Kodak's Slow Motion Downfall

If there is any one product that has to do with my own personal success (and millions of other photographers too for that matter), it is Kodak. When I was going to Brooks Institute School of Photography, it seemed that nearly everything we used was Kodak yellow and red. Kodak fixer could indeed fix anything, we were only as good as the Kodak film we shot, and color was Kodak vibrant. Like many other professional photographers, I love the company and what it has done for the culture of photography. So it with great sadness that I learned of Kodak's filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January and their intent to exit the digital capture business.

It's like Apple dropping computers or Jack Daniel's switching to milk. It ain't fittin, as they say. You really know that the world's gone to hell if Kodak isn't making photographic stuff. Fuel up the rocketship.

Kodak essentially invented the concept of "the snapshot," with the very first Kodak camera in the late 1880's. For the first time, nearly anyone could make a photograph. Their motto was "You push the button, and we do the rest." For all intents, Kodak WAS photography.

A lot of us photographers have been watching Kodak's slow demise for quite some time now, and are not all that surprised that it has come down to this Chapter 11 status. It's not a happy or unexpected realization by any means, but we still hope that Kodak will rise out of the ashes. If I were a Wall Street Journal investigative reporter, I'd look into the section below titled "Did Kodak make the nails for their own coffin?" I'm sure that there are many nuances to this story that the public is not privy too, but us professional photographers have been bearing witness to a few decades worth of missteps that more than likely had something to do with their downfall.

Abridged Kodak Story

In order to understand the above webpage describing Kodak's exit out of dedicated capture devices, you really need to understand who they were and examine the core of their essence, so here goes, please bear with me. This story could actually be published in book length, but since this is a blog, here is the McNeil condensed version (part of this blog entry was plucked out of my lecture notes from when I taught a History of Photography course).

In the early 1870's, photographers couldn't even buy pre-made negatives, film did not exist. This is a special area of research for me, as I have a collection of glass plate negatives that marks the time at the cusp between when photographers had to make the collodion hand coated negatives and when they were able to simply purchase ready-made dry plate negatives. Photographers had to hand-coat their own glass plates (which was closer to alchemy than science) and essentially made their own negatives.

I learned many of the nuances of glass plate negatives from a scholar at the George Eastman House by the way (she spent the afternoon carefully examining my 1870's & 1880 glass plate negatives made by the famous Felix Bonfils). The concept of being able to buy photographic film hardly existed prior to Kodak's arrival. There were a number of international companies that made dry plate negatives, but it was Kodak who transformed it into an amateur phenomenon, which created millions of new photographers. It means that more than any other company, Kodak transformed photography into a common practice for nearly anyone to use, and they did it on a global scale.

When I think of Kodak, I think of the entire culture of photography since the late 1800’s, and especially how they’ve dominated nearly every phase of the culture and industry of photography for so long, most notably during the entire 20th century. In this sense, Kodak is nearly a quintessential or archetypal model of American industry. Kodak obviously didn’t invent photography, but rather stepped in nearly 50 years later to make photography easily available to the world for the first time.

A quirky bit of history has the Reverend Hannibal Goodwin teaching bible studies with lantern slides in the mid-1880's. He was looking for a way to make this easier, and discovered that he could transfer the texts onto a type of flexible film called nitrocellulose and filed a patent for it in 1887, two years before Kodak's patent for nearly the same thing. Goodwin contended that the patent was rightfully his, and sold it to the Ansco company, which sued Kodak for it and won a five million dollar judgement years later, in March of 1914. This little scenario had to do with the invention of roll film, which essentially acted as a literal basis for photography for over 100 years, plus made motion picture film possible.

Kodak mass produced film to create the revolution in photography that made it available to nearly anyone. The key phrase here is mass availability, ease of use and affordable prices. Roll film is what made this happen, and it is likely the number one technological advance that moved photography into popular culture.

A scholar could make the assertion that George Eastman was a visionary, and his powerful personality had everything to do with Kodak’s success as a large corporation. This is a critical stance, because I’ll also make the claim that without a visionary leader at the top, a company can flounder, and when important aspects of a company are left to committees to determine, things can go drastically wrong. Eastman died in 1932.

Eastman was an astute business person, and could be compared to the Bill Gates of his day in that instead prioritizing camera production, he set Kodak's priority on the manufacture of film. It’s kind of what Bill Gates and Microsoft did with computers regarding selling the operating system, and let others fight it out with building the computers. It meant that Kodak became the de facto near-monopoly for the sale of film, and in fact held many of the roll film patents.

Throughout the entire 20th century, Kodak dominated the industry and culture of photography. It became clear in the 1940’s that other countries could manufacture the high-end cameras more affordably and Kodak gave up that part of the industry. Up until then they made a number of professional level large format cameras and lenses, in addition to cameras such as the legendary Ektra and classic Kodak Bantam Special. It became clear that Japan could manufacture high quality cameras at more affordable prices, so Kodak gave up that segment of the camera market and prioritized affordable snapshot cameras that of course encouraged the use of high volumes of their film.

The Kodak Bantam Special was designed by the legendary designer Walter Teague. It had a lightning fast f/2 lens that allowed high quality photos to be made with the slower ISO Kodachrome film. This was a camera for the true photographic connoisseurs who only wanted the best of the best, which of course means that I use one, even today (B&H sells 828 film for this camera). The pre-war versions used the German Compur shutters; Kodak was starting to use German parts for some of their cameras.

By the mid-to late 1900’s it was clear that Kodak really didn’t have any real rivals with film manufacture, even as there were dozens of other excellent film producers. Kodak was relegated to the production of amateur cameras (millions of units per camera model), having given up on the manufacture of professional quality cameras in favor of amateur versions, where volume was the key to success. Not only that, but as mentioned earlier, the cameras were not the key income producer, it was the film that Kodak was targeting with their largest volume of sales. Kodak also had the near monopoly with professional quality films too, it's where pros went to get the film that defined their livelihoods. Kodak spent millions of dollars on research and development to assure that they stayed on top as the company that had a reputation for making the best films in the world.

The Kodak Brownie was produced in many incarnations and is one of the all-time volume sellers for cameras in the world. They were made of cheap materials and easily mass produced to sell to the masses. Everyone was supposed to be able to afford one, even people in the lower classes who couldn't afford luxuries; Eastman's philosophy was to make photography available to everyone. Many photographer's first cameras (including myself) were Kodak Brownies.

Kodak’s most legendary film was the Kodachrome slide film, which was only discontinued last year as a casualty of the digital photography revolution. Their other flagship film was black and white Tri-X film, which is still manufactured today (and is what I ask my own students to use in our black and white film class, by the way). By the mid-1970’s Kodak sold an astounding 90% of the film in America; nearly a monopoly. These were the good times, and darker events were to soon unfold.

Did Kodak make the nails for their own coffin?

1st Nail: Ektachrome & the advent of Fujifilm

To begin with, I'll make the assertion that these seven Kodak missteps happened because there wasn't a George Eastman or Steve Jobs type visionary leader at the top to cut through all the nonsense and simply see that things got done, period. No messing around or heads would roll. I'm betting that not only did heads not roll, but there wasn't any one entity held responsible for this long list of failures. My bet is that it was the board of directors trying to do some very difficult tasks via committee and it simply did not work. Steve Jobs would have told you straight out that some things you simply do not vote on, and in order to make innovation a reality, you must have a very strong-willed, tenacious leader taking charge and seeing that bad things absolutely did not happen, at least not on your watch.

So in a very real sense, not only did bad things happen, they also happened in slow motion over many decades, and by this January's Chapter 11 filing, there was hardly anything anyone could do to stop the downward spiral.

In my opinion, one of the big Kodak missteps happened throughout the 1970's. For some reason, Kodak did not apply a high level of quality control over their Ektachrome films. Many of the 35mm versions of Ektachrome were simply awful with obvious color shifts and had a tendency to fade fairly quickly.

One of the drawbacks with Kodachrome was that it took a long time to process, and pros wanted a film that could be processed quickly and without the highly specialized labs that Kodachrome required. Even though it was the best film ever made, Kodachrome took too long to process in this speeded up world. I can remember sending packets of film to the closest Kodachrome lab in Palo Alto via many of the new overnight shipping companies that were springing up at this time.

Ektachrome slide film was supposed to fill the need for fast, same day processing and it only required a more basic process called E-6 chemicals and processing equipment. From what I understand, it was also supposed to use less toxic chemicals than the Kodachrome compounds. At any rate, many of the Ektachrome versions fell right on their faces as dismal failures. Professionals were beyond belief that Kodak would release a substandard film, and voted with their feet by simply not buying the film. In the meantime, a company named Fujifilm in Japan was working on producing a high quality transparency film that could use the easier and more affordable E-6 same-day processing that didn't have to be shipped to a specialized lab.

Fujifilm came forth with a beautifully rich film that had the high color saturation, superfine grain, and accuracy that came nearest to the best of what Kodachrome had to offer. Pros didn't have to deal with the awful Ektachrome anymore and Fujifilm became a nearly instant bestseller and took over a large segment of the film market that Kodak had owned for decades. It should have served as a wake-up call to Kodak that they were vulnerable to outside companies taking over a market segment that Kodak thought was invincible. Fujifilm only got better, and during the decades of the 1980's and 1990's Fujifilm had the audacity to displace Kodak and their E-6 line of transparency films. Kodak's response was too little, too late and Fujifilm's sales skyrocketed.

2nd Nail: Disc film... hush, sweep it under the rug, quick

This is more minor, but worth mentioning. Kodak was experimenting with a new film format called Disc Film. Kodak was answering the call for even more compact cameras, and it needed a more compact film to make it work, which is why Disc cameras and film came on the scene. The photos were too grainy even under the best circumstances and it was eventually discontinued due to low sales. A number of other film companies also made disc film, but none of them really had any success with it. Disc film was notable however, because it reflected the consumer's desire for more compact cameras that made good photos.

3rd Nail: The Polaroid debacle, oh no

In my opinion, Kodak made a mistake by using the Polaroid instant film technology without bothering to buy rights to their use. The courts agreed, and in 1986 Kodak had to discontinue the manufacture of their instant films because it was infringing upon Polaroid's patents. This was a significant third strike against Kodak in the 1980's and photographers and consumers were starting to wonder if perhaps Kodak was losing an edge in the world of photography. Kodak was still a powerhouse though, and could have recovered easily from these setbacks, but a downward cascade was set in motion.

The digital repreive

The bright spot in the above was that Kodak was taking the lead with inventing digital technology that was to set the stage for the transition to digital photography. In this sense, Kodak was in fact playing the role of being a visionary company by imagining the future of photography. Kodak came forth with a flurry of inventions and new patents for digital photography, and also found themselves collaborating with a large number of new players in the emerging field of digital photography.

By the early 1990's the desktop publishing revolution had taken off, and programs such as Photoshop quickly became industry leaders on the computer side of the equation, as did Apple computer for the desktop of choice for digital photographers. Kodak released their first consumer level digital cameras in the early 1990's, but they were fairly expensive and the public still didn't have the infrastructure to really use the digital photographs. It wasn't until 1997 that Kodak was able to market a megapixel point and shoot digital camera for under $1,000.00, so digital photography for the general public still wasn't a reality yet because they were too expensive for the average consumer (it was roughly $1,400.00 adjusted for inflation in 2012 dollars).

In 1995 the ES-3000 was priced at $1,400.00, and since I was going to make digital photography my livelihood, I purchased one. It was large, awkward and generally clunky, but hey, it was digital! It made 1/3 of a megapixel photos and represented the first generation of digital cameras. As I recall, it sucked up a tremendous amount of battery power in just a few shots and you always had to carry a lot of extra batteries with you. It had a 38-115mm equivalent zoom lens and didn't have an LCD screen.

Kodak also collaborated with companies such as Nikon to manufacture some of the first high-end digital cameras designed for professional use. Many of these cameras were hybrids between film camera bodies and digital components. Most were nearly twice as large as regular 35mm pro cameras and costed thousands of dollars, which put them out of the reach of average consumers. It meant that in the 1990's, digital photography was still too expensive for the huge amateur market and film was still dominant.

This was a curious time in Kodak's life, because it was at the crossroads of two photographic technologies, film and digital. I suspect that it made for a number of fierce debates on their board, because on one hand they had their lucrative film products that was their mainstay for so long, and on the other, they had the newer digital technology to explore. I don't know this for a fact, but suspect that there was an internal war where the digital group was a minority, and likely had to fight for every little bit of funding for their endeavors, and the film group was not convinced that the digital group deserved the funding it was requesting. At least this is what it looks like from the outside. I'd love it if someone were to do the research to learn how this inside conflict unfolded over the years up until just now, when Kodak had to declare Chapter 11 protection.

4th nail: Internal conflict of film vs digital technology

This is the murkiest part of Kodak's downfall and is admittedly little more than pure speculation. It appears that there was an internal conflict going on with Kodak and they simply couldn't agree on whether they were to be a film company or a digital company, so their decisions with both seem to have been compromised by each other, but who really knows? The board of directors knows, but I'm betting that none of them will ever admit as much. We only have clues to this assertion, and I'll bring the Kodak DCS 14n forward as an example.

5th Nail: The abrupt shift to digital photography (oops)

Kodak was doing some very exciting things by the early 2000's, including releasing a flurry of small point and shoot digital cameras that were very solid and just as good, if not better than their competitors. All of a sudden, the market was flooded with tens, if not hundreds of digital cameras made by dozens of companies. The digital revolution was in full swing and consumers could buy a digital camera for less than a few hundred dollars. The years between 2000 and 2003 were little more than a blur regarding digital cameras because the market was flooded with them nearly overnight. All of a sudden, consumers were buying more digital cameras than film cameras and companies like Kodak were caught totally unprepared for the abrupt change from film to digital photography. Nobody thought that it would happen in the course of just a couple years and companies were unprepared for the dramatic hits their film divisions would take as consumers stopped buying film and film cameras.

6th Nail: The Kodak DCS 14n (the elephant in the corner)

The Kodak DCS 14n caused quite the stir among pros, because for the fist time (you can't count Contax because they never released their version) a sensor the size of a 35mm frame of film was released. This has come to be known as a "full frame sensor" because most of the DSLR sensors are smaller than this (it also meant that lens focal lengths were accurate measurements again and did not have a factor to measure as with smaller sensors). Another camera company was set to release their version of a full frame sensor too, but it costed $8,000.00, three thousand dollars more than this Kodak 14n.

Critics called it a medium format camera because it had the unprecedented size of 14 megapixels, more than twice the size of most DSLR's. It was a huge leap and even now, nearly a decade later it is still considered a large image sensor.

The Kodak 14n became "a nail in their coffin" because Kodak did not allocate the proper amount of research and development resources to make it successful. There were many very negative deficiencies that held the 14n back from being successful. It had excessive noise even at moderately low ISO settings, which meant that the camera was only useful in bright sunlight or with studio lights. This frustrated pros because they wanted to believe in Kodak and their high-end 14n camera; everyone desperately wanted this camera to be a success, an answer to their digital challenges. By this time, photographers were already used to high quality results from DSLR's and Kodak was expected to easily surpass the quality of the smaller megapixel DSLR cameras.

By early 2003 it became clear to nearly everyone that the 14n was a failure. It caused a sensationalist stir in the online photography community, because by now there were a number of review sites where users could publicly share their conclusions about the camera and users were very vocal about the 14n's shortcomings. Rants were common from users, as were photographers coming to Kodak's defense. Kodak eventually quietly abandoned the camera, never publicly conceding defeat with it.

The 14n could be viewed as a key pivotal point with Kodak, because they had the potential to take a decisive lead with this camera, and it could have been a flagship digital camera that set the standard for future cameras from all manufacturers. The view from professional photographers was that it appeared that Kodak was not willing to do what it took to make this camera a success. This saddened many, and exasperated the ones who invested in the 14n camera bodies and lenses. It irked them that Kodak would give up on this camera that held so much positive potential, and a rift was made between professional photographers and Kodak, and many of them turned their backs on Kodak for good.

7th nail: Overproduction of digital cameras and the iPhone camera

Another element of the digital photography scenario (that Kodak obviously can't control) is that there is a glut of digital cameras being mass produced by nearly everyone. There are literally hundreds of models being released every year, all striving to become the most recent bestseller. Many of the models are nearly identical to each other and after a certain point there appears to be a clear lack of real innovation. Sure, there are lots of very cool models being made, and I just got a new one about a year ago that I like a lot. It appears that a few companies are distinguishing themselves quite nicely with models that are ultra-compact, yet go into manual override easily so that you can have a very precise control over the look of your photographs. Some even have a certain "coolness factor" that also jumps into the fray, just to make things more interesting.

This sea of digital cameras nearly became moot when Apple released their iPhone with a digital camera a few years ago. It's first incarnation was low resolution and couldn't focus or adjust the brightness levels. It was a low quality camera, a joke to real photographers. However, what it did have was an easy method to share its photos, either via Wifi or over the mobile service. It was ridiculously easy to share photos and it coincided perfectly with the social networking sites like Facebook. For the first time, way more photos were being shared online than being printed. I hear that people on Facebook are sharing 4 million photos per day. This means that people are crazy about the iPhone and other cell phone cameras.

Hardly any of the camera manufacturers picked up on this Wifi trend, even as photographers asked for connectivity. Camera manufacturers ignored these requests for Wifi with digital cameras, and as a result, the digital camera bestseller is the one with this feature, the iPhone. I think that even today, most manufacturers still don't get it. Kodak was a player in this scenario and could've come forth with a bestseller if they responded, but this is just my opinion.

At any rate, digital camera sales are still not nearly as high as they could be because of the widespread use of the iPhone. Apple has become a digital camera bestseller, even with their low quality camera, because they led the trend with digital connectivity and ease of use. Any photographer can tell you that the most popular camera is always going to be the one you can just pull out in a few seconds, and today that is the iPhone. My advice still stands for Kodak and all the other camera companies; if you want to have a bestseller, make it with built-in Wifi that is easier to use than the iPhone combined with a higher quality camera. Easy as pie, what are you waiting for?

Conclusion: Can Kodak make a comeback?

All of the above is what I meant by a "slow motion downfall," because it appears to have been a downward cascade over a number of decades that slowly eroded Kodak until it is at the place it is today. As a professional photographer, I still do not want to give up on Kodak, even as it seems more likely that it will be cannibalized into a number of smaller entities.

I think that the irony in all of this is that at least a part of Kodak realized that the digital revolution was coming and it was critical to take the lead with it. The sad part appears to be that the leadership didn't heed the findings of their own research teams.

I'm not sure what to think about Kodak's disappearance from photography, except that it is not good. As of this spring 2012 semester we and many other universities still have a film component to our photography curriculums. Next week I am evaluating the Kodak Tri-X film from our students and a part of me is wondering how much longer it will be around. A long time I hope.

Here's to you Kodak, and like I mentioned in the first paragraph, Kodak essentially defined my profession and for that I will always be sincerely grateful.

Story and photos Copyright Larry McNeil 2012, All rights reserved.

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