The Kodak tragedy
By Gary Cameron
Like so many consumers who have seen the continual demise of Eastman Kodak and it’s many film, and film-related products, I view today’s filing for Chapter 11 protection with incredible sadness. That sadness is coupled, however, with the cruel understanding of how a great U.S. company that once led the world in its respective industry, is poised now to go the same route as Oldsmobile, Plymouth, Pontiac, and join an ever-growing group of American industrial icons that did not keep up or improve their product enough to stay competitive.
As a news photographer of 32 years, a lot of Kodak film and chemistry has passed through my hands. Having the last name of Cameron played a part. Schoolyard taunts of “Gary Camera, Gary Camera,” never angered me. Taking pictures was a cool thing to do.
When I was five years old, I would swipe my Uncle Dave’s Leica rangefinder camera that was always loaded with Kodachrome color slide film and attempt to imitate the actions required to take a picture. I knew that this lever would advance the film, this window was where you looked through to take the photo, and that was about it. No focusing and no understanding of how to set the aperture or shutter speed to control the amount of light hitting the film plane. It was always a surprise to my Uncle that somehow, in that batch of processed color slides, there were 36 exposures of a roadside park trash can, all out of focus, and all over, or under, exposed.
Most Sunday’s found my family gathered at my Grandmother’s house for a great seven-course Italian meal, followed by an Uncle Dave slide show. Great pasta, but there was no editing of the numerous slide trays of the Mackinac Bridge, the flower show at Hudson’s department store, the retirement dinners from Hudson’s, the building of the Interstate highway system through Detroit, family baptisms, birthdays, vacations, Detroit Tigers’ camera days, (you got to go on the field… and take pictures of the players!), Christmas trees with presents, Christmas trees AFTER the presents, well, you get the idea. That’s a lot of color slides, and I saw every exposure, every angle, every single, damn one. No one in the family was spared, and neither were any slides. Those slides still exist today with little or no color shift. That is some great film and chemistry!
It was only a natural progression that I would chase photography as a career, in one form or another. Advertising and shiny, new car photos appealed to me so much that I applied, and was accepted, to the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, California. Reality set in though, when I started adding up the tuition, cost of living, and large format camera and color film costs. No, I could never afford that; better go with an affordable San Francisco State University tuition and black and white.
Which led me to chasing a career in newspapers; Kodak black and white film and Kodak D-76 film development chemistry and Kodak Dektol print developer.
I need to stop right here and now, and explain one point that might be going through your head. I am NOT a “living in the past photographer” who thinks that digital photography is “Satan’s Etch-a-Sketch.” (That brilliant description is from photographer Steve Crowley of the New York Times.)
While the early professional grade digital cameras were bulky, and just dreadful to operate (terrible shutter lag), no one can deny that the mixing of chemicals, and setting up a portable darkroom in a horse stall at Pimlico for the Preakness, a janitor’s closet at the old Yankee Stadium for a World Series, a college dorm men’s room for Washington Redskins summer workouts, was a good time. It was dirty, stinky, nasty, and we dumped all the chemicals down a common drain. Digital photography freed us from all of that; it just took a awhile for the software to catch up.
For better or worse, it was pretty fascinating to develop film to see “if I got that.” “Got that” meant, was it in focus? (Yeah, we had manual focusing cameras too). Was the exposure good? I still have the opinion that black and white film, viewed through a loupe, (it’s a small magnifier that you can view each individual negative or slide with while editing), was the sharpest film ever made. And once you made a nice 11” x 14” photographic print, it was VERY gratifying to HOLD something in your hand that you had focused on, captured on film, developed, and printed.
Take a look at an original Ansel Adams print, made from a large or medium format negative. Digital reproduction, although very good, still cannot match that.
It is a tragedy that THE company that invented DIGITAL photography is going bankrupt, mainly, BECAUSE of digital photography, and Kodak’s failure to fully embrace or follow through with a competitive digital-based business plan.
It is a tragedy that so many Rochester, New York jobs have been lost, and more will probably follow. I’ve seen this too, in Detroit, my hometown, where one industry fed, housed, and provided, through hard labor, for so many. To their credit, the U.S. automakers, with assistance, recognized the shortcomings of their product and are coming back.
I sincerely hope that somehow, the people of Eastman Kodak can do the same. From George Eastman on, Kodak has developed and manufactured products that are long-lasting, full of quality, and became the nation’s archive for photographic imagery.
Hopefully, they won’t join Plymouth, Oldsmobile, and Pontiac at the roadside.