By Michael Chiusano
I think I share the feelings of photographers around the world that there is something incredibly sad about the recent bankruptcy of Eastman Kodak. Companies large and small go out of business every day, it is the way our system works, and for the most part, nobody pays much attention. But this time it’s different. There just seems to be something wrong about it. It almost feels as if an aging patriarch has been taken down, after a long and valiant struggle. We know these things happen, we know nothing lasts forever, but somehow our lives seem diminished by the loss of “the great yellow father”, a photography company that once stood astride the whole world of images–imperturbable, reliable, ageless.
And it was once so. For roughly a hundred years, an eternity in the business world, the forward march of Kodak was taken as a foregone conclusion. The company seemed unstoppable, indeed was attacked as a predatory menace by government and competitors early on, as George Eastman bought up businesses, drove others out of business, and brought light-sensitive coated materials to every corner of life. By the 1920’s, the simple act of taking a picture, something we take for granted today, emerged as one of the great lifestyle activities for people rich and poor, and Eastman’s huge chemical complex at Kodak Park could not turn out the product fast enough.
By the 1930’s those coating lines in Rochester were rolling out mile after mile of film, printing paper, motion picture film, x-ray and other medical film, not to mention chemicals, cameras themselves, and there did not seem to be any aspect of modern life that was not touched in some way by the miracle of photography.
I got my first taste as a boy of about 11. I was living in a suburban town outside of New York City, where my father had a government job. One day I wandered into a section of the house attic that my parents used for storage; my brother and I slept in a finished section. Buried in that storage section were the components of a darkroom, equipment my father had purchased and used before my brother and I had come along, and the darkroom dismantled. Fifty years later, I can still remember how mysterious and fascinating the pieces seemed to me: the enlarger, the funny orange “safelights”, yellow processing trays (probably Kodak brand), and those brown glass bottles, some still filled with exotic liquids, and wrapped with that familiar yellow Kodak label and logo, for decades (and still) among the most recognizable brand identities.
I was blessed with a father who encouraged me always, so when I asked him about the treasure I had discovered in that dusty attic, he told me what it was used for. When I asked him if I could set up the parts again, and make a darkroom for myself, he agreed to help me out. Before long I stared in amazement as a black and white print emerged from beneath the clear pool of developer liquid, and from that point on the products of Eastman Kodak sealed my destiny. Like so many others, I fell in love with photography. It became my hobby as a boy, and later my profession as a grownup, and now fifty years later, I am mourning the death of the company that got me started.
Anyone who bothers to study the company’s history knows that Kodak was the lengthened shadow of its founder George Eastman, a pretty decent man overall. He is one of America’s least familiar industrialists, largely unstudied and somewhat mysterious, yet it can be said fairly that the company he built changed the world. The only close comparison today might be Steve Jobs or Bill Gates.
By the time I was in high school, and running the photography operation of the 1962 yearbook, Kodak “meant” photography, and as mentioned, it stood astride the entire industry. It seemed unassailable as a business, and functioned as a guiding institution for progress. Its position and dominance were so secure, the company could afford to bestow lavish benefits on its employees, and almost guarantee lifetime employment. The mainstay product of the company, coated film, sold everywhere in the world, and its quality was so high and unchanging that no one, amateur or professional, ever gave it a second thought.
By the time I was solidly earning a living as a commercial photographer, say from about 1980, Kodak was a reliable and trusted friend of the professional photographer. The company maintained a network of technical service representatives who would visit you personally if you asked, and often handed out film samples and generally tried their best to work out problems. Back in Rochester, you could call on various film experts and a library of highly informative technical publications; almost always, Kodak had the answers, and built incredible brand loyalty.
Well before the threat of digital imaging, however, Kodak received its first wound from Japan-based Fuji Film. In professional circles, in commercial work at least, color transparency product was the norm, and it was here that Kodak made a serious misstep. The world of advertising photography had by the 1980’s taken on a rather overheated and glamorous persona, in which film “looks” took on almost as much importance as the subjects of pictures themselves. Built into Kodak’s “DNA” was a feeling that film products should be technically or scientifically “accurate”, and Kodak color transparency film was just that way. It was the legacy of decades of film production and color science. Kodak marketing people did not notice that commercial photography was being taken over by art directors and other creative types who took a much more flamboyant view of how color film should look.
This opened the door for Fuji to step in with films that had a wholly new “look”, perhaps not as accurate color-wise, but which looked enhanced on a light table. It wasn’t long before many advertising professionals switched over to Fuji film, and to the company’s credit, the product was of high quality and an able competitor to Kodak. I have a hunch that we saw then the first signs of a certain Kodak hubris, a corporate attitude that “we know best”, and that the upstart film company from Japan could not possibly be smarter or make a more desirable product. In any case, it took Kodak a number of years to wake up, finally, to the Fuji threat, but by then the brand loyalties had shifted and Kodak was forced to play “catch up”.
I continued to use Kodak product and never switched over to Fuji, but heard stories about Kodak putting pressure on dealers and laboratories, which led to a decline in harmony in Kodak’s customer chain. These were, by 1990, the first storm clouds that would pass over the bright blue “Kodachrome” skies. The company was becoming insular, frozen in a bubble of overconfidence and complacency.
Still, one has to wonder why the company never took seriously the threat of digital imaging. In the mid-1990’s, I was involved in a consulting project with Kodak, having to do with some digital imaging initiatives. A group of us, including a high-level Kodak product manager, sat in an executive conference room high above Rochester at their corporate headquarters. Clocks labelled with the location of Kodak’s many international locations, lined the walls, each showing the correct time in that time zone. At a certain point in the discussion, the product manager made this observation about digital imaging: “How do we stop this thing?” Twenty years later, I can still remember with astonishment this utter refusal to acknowledge the digital freight train bearing down on Kodak’s future. Kodak was going to hold back digital imaging and that was that.
So it may have been true that by 1995 or thereabouts, the company’s future was doomed. On the one hand it had the imaging market under its complete control, with a product that it made by the mile and sold by the inch, resulting in huge profits that kept the whole machine running smoothly. But on the other hand, this same profit machine started to have a digital wrench thrown into its works, and there was little Kodak management could do about it, or far more ominously, wanted to do about it.
Really, it has to be asked if there was any way that Kodak could have managed a digital transition. What were they going to do, phase out Kodak Park, with its capital infrastructure going back decades, all of it based on silver halide imaging, and immensely profitable? By what marketing strategy could the company have introduced digital products without simultaneously eating into the market for its analog film products?
Nonetheless, it took 20 years to bring it all down, a testament to the inherent greatness of its film products. George Eastman stumbled onto one of the most durable of industrial products, one that remained viable and modern for 100 years, always improving, and in the process working its way into every corner of modern society.Toward the end, when the company closed down coating lines and destroyed large buildings to get them off the tax rolls, employees and retirees would come to witness the demolition. When the destruction ended, some could be seen openly weeping, as if part of their souls had been taken down. They remembered when the company was strong and good to them.
On some level, an unconscious level for sure, the name Kodak, and the company’s products, are attached to our history, both large and small, from images of space to the snapshots of a newborn baby. Kodak was there for all these events, and this accounts for the odd feeling of grief we feel over its bankruptcy.
I think it must be a rare thing to have such feelings for a business enterprise. But great enterprises, like great people, eventually meet their end, and life goes on, for better or worse, without them. Still, it does seem a great loss.
© 2012 by Michael Chiusano
Michael Chiusana is a retired advertising photographer who took his own studio through a film-to-digital transition. He now works on personal shooting projects, teaches classes about photography history, and hangs out with his two grown children. [email protected] www.chiusanodigital.com.