Kodak, oh Kodak…
Kodak is going down.
The writing has been on the wall for a long time now, ever since Ansel Adams predicted that ‘electronic photography’ was the way of the future:
I eagerly await new concepts and processes. I believe that the electronic image will be the next major advance. Such systems will have their own inherent and inescapable structural characteristics, and the artist and functional practitioner will again strive to comprehend and control them.
(Adams, Ansel: The Negative, p. xiii (introduction), 1981)
There has been so much hand-wringing and belly-aching about the “value chain” that entire books could be devoted to this subject, without ever establishing anything new.
The simple fact is that Kodak, like Polaroid and Leica before it, is a company that needs to reinvent itself in the face of fierce competition and the changing nature of photography.
Arguably, Leica has succeeded in reinventing itself; the M9 is one of the most highly-regarded digital cameras ever made (disclaimer: I love mine so very, very much); the S2 is by all accounts a stunning machine capable of breathtaking image quality (quibbles over price aside). The X1 is a popular premium compact, delicious in its single-minded simplicity (no zoom at all!? courageous!) The compact offerings – built in cooperation with Panasonic – are similarly excellent cameras. Leica is actually making money, they are on the verge of moving back to Wetzlar; I’ll carefully say that they’ve managed to weather the storm.
Polaroid is an odd case. They seem to be making weird things like electronic picture frames now, but Mister Land’s vision isn’t entirely dead, with the new Z340 now on the market. They might just make it with some of their integrity intact. The ‘classic’ analog instant photography has more or less successfully been rescued by the Impossible Project (though I wish they’d make some of their cooky material available in 100 or 4×5″ peel-apart format hint-hint).
Ugh. Where to begin?
Ansel Adams seemed relatively optimistic that electronic imaging would have some positive potential; My guess is that were he photographing today, we’d see his face juxtaposed with a digital back from Leaf, PhaseOne or Hasselblad in ads in photography magazines, possibly shooting with something freakishly intense, like an Arca. At least in the aforementioned quote, he didn’t seem to consider the business implications for manufacturers of film and other photography equipment. In short: Kodak got caught out.
Which is not to say that Kodak’s products are behind the times.
While opinion is divided regarding the sad demise of Kodachrome (I still have a few rolls in the fridge, just in case…), the simple fact is that analog imaging has a lot to offer. Filmmakers are still very divided about electronic moviemaking – though manufacturers like Red are making a pretty compelling case for themselves – and even still photographers largely recognise that there is something about the look of images shot on genuine Tri-X that lends them a kind of gritty authority. Tri-X merits a whole post in and of itself. Software makers yearn to write programs that make a digital image look just like Tri-X; I’m going to have to do a direct comparison one day, to see if they’re even close.
Likewise, Kodak has – well, had – a very competent digital imaging department. They provide(d) the sensor for the Leica M9 and a number of very highly-regarded medium-format camera backs.
But a quick glance at Kodak’s website reveals where Kodak of today sees the market: consumer devices. Actual professionals who value their century-long expertise shudder. Facebook-connected Picture kiosks. Consumer-grade print-on-demand photo books. Electronic picture frames.
Tangent: what is it about electronic picture frames? Every formerly great company that gets caught on the wrong foot by electronic imaging ends up making electronic picture frames: Kodak, Polaroid, Jobo, Hama, Paterson, Rollei. Why is that?
Information about the products that made Kodak famous – pro-grade film – is buried clicks-deep on the commercial business section of their website, and merits only a passing token mention on their online store. At least on the US store, one can still order 4×5″ material. I digress, and this is getting long. Focus.
Kodak is facing company-threatening bankruptcy, and they are selling off and shutting down precisely those sections of the company which made Kodak truly great. I fear for them.
And I’m going to stockpile Tri-X until some intrepid soul, some new Impossible Project, purchases the machines that make it.