Photographers' Blog

The Kodak tragedy

January 19, 2012

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.

Comments
6 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

excellent blog, a trip down memory lane, of hundreds of gallons of dektol and d-76 mixed-my very first camera was a kodak instamtic 100, moved up to the motor driver version, spring wound instamatic 104 i think, kodaks first slogan was for their first mass market camera was
“You press the button, we do the rest,” you literally sent the whole camera back to kodak, they processed the film, sent back the 100 pixs you shot, as prints, and camera reloaded with film…the No.1 Kodak which sold for $25 back
i still have some old aluminum film cans from my grandfather as pictured in one of the blog post pixs…

Posted by fredprouser | Report as abusive
 

Great post, Gary, thank you. I, like you and many others, am deeply saddened by the Chapter 11 filing of Eastman Kodak. I found your note that an Ansel Adams print from a negative is better than a digital reproduction to be especially interesting. In our digital age, it’s a big controversy if Ansel Adams would have shot digital if he were still alive. As a former Ansel Adams assistant, I have a unique perspective and just penned a little article about it. If you’re interested, here’s a link: http://bit.ly/uAJmEt

I welcome your comments.
~ Alan Ross

Posted by AlanRoss | Report as abusive
 

I started in photography in Detroit in the early 1940s.
My first decent camera was the Kodak Bantam, then I went to the Kodak 35. I still use a film camera (and Kodak film), but now I scan the developed negatives, and handled them further on a computer.
“Photo essays in black and white”,
http://www.efn.org/~hkrieger/

Posted by hkrieger | Report as abusive
 

I literally just finished developing a role of Plus X prior to reading this piece. Digital cameras and Photoshop have made everyone a photographer. Film, on the other hand is much less forgiving. It takes an artist to make great images, especially with B&W film. Kodak may be in critical condition, but I believe if they can find their feet and stick with what they know best they can come through this. They may never again be the industry giant they once were, but they can hold on to their rightful place in history.

Posted by jpiazza | Report as abusive
 

Companies that cannot think outside the box and adapt are doomed today. Technology is moving so fast, the digital age demands the old way of doing business is yesterday. Tomorrow is a leap ahead of yesterday.

Posted by buzzquick | Report as abusive
 

Great timeline and documentation of the affinity many of us feel for Kodak. When I was a kid you’d visit theme parks and there would be signs “Stop here for your Kodak moment.” Same thing with some state/national parks.

As Americans we’ve lost much of our brand loyalty. Perhaps because some of the American auto industry taught us that we weren’t important in their equation. They possessed the technology of their foreign competitors but didn’t employ it. We felt betrayed. It’s natural to go for something better, cheaper or more functional, but unfortunately it’s at the expense of losing some iconic American companies that made the mistake of not moving toward the future fast enough or early enough.

I just received the consumer announcement email today about the Kodak Gallery being sold to Shutterfly and my pictures being transferred to Shutterfly.

So Sad. Having a “Kodak moment” is such a strong brand statement. It’s like “pass me a Kleenex.” Kodak was a part of the American evolution of photography for the every man. They are a real American icon. A brand known round the world, fading. It’s such a shame. I wish their was some cutting-edge technology on your development plate that you could debut and revive your company. Having such a strong brand is not so easy to achieve.

Thanks for the Kodak moment memories.

Posted by MaryKelly | Report as abusive
 

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