developed their cameras with cellphone capability. In fact, I would bet that rather then 'cellphones that could do everything' we would have moved towards "everything is a cellphone" You just pop in a SIM card and go. You're already seeing a little of that with Kindle and iPad, but with the kindle you only use low bandwidth, paid for by Amazon, and with the iPad you have to get a data plan.

Digital cameras would all have been cellular enabled years ago.
posted by delmoi at 9:02 PM on December 3, 2011 [5 favorites]


Then they went and gave us 110, the Disc, and APS, and laughed at Fuji until Fuji went and gave us Velvia and Provia F... Kodachrome was still better, but processing was difficult and expensive and had to be shipped to specialist labs.
Totally irrelevant. Kodak sold tons of APS cameras and film. They died when digital cameras got better, and they couldn't compete.
posted by delmoi at 9:04 PM on December 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Even if Kodak could start doing something like, supplying software and integration services for camera manufacturers I don't think that business could support a corporation of that size.
Kodak made digital cameras. They made the first digital cameras, actually. They just didn't make good ones. If their cameras had been on par with Cannon/Nikon/Sony they'd still be in business. They should have partnered with a company (IBM? HP?) With more semiconductor chops to work on the sensors, and focused on building quality cameras.
posted by delmoi at 9:09 PM on December 3, 2011


Very sad considering the amazing things that George Eastman came up with. First he came up with the first practical dry plate manufacturing process, then sheet film, then roll film and the disposable camera (still in the Victorian era).
I heard a story that Eastman had trouble getting the sensitivity of film consistent from batch to batch. He evaluated every ingredient for variability and eventually tracked it to the plants eaten by the cows whose body parts were boiled up to make the gelatin film base. If the cows had eaten plants containing greater trace amounts of phosphorus, the film came out more sensitive.
posted by w0mbat at 9:12 PM on December 3, 2011 [12 favorites]


I would sorely miss TMY2 and Ektar, probably Portra 400 too. However the demise of Kodak will be a huge boon for Fuji, Ilford and (less so) Foma and Efke/Adox, so I'm pretty sure we'll still have access to film for a bunch more decades yet (hopefully Fuji starts cutting C41 sheet film again). Who knows, someone may even buy up the Kodak patents in the big fire-sale and we'll see a third party make those fantastic new emulsions.

The colour chemistry (C41, E6 and RA4 - all out of patent) is already mostly made in China and I can't see the companies that are selling it to Kodak and Fuji deciding to just not make it any more.
posted by polyglot at 9:16 PM on December 3, 2011


Consumers desperately wanted pocket-able, foolproof cameras which meant some other than 35mm. Somewhat ironically that ideal film camera turned out to use 35mm just in a disposable camera.

Consumers weren't where the real money was - the margins on consumer film were sliced razor thin by German and East-European generics to begin with, and Fujicolor, to be frank, sucked, and hard. The money was in the processing, both Fuji and Kodak hoped you'd buy mailers to send off your disposable cameras. Things got ugly when they took them to the local pharmacies instead.

Pro sales and "semi-pro" (hobbyists, but boy did they go thru a lot of premium-priced film) was whre the real money was at, and motion pictures... man, that was a neverending fount of money, wasn't it?

The deal is, I know engineers in Rochester who saw the end of film in Hollywood, and had switched from chemical engineering to software engineering, because they were so excited about digital film-making. (And they had the mental horsepower to make the switch. They were good chemists, but fucking =great= programmers.) This was '96 or so. Senior management pretty much shut them down, hoping the future wouldn't come or some silly shit.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:16 PM on December 3, 2011 [3 favorites]


They should have partnered with a company (IBM? HP?) With more semiconductor chops to work on the sensors, and focused on building quality cameras.

Kodak has never had a problem making excellent sensors. Up until very recently (they spun off their sensor division this month), they made sensors for high end manufacturers like Leica and medium-format cameras and backs from their Leaf subdiary and other camera makers. Their sensors are also in space probes.
posted by zsazsa at 9:30 PM on December 3, 2011 [6 favorites]


"Kodak moment" only entered the lexicon, btw, because it was some marketing bullshit that Kodak shoved down everyone's throat like "Diamonds are forever" and "Coke is it."
posted by empath at 9:38 PM on December 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Kodak has never had a problem making excellent sensors.

Huh. Even bigger tragedy then.

Sounds like they knew the future was coming, but they just were too stubborn to adjust. They should have figure out a way to milk the old stuff for cash while transitioning.
posted by delmoi at 9:47 PM on December 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Totally irrelevant. Kodak sold tons of APS cameras and film

And APS made film better. Because of the roughly 45% smaller film area, printed to the same sized prints, the grain issues became worse. So, Kodak worked hard on films with much finer grain for APS.

Then, of course, they already had the filmstock made, why not sell it at 35mm and 120?

Huh. Even bigger tragedy then.

Making the sensors is a long way from making a digital camera. Indeed, Kodak -- good at film -- was superb at making the digital equivalent of film, but cameras? They had no knowledge, and they did a pretty lousy job. Nikon, Canon, Minolta (now Sony) and so forth were used to building cameras, all the had to do was replace a film chamber with the sensor. Kodak, used to building just the sensor in a film camera, had to try to learn everything else.
posted by eriko at 9:58 PM on December 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


Sounds like they knew the future was coming, but they just were too stubborn to adjust. They should have figure out a way to milk the old stuff for cash while transitioning.

I'm no pro, but as someone who was raised by a couple of camera geeks and eventually became one himself, Kodak did pretty well for itself in the digital camera world at both the high end and the low end.

In those early days (the mid-to-late 90s), the low end cameras were basically juiced up webcams -- my first one cost $400 and took 640x480 photos. 32 of them. You then hooked up a serial cable to your laptop and downloaded them using proprietary software. And it was amazing! I still have some of those JPEGs lying around. At that time, Kodak made competitive and reasonably good quality low-end digicams, but it was obvious they were not film competitors. They were for people making "Web" "Pages."

On the high end, Kodak actually released the first digital SLR in the early 90s. I remember lusting idly after one of them, but they were of course ridiculous. They DCS-100 came out in 1991, cost $30,000, and came with a tethered backpack for storing the digital images themselves. They were high-water mark for digital image capture for quite a while, and the DCS line was what defined that ultra-pro market.

...And then Nikon came out with a really, really good competitor that could use all of the existing Nikon lenses that pro photographers had been accumulating. And then Canon did the same. And then other manufacturers followed suit, and the low end started climbing up in quality and the high end started coming down in price, and... That, IMO, is where Kodak got squeezed out of digital. They didn't have a huge body of existing proprietary lenses to seduce film photographers into their new digital bodies; hipsters hadn't latched onto the polaroid aesthetic, so they weren't in a great position to pound that advantage in the low-end, and they just sort of slid out of the spotlight.

It's strange, thinking about it -- I remember thinking many years back about how they were really the king of the hill. Maybe I didn't understand the overall market and its direction well at the time, but it is kind of startling to realize how quickly the ground fell out from under them.
posted by verb at 10:06 PM on December 3, 2011 [4 favorites]


The line in the article that reverberated in me the most was the one that said that "very few of the images make it to print anyways."

I hear my friends say that they will email each other the image; or upload it to Facebook; as if that is permament, or I can put that in a frame and place it on my mantle.
posted by captainsohler at 11:26 PM on December 3, 2011 [1 favorite]


.
posted by lapolla at 12:16 AM on December 4, 2011


I'm certain that just as with records, hipsters and hobbyists will find a way to make analog photography live on, albeit in a reduced and pretentious fashion.
posted by Apocryphon at 12:17 AM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


I once worked for Eastman Kodak; it was considered golden at the time. They were famous in Rochester, NY, their corporate headquarters, for giving out $2-3K bonuses, way back in the 60's, to line workers. There was no union; there was no need for a union.

The late Jane Jacobs, in her classic entitled "The Life and Death of Great American Cities" mentions Rochester as a city that actually had an opportunity to "be Chicago" - that is, until George Eastman grew his company and vertically integrated every supplier he could find, thus shutting down the diversity of Rochester's booming economy. Rochester became a company town, with Kodak as corporate master.

A lot has happened since then; I had a chance about a decade ago to establish a working partnership with Kodak, as an executive in a startup. I couldn't believe the ignorance and short-sightedness that I ran into. It was then that I knew EK was on its way to a fall. It's a shame, because it was really a great company at one time, just like (although differently) hp. Adapt, be managed well, or die.
posted by Vibrissae at 1:11 AM on December 4, 2011 [5 favorites]


I used to work for Toyobo, a Japanese textile/life sciences company that, when I worked there, specialized in, among other other things (including Gore-Tex), cassette tape and photographic film. Since the digital revolution hit, they have learned how to manufacture digital drives and all sorts of other stuff.

So there is a place for companies that are willing to change what they do.

That said, I have a little Kodak flash video camera, and I love it (although the software sucks).
posted by KokuRyu at 4:55 AM on December 4, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm certain that just as with records, hipsters and hobbyists will find a way to make analog photography live on, albeit in a reduced and pretentious fashion.

Lomo and similar are likely the future of that.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:16 AM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


The dinosaurs were once great too. If you can't keep up or change with the technological climate, demise is inevitable.
posted by Renoroc at 5:25 AM on December 4, 2011


The dinosaurs were once great too.

The dinosaurs still are great. They did keep up and change with the climate. We call them "birds" now.
posted by explosion at 5:46 AM on December 4, 2011 [9 favorites]


What I like about Kodak's point and shoot digitals is that they appear to have worked on getting the color balance somewhat film-like.

But yeah, they liked making all those fancy films and chemicals, and didn't see the writing on the wall. When Nikon decided to make digital SLRs with sensors that were big enough to be compatible with existing lenses, it was the final nail in the coffin.
posted by gjc at 6:28 AM on December 4, 2011


Wait a minute, I thought big corporations were entrenched zombie octopi who force people to buy their product and will never relinquish their immoral power unless the 99% rise up and smash them? No?
posted by TSOL at 7:16 AM on December 4, 2011


Wait a minute, I thought big corporations were entrenched zombie octopi who force people to buy their product and will never relinquish their immoral power unless the 99% rise up and smash them? No?

I could be wrong here, but a lot of the ire at "big corporations" seems to be directed at places whose products are "Places To Keep Your Money" and "Food" and "Doctors to help you when you're sick" -- corporations that exercise a great deal of control over what are basically essentials for humanity. As big as photography equipment is, it's the kind of luxury good that free markets are still pretty good at handling.
posted by verb at 7:33 AM on December 4, 2011 [3 favorites]


If you live in Rochester it's almost a given you have a relative or friend who worked at Kodak at some time. Kodak fostered a vast infrastructure of smaller companies that supplied it with manufacturing and engineering. George Eastman established a tradition of corporate funding of the arts and education that other companies struggled to emulate. It was the reason Rochester was once called "Smugtown". There were other important companies, like Xerox, Bausch & Lomb and Gleason but they all played second fiddle to The Big Yellow Box.

Kodak still dominates the local newscycle although as you can imagine it's mostly not good news. For a while it was blowing up buildings at its main location at Kodak Park rather than pay the taxes on them. It's sad, but the worst part of the loss of Kodak is already past us. But it's not the same. The top employers now are the University of Rochester and the Wegmans grocery chain. All those support companies have either disappeared or radically transformed themselves. The region's population has shrunk and the median age of those who remain has gone up.

If Kodak goes Chapter 11 or even shuts down completely the region will hardly notice it now.
posted by tommasz at 7:36 AM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


@explosion: Good one. Perhaps the lesson is that they should shrink their operations, re-brand themselves, and fly before it is too late.
posted by Renoroc at 8:25 AM on December 4, 2011


"Kodak moment" only entered the lexicon, btw, because it was some marketing bullshit that Kodak shoved down everyone's throat like "Diamonds are forever" and "Coke is it."

Well, yeah. Exactly the point. As was their multi-year Christmas-time campaign of "Open Me First". Spoiler: if you opened your brand new camera present first you'd be able to shoot take pictures of your family unwrapping the rest of their presents. That there's some bullshit!

That's how they got you started. Pretty soon you were taking pictures of family and friends, promising your parents please-just-one-more-roll, sending off those little black crack vials to (to!) the drugstore and pacing till you got back your envelope two weeks later. Don't get me started on that first glimpse of a Kodak yellow envelope on a drugstore counter with your name on it.

Their marketing nailed it.
posted by hal9k at 8:35 AM on December 4, 2011 [4 favorites]


Meantime, Kodak's once-archrival, Agfa-Gevaert, got the f*ck out of consumer products and specialised in professional imaging and printing equipment. However, the noises I get from that corner aren't particularly encouraging either.
posted by Skeptic at 8:58 AM on December 4, 2011


> Kodak made digital cameras. They made the first digital cameras, actually. They just didn't make good ones.
> If their cameras had been on par with Cannon/Nikon/Sony they'd still be in business.

Does Kodak have any history at all of making pro-quality cameras? I've been taking pix for quite a while and the names I lusted after in the film era were Leica, Zeiss, Hasselblad, Linhof, Nikon, etc. No Kodak among 'em. NASA apparently felt the same; they sent Hasselblads and Nikon F's up with the astronauts, no Kodak.

I know Kodak once owned Graflex. (The Speed Graphic was certainly a pro camera, as anyone knows who ever saw a big-press-conference or arrival-of-celebrity scene in a black and white movie; FLASH-FLASH-FLASH-FLASH go all the newspaper photogs and reporters, every one of 'em toting a Speed Graphic.) But Kodak also sold Graflex off again and both the acquisition and the sale were way, way back in the day so I have a hard time counting the Speed Graphic as a pro-grade camera made by Kodak in any sense except "yeah, well, technically I guess."

Am I overlooking something obvious? If not, then suddenly making Nikon/Canon-grade cameras when digital happened would have been something totally new for the company. It just would not have been anywhere in Rochester's corporate culture.
posted by jfuller at 10:05 AM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


w0mbat writes "I heard a story that Eastman had trouble getting the sensitivity of film consistent from batch to batch. He evaluated every ingredient for variability and eventually tracked it to the plants eaten by the cows whose body parts were boiled up to make the gelatin film base. If the cows had eaten plants containing greater trace amounts of phosphorus, the film came out more sensitive."

Man if that's true it's bloody awesome.
posted by Mitheral at 12:38 PM on December 4, 2011


Apple turned itself around completely in about 5 years First, introduce a cheap but crappy product based on existing technology to bring in enough cash flow to keep the lights on (original iMac). Then, use some of that money to break into a previously-untapped market (original iPod). Finally, introduce high-quality core products based on long-term research and development (OS X).

Kodak seems to have managed the cheap, crappy product part (APS+PhotoCD). They could have turned around and produced something really new in the height of the tech bubble -- a Flickr-like site that got uploads from film processing centers would have been great. That would have bought time to learn the trade of producing high-quality digital cameras. It should have been apparent that the real money was in professional-grade digital cameras (and movie cameras), since the consumer market is too cutthroat for anyone to make any serious money.

But they didn't have the strong leadership it would have taken to manage that transition.
posted by miyabo at 1:40 PM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


How hard would it be to dramatically scale Kodak down to niche market size? It seems like their problem comes down to the market having already scaled down - but Kodak hasn't followed.

But there is still a market.

Most people don't use film for casual photography anymore - but there are and will continue to be amateur and professional photographers who still want film. Most movies aren't produced on 35mm anymore, but there are and will continue to be filmmakers and artists who want to shoot films on film. Hollywood is on the verge of ceasing to distribute new films on 35mm - but there are and will continue to be film archives who rely on filmstock for archival use, and there will continue to be a niche audience interested in seeing pre-digital films in their original forms.

So, though I don't know how corporate reorganization works, I'd like to think that Kodak has a chance of making it work as a "not a household name" kind of company.
posted by bubukaba at 1:48 PM on December 4, 2011


I wonder if there is anyway to go from Mega Company to Niche Company without filing for bankrupcy. Seems like the sea change that would be required wouldn't be possible if the company hasn't the power to discharge many of it's contracts.
posted by Mitheral at 1:51 PM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


Mitheral, I've been wondering about exactly that.

If it's true that filing for bankruptcy or something resembling it is the only way to downscale a formerally mass market company to a niche market one - again, I don't have any understanding of how it actually works - then Kodak's hiring of Jones Day (which seemed to have been the piece of news that got the "Kodak is going bankrupt" meme into the public mind) doesn't look like quite as much of a portent of doom.

Jones Day specializes in bankruptcy, but also in "business restructuring and reorganization" - it seems reasonable that these fields of law are related. And presumably, Kodak would prefer to restructure than to give up the ghost.

Anyone have any examples of companies that have successfully made the transition from ubiquity to obsurity?
posted by bubukaba at 2:59 PM on December 4, 2011


I'm still kind of startled that people continue to refer to them as "crappy" -- seriously, check out the history and sterling reputation of the DCS line of digital pro cameras. IMO what killed them in the high end was the arrival full camera suites by Canon and Nikon, who had large pools of faithful lens buyers happy to carry their expensive glass forward into a digital world.

Your relationship with a company that primarily makes amazing film can be strong, but the minute you go digitial, the relationship is nothing but reputation. For the body/lens makers, the relationship a photographer has is thousands of dollars in sunk costs for lenses. If those can be reused rather than repurchased, well, bang, sold! Kodak, while they definitely missed a lot of other opportunities, just didn't have the same pool of customers to leverage.
posted by verb at 3:14 PM on December 4, 2011 [1 favorite]


jfuller, besides Graflex Kodak used to have their Retina cameras which were made in Germany. And in the digital era Kodak used bodies from Canon and Nikon to make their various pro-grade (DCS) digital SLRs. But you can argue that like Graflex neither one was truly a Kodak camera in the sense the Brownie (to name one) was.
posted by tommasz at 3:17 PM on December 4, 2011


Oh Kodak, my old friend... thanks for the nights spent in my darkroom, bulk-loading Plus-X and Tri-X into reusable cartridges, scoping the unbelievably silky fine grain of Pan-X, going through stacks of 8x10 and 5x7 resin-coated paper... thanks for the thrill of watching images emerge from a plain white piece of paper in the blood-red darkroom light... thanks for the smell of the fixer and the hours of messing with my enlarger, Polyconstrast filters at ready, trying for that perfect print. Thanks for the reassuring yellow and red and black and white labels that filled my evenings and weekends...

Thanks for the wonderful holiday family slide shows that made my grandparents laugh and my sister wince and that sometimes made me cry for how old we were all getting. Thanks for those beautiful, beautiful Kodachrome reds...

Thanks for giving my father the means to capture trips and my young mother and relatives that would not live long enough for me to meet them. Thanks for showing me his world.

Thanks for being Kodak. You were more than a company.

You were my youth.
posted by kinnakeet at 4:45 PM on December 4, 2011 [6 favorites]


Am I overlooking something obvious? If not, then suddenly making Nikon/Canon-grade cameras when digital happened would have been something totally new for the company. It just would not have been anywhere in Rochester's corporate culture.

Kodak made the short-lived DCS Pro 14n, DCS Pro SLR/c and the DCS Pro SLR/n. They had very long startup times and a few other flaws which made them annoying to use. Kodak did a bad job of marketing them, as described in this review.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:34 AM on December 5, 2011


I watched as seemingly everyone around me claimed that digital photography would never replace film. So many reasons - the resolution would never catch up, the dynamic range would never be enough to satisfy, etc.

So many idiotically myopic predictions, like Britannica's early assessments of Wikipedia, or print newspaper's attacks on internet news sites. So many wrong people. And so many of them worked at Kodak.

During my long recent unemployment, I interviewed for an optical engineering position with a former Kodak division. The hiring manager openly described his department as having lost all their design work to Chinese engineers, and at this point, the job basically entailed translating customer requirements into engineering specs for the Chinese OEs to design to... and then checking to make sure it fit the req, after completed. If any of you can't complete the dots on where this "support position" would be in 10 years... Frankly, he seemed depressed, defeated.

Kodak dug their grave, laid down in it, and pulled the dirt in after, until only a hand and a head stuck out. Hard to feel sorry for the company. The non-upper-management employees, and the entire Rochester area, OTOH...
posted by IAmBroom at 1:01 PM on December 5, 2011 [1 favorite]


The late Jane Jacobs, in her classic entitled "The Life and Death of Great American Cities" mentions Rochester as a city that actually had an opportunity to "be Chicago" - that is, until George Eastman grew his company and vertically integrated every supplier he could find, thus shutting down the diversity of Rochester's booming economy. Rochester became a company town, with Kodak as corporate master.

Vibrissae, that's a fascinating point. Other companies have tried fully-vertical integration, and backed off, which allowed them to remain competitive. Sure, you can cut a margin of cost with in-house production of subcomponents, but you can't keep up with the versatility of open market competition for your $$$ - so ultimately, you limit yourself.

And it has to be real competition. Chrysler + CMI, not so much. GM + Delphi, not so much. But if you retain a true market choice for vendors, you allow so much strength of the market to support your development, long-term... at the relatively minor cost of (arguably, but not certainly) slightly less efficient cost structures (since a certain profit level must be built into the price of each supplier, separate from your own profit levels).
posted by IAmBroom at 1:19 PM on December 5, 2011


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