Cameras ain’t what they used to be
June 16, 2021 8:42 AM   Subscribe

The Rise and Fall of an American Tech Giant, The Atlantic, Kaitlyn Tiffany, July/August 2021 [alternate link]: “Kodak didn’t just teach Americans to take photographs; it taught them what to take photographs of, and it taught them what photographs were for. The Kodak mythology [*], though powerful, was and is easily seen through.” *See Kodak History.
posted by cenoxo (35 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
 
Previously, in which we learn that the photography market got wiped out twice in about one decade: first from specialized film products to commodity digital, then from digital cameras to a free feature on smartphones.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 8:51 AM on June 16 [11 favorites]


I do hope that the current iterations of the company, Eastman-Kodak and Kodak Alaris stay solvent and are able to keep producing film. There's still a lot of us who still shoot primarily on film and Kodak and FujiFilm are the only two manufacturers in the world of color film stock now and FujiFilm seems to discontinue another stock every six months.
posted by octothorpe at 8:59 AM on June 16 [26 favorites]


Ages ago, we had an early Kodak digital camera at my last job. I think it was an EasyShare model. Great camera. Easy to use. With the dock, you could hook it up to a computer, Windows or Mac, which was a huge advantage to so many other brands for years. They had everything right and it was a pleasure to use.

Also: Tri-X forever!
posted by Thorzdad at 9:00 AM on June 16 [4 favorites]


I'm surprised the article didn't spend any time on that quintessential market slogan:

"Make it a Kodak Moment!"
posted by Fukiyama at 9:12 AM on June 16 [1 favorite]


This was really fascinating, and a lot to parse - I'm not sure I followed all of the twists and turns, there were so many. But I think there's a whole FPP in the throwaway note about the Jell-O Family Curse
posted by Mchelly at 9:14 AM on June 16 [8 favorites]


This 1938 Kodak Industrial Film, Highlights and Shadows, obviously inspired by Man With a Movie Camera (and probably also Leni Riefenstahl) is freaking amazing and kind of scary, and is a good illustration of how all-encompassing the company was at its peak.
posted by 1970s Antihero at 9:58 AM on June 16 [2 favorites]


No history of the fall of Kodak is complete without mentioning the late embarrassment that was KodakCoin.
posted by phooky at 9:59 AM on June 16 [3 favorites]


Rochester and Kodak came up just yesterday in a slightly different context. The English footballer Jamie Vardy recently purchased a minority ownership of the Rochester Rhinos, a second-division team. Apparently, one of the things that drew him to Rochester was how industrial decline led to a shell of a city. This matched neatly with his upbringing in Sheffield, the former steelworking powerhouse in the UK.
posted by suckerpunch at 10:18 AM on June 16


No history of the fall of Kodak is complete without mentioning the late embarrassment that was KodakCoin.

KodakCoin looks a lot like an NFT a couple years ahead of the curve.
posted by nathan_teske at 10:20 AM on June 16 [8 favorites]


This was really fascinating, and a lot to parse - I'm not sure I followed all of the twists and turns, there were so many. But I think there's a whole FPP in the throwaway note about the Jell-O Family Curse

It's not a random connection; gelatin is an essential ingredient to film and photographic paper production.
posted by octothorpe at 10:22 AM on June 16 [12 favorites]


I will always remember Kodak for creating and implementing the International Fixed Calendar.

I only wish we could have such a streamlined and straightforward calendar for everyday use.

I hate that one of the "disadvantages" of the calendar is simply we're so invested in the current Gregorian standard that it would be "too costly" to change to a simply better system. Sunk cost fallacy, in my opinion.
posted by deadaluspark at 10:29 AM on June 16 [2 favorites]


it would be "too costly" to change to a simply better system. Sunk cost fallacy, in my opinion.

see also: imperial measurements
posted by Dr. Twist at 10:33 AM on June 16 [4 favorites]


You can have my International Fixed Calendar when you pry it from my cold, dead Swatch Internet Time.
posted by 7segment at 10:42 AM on June 16 [8 favorites]


You can have my International Fixed Calendar when you pry it from my cold, dead Swatch Internet Time.

Ok I'll be on PSO at about @41.
posted by Your Childhood Pet Rock at 10:43 AM on June 16 [1 favorite]


> I will always remember Kodak for creating and implementing the International Fixed Calendar.

I don't know about "creating" because there's, weirdly, a lot of precedent regarding 13 month calendars and the IFC was designed by a guy named Cotsworth decades before Kodak used it. But George Eastman definitely deserves credit for committing hard to the calendar. It must've been useful despite however much it conflicted with the Gregorian since Kodak continued using it for sixty years.
posted by ardgedee at 11:01 AM on June 16 [2 favorites]


In Rochester, Kodak was nothing less than the 20th century itself. Kodak Tower, a 19-story neo-Renaissance skyscraper, was the gilded beacon of downtown. By the postwar period, the company had developed a reputation for generosity toward its employees, paying health-care costs not just for retirees but for their entire families, as well as subsidizing advanced degrees, providing mortgage loans, and organizing employee sports leagues. By the end of the ’70s, Kodak employed more than 50,000 people in Rochester, and things were so good that Flower City became known as “Smugtown.” In 1980, Kodak celebrated its centennial with a summer-long birthday party of free music and fireworks.

Related to this, a few years ago the "Big Shot" project at Rochester Institute of Technology did a nifty public shoot of the tower, asking people to paint it with light for a nighttime exposure:

Volunteers are asked to arrive no later than 7:30 p.m., bring either a flashlight or a camera flash unit, and wear dark clothing. Free parking is available in the High Falls Parking Garage, 240 State St., or in the Kodak lot at the corner of Morrie Silver Way and State Street.

RIT faculty, staff and alumni volunteers will provide instructions to the anticipated throngs of volunteers while the photo team perches itself across State Street above the expected crowds to improve the vantage point for the photo.


150 years of Photographic Technology was used in Big Shot No 32 – Meet the Photographers:

For this project, the RIT Big Shot photography team used photographic technologies from the past and present to make multiple pictures of the Kodak Tower. One camera exposed a wet plate collodion plate, a process invented in the 1850s. An 11″ x 14″ plate was exposed using a 17″ lens. Two cameras used 4″ x 5″ dry plate film, a film type similar to the kind George Eastman himself would have used in the 1880s; and, three film cameras, including a Nikon F3T with a 28mmƒ22, a Hasselblad 500CM with a 40mm, 4 x 5 Wisner with 90mm ƒ22 and an 8 x10 Deardorf large format with a 200mm ƒ22 exposed Kodak Portra 160 C-41 film camera captured the compelling view. Two Nikon D810 digital cameras recorded the official Big Shot digital exposure.

Here's the final result, and a few more details about the logistics of the shoot.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 11:10 AM on June 16 [9 favorites]


From Odd Things I've Seen, Rest In Photography: The George Eastman Suicide Note (with photos taken at the George Eastman Museum).
posted by cenoxo at 11:22 AM on June 16 [2 favorites]


I hate that one of the "disadvantages" of the calendar is simply we're so invested in the current Gregorian standard that it would be "too costly" to change to a simply better system. Sunk cost fallacy, in my opinion.
deadaluspark

It's not. The sunk cost fallacy is basing current decisions on unrecoverable past expenditures. If the argument were that we've been using the Gregorian calendar so long and have spent so much implementing it that we might as well keep using it, that's a sunk cost fallacy.

But that's not the argument. There is a non-zero transfer cost in trying to change the standard global calendar system. I'm sure someone's crunched the numbers, but I imagine it would be extremely expensive in terms of money and labor to actually implement a switch. So the question is, would the gains from switching to the IFC outweigh the transfer costs?

I'm not even clear what the "gains" are beyond the satisfaction of a more orderly and "rational" system. Wikipedia says there might be advantages in longer-term production scheduling, statistical computation, and maybe fiscal calendar cash flows. This seems like one of those nerd hobby-horses where an idealized rational system could potentially provide minor benefits at the massive cost of fundamentally restructuring society.
posted by star gentle uterus at 11:23 AM on June 16 [13 favorites]


I have a Kodak camera sitting on my desk - a cheap Kodak Instant Print camera I brought for my kids to take on holiday. I know it's not really Kodak - its actually just under the Kodak name and licensing but really built by Prinics. It died after about 10 photos printed. Meanwhile I have an old Kodak film camera (like 30 years old) somewhere I pulled out a while back for the kids to play with. Stuck some batteries in it and it came alive and I suspect if I had any film would still work perfectly. So yeah - sure cameras ain’t what they used to be.
posted by inflatablekiwi at 11:27 AM on June 16 [5 favorites]


This seems like one of those nerd hobby-horses where an idealized rational system could potentially provide minor benefits at the massive cost of fundamentally restructuring society.

cf. Non-QWERTY keyboard layouts, he typed on a niche keyboard layout. Or Daylight Saving Time for that matter, he typed sleep-phase-disorder-ly. Anyway. Carry on.
posted by fedward at 11:38 AM on June 16 [1 favorite]


That's a great article. I really like the writing style and humor:

All of this, what little of it there is, is likely riveting only if you’ve been steeped in the local history against your express consent.


and

[reporter] asked me to correct the record: “Often when we read about Rochester in the national media, it seems like the writer thinks … all we ever do is walk around and cry about how Kodak is gone.” So, in print, here it is: People who live in Rochester do many things other than walk around and cry about how Kodak is gone.


And I appreciated drawing out the breadth and depth of the racism involved.
posted by Gorgik at 12:42 PM on June 16 [4 favorites]


Wikipedia says there might be advantages in longer-term production scheduling, statistical computation, and maybe fiscal calendar cash flows. This seems like one of those nerd hobby-horses where an idealized rational system could potentially provide minor benefits at the massive cost of fundamentally restructuring society.

I daresay wikipedia is wildly understating the impact. Anything that deals with money and dates gets waaaay more complicated due to the Gregorian calendar. A trivial example: do you have a monthly subscription? When does the renewal happen? What if the subscription originated on the 31st? People may have glib solutions for this, but any solution has knock-on effects, requiring further compensations which themselves introduce "corner cases" and the potential for bugs that impact both the business and customer.

Full disclosure: I'm a software engineer at a company that deals with both subscriptions and royalty calculations, so this is a genuine and personal pain point for me - I will concede that my objectivity is compromised.
posted by microscone at 12:49 PM on June 16 [7 favorites]


Fortunately the Romans had figured this out since the days of Numa Pompilius: you simply count backwards from one of 3 starting points, so the last day of the month is Pridie Kalendas [next month], meaning the day before the start of the next month, and the day before is ante diem III Kalendas [next month], because you include the day you start counting at. Counting 1-31 is way too easy.

Also never ever write down a year as a number when you can just list two people’s names, especially if those names have been shared by dozens of other people in history.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 1:21 PM on June 16 [5 favorites]


True, for example the council's of Bibulus and Bibulus is really the council year of Bibulus and Caeser.
posted by clavdivs at 1:59 PM on June 16 [2 favorites]


Kodak continues to sell film, but now it calls itself a chemical company.

It always was.

People don't understand (or Kodak's marketing told them not to understand) that magical elves weren't sprinkling some fairy dust and dew drops on some magic paper that would preserve their most treasured family memories forever.

It was, at the end of the day (and at its inception and in its prime), just another chemical plant. And when the market for its product was gone, all that was left was another toxic mess that the founders, shareholders, and whoever else got super-rich never had to really pay the freight on. This is, to use that phrase, not a place of honour, or, in the words of the EPA:

Access controls are in place, which limit potential exposures to contaminated soils. These measures include capping, fencing, paving or otherwise covering the soils to preclude direct contact.
posted by mandolin conspiracy at 4:29 PM on June 16 [13 favorites]


James Sibley Watson Jr, the cinematographer of the film also shot The Fall of the House of Usher (1928) and Lot in Sodom (1933), so he probably wasn’t influenced by Leni. More likely the other way around.
posted by Ideefixe at 5:17 PM on June 16 [1 favorite]


My dad worked for a Kodak subsidiary in the 90's that was part of their pivot to digital. It was a online catalog for managing and licensing images for advertisers and publishers that got off the ground before Getty Images. They also had a consumer side for uploading and sharing photos way before Picasa or Flickr (or Ofoto which Kodak bought and renamed Kodak Gallery as their better-known image sharing website).

One of the magic features of the product my dad worked on was a natural language search engine. To speed up their workflow, publishers/advertisers could do things like search for "woman on horseback with yellow flowers" and get image matches from the catalog, which was pretty amazing in a pre-Google world. But the special sauce wasn't AI or image recognition, it was just searching through metadata tagged by an army of low-wage, English speaking contractors working in former Soviet republics. So in a way, Kodak also came up with their own Mechanical Turk before Amazon got around to it.
posted by peeedro at 5:58 PM on June 16 [8 favorites]


It’s weird that they are now (accurately) stressing that they’ve always been a chemical company, when arguably the reason they went bankrupt (while Fujifilm and Agfa didn’t*) is a failure to capitalize on that capability twenty years ago. They tried to keep being an imaging company and ran into the reality of competition in commodity electronics. Meanwhile they really did have an effective monopoly on chemical plant processes they could have leveraged to diversify into other markets, and they had enough capital to make it work.

* Agfa is a special case here because the photo unit was spun out into a separate company that did go bankrupt (only a year after the divestiture, and boy does that look like being saddled with debt and being left to fail), but the rest of Agfa is still a going concern.
posted by fedward at 7:30 PM on June 16 [2 favorites]


Tri-X forever!

Kodak Tri-X: The Best Black-and-White Film Ever Made?, PetaPixel, Stephen Dowling, 4/4/2016.
posted by cenoxo at 8:42 PM on June 16


Where's that Ektachrome reboot we were promised 2 years ago
posted by fluttering hellfire at 6:08 AM on June 17


They released the new Ektachrome a couple of years ago. You can buy it right here. I shot a couple of rolls of it and it's beautiful but so expensive to buy and process.
posted by octothorpe at 6:31 AM on June 17 [2 favorites]




Ages ago, we had an early Kodak digital camera at my last job. I think it was an EasyShare model. Great camera. With the dock, you could hook it up to a computer, Windows or Mac, which was a huge advantage to so many other brands for years.

I remember those serial port docks. The mid 90's? My friend had a DC-20 or DC-25. (whichever had the LCD preview screen)

Sony's Mavica FD-7 was a "shut up and take my money" product at the time. It wrote JPEGs to 3.5 floppy disks. A box of 10 disks was like "unlimited film", no developing, no scanning.
posted by mikelieman at 9:25 AM on June 17 [2 favorites]


The World’s First Digital Camera, introduced by the man who invented it, DIY Photography, John Aldred, 8/2/2016:
Steven Sasson invented the world’s first digital camera [US patent] while working at Eastman Kodak in 1975. It weighed around 8 pounds (3.6kg) and shot a mere 0.01MP. It’s crazy to think how far we’ve come since those early days. We’ve gone from 30 images on a delicate cassette to thousands on something as small as a fingernail.

In this video [Vimeo], Steven shows us around the camera, talks us through its operation, and laments on the difficulties faced during its development. Hearing how far they expected digital to go compared to how far it actually has come is fascinating....
Pandora's Box, then.
posted by cenoxo at 11:48 AM on June 17


Our main office in Mexico, we are a software company, is on the former grounds of a Kodak plant.

I got to work in the former Kodak buildings while our office was being built. Beautiful low rise brick buildings sprinkled throughout hectares of park criss-crossed with elevated pipes labeled "cold water" and "Concentrated Hydrocloric Acid". It was nice enough to hang a hammock and spend a lazy Sunday reading a book at the abandoned plant.

I watched the slow demolition of the Kodak plant to make space for the largest office building in the city, a high end shopping mall, and over 4,000 apartments.

The story is that the plant was built here because it was far enough from test sites that their x-ray film would not get fogged by secret nuclear tests, but close enough to a large port and in a place that would attract talent.

Kodak had a very large but indirect impact on my life. I visited the plant in third grade and was so impressed by the place and the people there that I decided I would do whatever was necessary to get a job there when I grew up (my second choice was the potato chip factory across the street from Kodak) . I never did work for Kodak, but in my teens I worked at a metal fabrication place making, by hand, the housings for new deep red lights for their clean dark rooms. The biggest impact is that by letting one of their research chemists take a personal computer (back then a huge deal) and modem home, Kodak started a cascade of events that resulted 14 year old me and a few friends hogging 3/4 of Mexico's internet bandwidth for a year or so in 1991-1992, and from there to a career as a self taught software engineer.
posted by Dr. Curare at 12:37 PM on June 17 [11 favorites]


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