An Elegy for “The Great Yellow Father”

11Jan12

Last week the Eastman Kodak Company was informed that its stock was in danger of being delisted from the New York Stock Exchange. In the last 10 years, shares of the iconic American corporation have lost 90% of their value, currently selling for less than a dollar. Barring some sort of rapid reversal of fortune, bankruptcy seems likely for the 130-year-old firm. For many, this is probably just another blip in the business news cycle. For photographers of my age, this is the unimaginable coming true.

There are plenty of places in the Internet where one can read all about Kodak’s history and accomplishments, so I thought it might be interesting to describe a scenario that illustrates just how dominant Kodak was in the photographic world.

Imagine a commercial photographer working in a studio in the mid-20th century. The camera used was a Kodak product, the Kodak Master View Camera 4×5. The lens was a Kodak Commercial Ektar, regarded as one of the finest available. Of course, Kodak film was used, and when it came time to process that film, Kodak chemicals were also used. These chemicals were measured and mixed using Kodak graduated cylinders, poured into Kodak developing tanks, and checked for proper temperature with a Kodak darkroom thermometer.

When it came time to make prints, it was the same story. Kodak paper developed in Kodak chemistry, with the negatives enlarged with a Kodak enlarger. There were Kodak trays, Kodak chemical stirring paddles, even the darkroom safelights carried the Kodak name. Once the photos were sent off to the printing company, more Kodak products were used to create halftone negatives that eventually would be “stripped” into the huge lithographic negatives (also Kodak film) that were used to make the printing plates.

My colleagues and I jokingly referred to Kodak as “The Great Yellow Father” in reference to the totality of its vertical integration in the imaging world. Nobody had dominance in their field like Kodak. Not IBM, not Standard Oil, not even AT&T (after their monopoly was broken up in 1982). It wasn’t until the mid 1980’s that Fuji of Japan began to seriously challenge Kodak in the marketplace it invented, and still Kodak remained strong.

Strangely enough, Kodak’s downfall was created “in house.” In late 1975, an engineer at Kodak named Steve Sasson succeeded in creating a camera that stored 0.01-megapixel grayscale images on cassette tape—these could then be viewed on a television screen. Kodak went on to invent other key digital photography technologies such as the Bayer Filter image sensor, the heart of nearly all digital cameras today.

Kodak was at the forefront of this new technology, but their business model was so heavily oriented towards chemical-based photography that they were slow to adapt to the world they had created. Other companies were quicker to take advantage of digital imaging and became the new leaders instead.

Consumers had a role in this, too. As digital photography took over, Kodak responded by producing such things as self-serve photo kiosks that would allow shoppers to produce stacks of prints from digital files on demand. Unfortunately for Kodak, people were showing off their photos on Flickr and Facebook; they didn’t need prints, photo albums or slide projectors. Thus began a market slide for Kodak that has brought us to today, where the company may have to sell off its impressive patent portfolio to stay afloat.

What does it all mean if Kodak disappears? For photographers of a certain age, I suppose it will bring about some nostalgia—I’ll certainly miss all those products in the yellow packaging. For business leaders, it should be a cautionary tale on how far a market leader can fall if it fails to adapt. For younger photographers, I’m afraid it’s going to be just another blip in the business news cycle.

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