In the mid 1990s I had a studio in the Seattle area. I took a meeting with some Kodak executives about the new “digital cameras.” They gave me a Kodak DCS 420 to play with. It was a 1.5 MP camera with a 2.6x crop factor. It fired at two frames a second for two and one half seconds before the buffer filled. This camera was incredibly expensive and it was a huge affair – it was like carrying a tank. It used Nikon lenses. I thought it was very cool. When paired with my Iris printer I was able to make images that turned into lovely prints at a staggering rate of up to three prints per day 🙂
But what went wrong? The Kodak company was certainly of two minds when it came to digital photography. On the one hand they had a bunch of digital patents in their portfolio, but if the digital cameras took off, then Kodak’s main line film business would suffer. The old guard that ran the company didn’t want to give up on their legacy – film. In fact, the people I was talking to clearly hated digital. They said film was the future and that this digital camera fad would die down but they felt the need to play in the space just in case.
This forms the basis for the personality split that left the aging behemoth on the wrong side of so many important business decisions.
In the late 1990s Kodak began to play second fiddle in the digital space to many of its early digital partners. Nikon began building its own digital cameras. The D1H/D1X dominated over Kodak’s digital offerings. In my opinion, this was the turning point that eventually led to Kodak filing for bankruptcy protection last week. Lots of things happened in between but I think that is when it started.
Because of the dual nature of the company, i.e., film/digital, Kodak wasn’t able to serve either side well. Film sales began to drop off and Kodak had made the incredibly silly decision not to build their own digital camera body.
I remember having my Kodak representative Mike call on my studio. He was the nicest guy in the world and I always loved seeing him but I didn’t see any future in film. He was always trying to devise different strategies to get me to buy film. It was all very creative but it couldn’t work. One of the reasons was that all the local labs were seeing the writing on the wall much better than Kodak and they simply shut their doors. I didn’t have a local place to get the film processed so I went 100% digital.
As I look back on the days when I shot film, Kodak was king when it came to portrait film. I used Fuji Velvia for landscape work but the rest of my “workflow” was mostly Kodak. Some of those films were lovely. I actually look back on that time with fond memories BUT
I absolutely do not miss shooting film. It’s too much work and in my opinion – the new digital cameras simply out perform the film cameras and their film – at least in the 35mm world.
As I grow older, the good old days when I shot Tri-X 400 fall further and further in the rear view mirror. For those who never shot film, I do think you should try it – just to appreciate how good you have it now. But no matter how you feel about it – I can’t help but think that those of you who were there in the old days are – like me – are a bit sad to hear the news about Kodak’s failure.
Kodak did a great deal for our industry. They sponsored just about everything that was important for photographers. They marketed photography to the rest of the world on our behalf. They wanted to make photographic images the most important images in the world. It was an admirable goal.
I will always remember that period when Kodak was trying to sell film instead of developing their own digital SLR body and wonder – was that the beginning of the end? Did Kodak’s decision to let the digital market run ahead of them cause the death knell to sound?