Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Lingering Disappointment that is Kodak



Companies and corporations come and go; trends and fortunes change all the time. We all know that. Businesses are pulled apart with stunning frequency; succumbing to powerful destructive natural monetary forces such as poor management, a hostile takeover or a sudden shift in consumer behavior. It’s just Capitalism. For the most part, these business deaths don’t seem to affect most of us that much; we are often numb to their passing. Unless, for me, one of those companies happened to have been Eastman Kodak.

Though still around, a shrunken, aimless Kodak carries on haltingly, furtively trying to market itself. It’s far cry from how the industry icon and near monopoly behaved only few years ago. Stripped of its founding purpose, the post-bankruptcy Kodak struggles to find any relevancy in the new world order, hawking niche market printers and, well I don’t know what all. I don’t care, either. The full story of Kodak’s meteoric demise is found is chronicled in several business journals as a perfect example of short-sighted stupidity and purposeful missed opportunities.

But on a personal level, the death of the film giant Kodak’s brand – its identity and Karma for some of us – was very hard to take. Kodak was the trusted image scribe of our families. Its cameras, film, batteries, slides and prints a vital part of our memory, a visual heritage meant for future generations. Watching Kodak’s death spiral was like observing a drunken uncle at a party. You felt embarrassment for their behavior while also feeling the loss of trust in someone you loved. You knew they would eventually fall down and be quiet, and you hoped it would be sooner and happen somewhere else.

Kodak had a knack for acquiring
companies.  This Retina II was made
by Nagel in Germany. A splendid
camera that helped sell film with its
superior picture-taking abilities.
There was always a Kodak camera around our house. A German-made Retina Reflex S was procured for important holidays and family rites of passage. The Instamatics came into play for a quick snapshot of friends and travel. I grew up with yellow and red boxes of film which we stored in a special cabinet and maintained their timed potency like fresh fruit on a grocery shelf. Spotting mini metal tubes of 35mm film waiting on the kitchen counter meant that in a few days the magic of the photo processor would return to us a stack of pictures to review for their worth or disappointment.

And, to be sure, Kodak represented a purely American success story to us. It was the winner in the global silver halide wars, besting Fuji of Japan and Agfa of Germany more often than not in battles for product innovation and marketing savvy. Our family cheered on Kodak with our dollars and our sly patriotic loyalty. Green or orange boxes of film were not welcome at our house – no matter the price.

I know I’m getting nostalgic for something that needed to pass. The use of film squandered natural resources and created huge environmental waste problems. Digital photography is better, more democratic, and more communal. In an odd way, digital photography more perfectly expresses Kodak founder George Eastman’s early slogan of “you take the picture, we do the rest.”

The disappointment that is the current Kodak is much like watching a championship pro baseball team, with all the storied athletic heros that you’ve cheered-on since youth, show up at the Super Bowl, completely unprepared to play a different kind of game, one that they are suddenly, woefully ill-prepared to win.

1 comment:

  1. This story rings all too true with me. I went to school in Rochester, New York, and was basically reared on the silver based imaging systems of the day as the knowledge standard of the day. I was fortunate to have been able to utilize such great Kodak innovations such as E-4 and C-41 processes along with internegative creation and the dye transfer process for archival color printing. On my arrival at RIT there was a huge packet of Kodak products and technical information having been provided to all freshman as new students. I have watched in dismay and with great sadness as Kodak went into its final death spiral dance failing to bridge into the digital age without so much as a gasp (one PhotoShop plug-in was eventually the subject of several lawsuits). I was very sad to see such a great and empowered company miss such a fateful turn in its corporate direction. I still long for 220 black and white film which is now 'unobtanium'. Thanks for this farewell to a long trusted parent.

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