Recalling the ‘Kodak Moment’
There was another “Kodak Moment” that happened last month, one that didn’t exactly involve the capturing of a memory with the ‘click’ of a shutter. Nope, this one was more about the continued disappearance of what was once one of the most powerful companies in the world.
The 134-year old company’s once über powerful film manufacturing business recently had yet another in a series of bad days. Experts kept insisting that Kodak’s film business was imploding years ago and back on July 18th it actually did, as 100 pounds of dynamite took down the 92-year-old Building 53 at Eastman Business Park in Rochester, New York. The once thriving and extremely busy 250,000-square-foot plant, was reduced to 1,500 tons of steel and concrete. A business that took over 100 years to build was gone in less than 20 seconds.
Gone Long Ago
Well, we all know it was really gone back in the late 1990’, shortly after the first digital cameras began making their way into consumer’s hands. The shocking Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing back in 2012 was the real implosion, the recent July event was more symbolic than anything else.
Despite the fact they are largely, and correctly, given credit for inventing digital photography, when the technology took off, Big Yellow simply wasn’t ready for it. As amazing as it seems, no one at Kodak foresaw the remarkable growth the digital camera market would enjoy over the fist 5-7 years of it’s existence. To many folks at Kodak, it was as likely as a baby walking at two weeks old.
There has been much talk over the last decade over exactly what went wrong at Kodak. And to be sure, there were lots of bad business decisions, miscalculations and ultimately some really bad timing.
Gone in a Kodak Moment
But this one was more about stubbornness than anything else. Here’s a company that absolutely was photography here in the U.S. for over 100 years…..100 years. I mean, as I opened with, capturing a picture had come to be known as a ‘Kodak Moment’ – how much more dominant can you be than that?
In Kodak’s eyes there was simply no way consumers were ever going to stop buying film and loading it into traditional cameras, dropping it off at a lab to be developed and then delighting in going through their printed pictures. I have to say, I felt the same way.
Yes, digital imaging was pretty cool but the notion of capturing and sharing a memory that you’d never print was, well….preposterous.
Digital Fast Tracks
Apparently lots of other people didn’t think so as according to PMA, during what proved to be those fatal first few years for Kodak, the digital camera market in the U.S. grew from 4.5 million units shipped in 2000 to 28.3 million units in 2007. And it was right about at the end of that early run that Apple gave us the iPhone. Yikes!
It was clear by the beginning of 2008 that the fat lady had started singing for Kodak, and she was belting it out pretty good.
Maybe this is case of a bunch of talented people on the traditional, film-based photography side, that simply didn’t have the same vision for digital…and Kodak didn’t move quickly enough to hire people that did.
Back when Kodak was Kodak, back when film photography was just rolling along (pun intended), more than 50,000 employees worked out of Eastman Business Park, in Rochester New York. Today there are approximately 1,000 left.
About the only thing still keeping Kodak alive is a trove of imaging patents that the company is clinging to – as many as 11,000 patents we are told.
A Sad Goodbye
This isn’t a post that was written with the intention of truly dissecting what went wrong at Kodak or to take a place in line to kick the company, yet again, while they’re down. That’s been going on for over a decade now.
No, this one was written simply because seeing the pictures last month of the old film producing plant in Rochester, a building I visited many times in my career covering this industry, made realize a few things.
I miss picking up my photos at the local lab, excitedly whipping open the envelope to see what I’d captured and then driving home to share those memories with my family. In short, I miss Kodak and I miss all those ‘Kodak Moments’ they gave me.
Sad, all so sad. I believe, like many who were brought up on film, we were happier. Whether this was hands-on doing our own D&P, or taking in or sending our films away to be processed and waiting with anticipation to see the results a few days later, or even within the hour. Digital, by comparison, is soulless. And unlike with film when a new emulsion came out, we didn’t have to change our kit. Just buy the new film. Now, an updated sensor needs a completely new body or complete camera.
I confess that I was an early adopter of digital in 2003 but when I now look back on just how many cameras I’ve bought in the interim compared to how long my film bodies lasted me, I’m left somewhat speechless at my own gullibility. At 70, I can’t really go back to film and have accepted the convenience of digital. But I still have my memories.
To compensate somewhat, I’m taking fewer and fewer digital images and am going over my large library of negatives and slides and looking at these afresh as I use a recently acquired an old Minolta Dimage Elite II 35mm film scanner to digitise them. My Canon flatbed does a fine job with my roll film negs. And with street views I shall be keeping an eye out for that Kodak sign!
Couldn’t agree more with everything you said.
I worked for a magazine and shot Kodachrome for years. When Kodachrome died, it really signaled an end of an era. Don Sutherland
Hello Don. I worked with a gentleman named Don Sutherland many years ago on Photo Trade News…
Contrary to popular belief, Kodak didn’t “miss the digital train”. They were the #1 supplier of digital camera sensors in the world, and the #1 brand in digicams in the US. But in 2005, their board looked at the numbers and realized there never was going to be enough money in digital photography to support a company the size of Kodak.
Kodak worked on “the Gillette model”, selling inexpensive cameras at virtually no profit or even a loss, and making it up on sales of film, processing, and printing. But one of the big draws of digital was that you didn’t have to buy film and you didn’t have to pay for processing. There went a huge chunk of Kodak’s revenue stream.
So in 2005, the board brought in a new CEO to do what we currently call a “pivot.” Kodak would concentrate on the remaining cash-flow stream: printing. Unfortunately, the home printing market was already dominated by HP, with Epson a strong player on the high end. And although Kodak’s pigment inks, inkjet heads, and printer firmware were arguably the best in the world, producing outstanding prints with a lifetime estimated in hundreds of years, their printers’ paper-handling mechanicals were clunky, noisy, and prone to jamming.
In retrospect, Kodak’s timing in bailing out of digital photography was fortuitous. CMOS sensors were about to take over from the CCDs that Kodak made, and the smart-phone was about to destroy the digicam market. Unfortunately, even if Kodak’s home printers hadn’t gotten a reputation for poor reliability, the home printing market was about to be savaged by Flickr, Instagram, and their ilk.
Digital photography today is virtually free. The camera comes in the phone. There’s no film and no processing. For most people, there’s no printing, either — just upload the photo to the site of your choice.
You can’t make $4 billion a year from “free”.
I think this is exactly what is meant by “missing the digital train”. There were so many opportunities along the road, the road they invented, for Kodak to essentially own the market but hubris and ego kept them from seeing or dealing withwhat was coming.
All excellent points Doug – and thanks for the comments, very insightful and on the money…
Sad but true, like many I take more pics than ever before to keep for prosperty, unfortunatly many peoples pics they will be never be seen, printed and many deleted. Our local Museum have many local photo’s taken decades ago by local photographers. Where will the next generations photo’s come from?
I had a EasyShare and loved using it…it made really nice photos, and I still use one now as a second camera because it still makes good photos (from 4Meg to the Z990 currently). I also have a 7d.
I am working on finding the best of my over probably 200,000 digital photos and putting them into one place before I die (I am 72, almost 73). I want them to be around no matter what they do with the others. I also have a will that says they cannot throw them away until a good friend says it is ok (she is tough). That’s what I am doing. I miss them.
It might be, that nothing would have saved Kodak. However, I feel that they shot themselves in the foot, with Kodachrome being just one of the prominent examples – here was a unique film, with unique processing that could only be done with Kodak chemicals – Kodak made money from start to finish with this slide film, and it is loved by photogs everywhere. So why did they seem to hate it, and try to kill it off? They started to reduce the sizes (sheet film, even today used heavily in some advertising and commercial photography) and availability of the processing. It makes me wonder how many other golden eggs that we don’t know about, that Kodak had that they killed off.
Great article! I lived through all those Kodak moments. I was amazed when I bought my first digital camera for under $100.00 at that black Friday sale at Walmart around Nov.2000. I knew then improvements and price would doom the roll film. I do miss the Kodak moments!
Over the years I lost quite a few images in the post. I also took a few that for one reason or another failed to expose properly. That’s the beauty of digital. You don’t lose any in the post and if a shot is not right just take another straight away. That aspect is especially valuable if your a tourist.