A Photographer's Eulogy for Eastman Kodak at Luminous Landscape

Is Kodak aware that people are writing eulogies left and right? Is the company even aware of its death? No, not really, according to them they are 'restructuring' and 'focusing on core strategies' and 'enforcing the transformation to an all digital company' and stuff like that. Kodak, welcome to the purgatory, Agfa and Polaroid will be your guides.


"By the time I was solidly earning a living as a commercial photographer, say from about 1980, Kodak was a reliable and trusted friend of the professional photographer. The company maintained a network of technical service representatives who would visit you personally if you asked, and often handed out film samples and generally tried their best to work out problems. Back in Rochester, you could call on various film experts and a library of highly informative technical publications; almost always, Kodak had the answers, and built incredible brand loyalty.

Well before the threat of digital imaging, however, Kodak received its first wound from Japan-based Fuji Film. In professional circles, in commercial work at least, color transparency product was the norm, and it was here that Kodak made a serious misstep. The world of advertising photography had by the 1980’s taken on a rather overheated and glamorous persona, in which film “looks” took on almost as much importance as the subjects of pictures themselves. Built into Kodak’s “DNA” was a feeling that film products should be technically or scientifically “accurate”, and Kodak color transparency film was just that way. It was the legacy of decades of film production and color science. Kodak marketing people did not notice that commercial photography was being taken over by art directors and other creative types who took a much more flamboyant view of how color film should look.
This opened the door for Fuji to step in with films that had a wholly new “look”, perhaps not as accurate color-wise, but which looked enhanced on a light table. It wasn’t long before many advertising professionals switched over to Fuji film, and to the company’s credit, the product was of high quality and an able competitor to Kodak. I have a hunch that we saw then the first signs of a certain Kodak hubris, a corporate attitude that “we know best”, and that the upstart film company from Japan could not possibly be smarter or make a more desirable product. In any case, it took Kodak a number of years to wake up, finally, to the Fuji threat, but by then the brand loyalties had shifted and Kodak was forced to play “catch up”.
I continued to use Kodak product and never switched over to Fuji, but heard stories about Kodak putting pressure on dealers and laboratories, which led to a decline in harmony in Kodak’s customer chain. These were, by 1990, the first storm clouds that would pass over the bright blue “Kodachrome” skies. The company was becoming insular, frozen in a bubble of overconfidence and complacency.
Still, one has to wonder why the company never took seriously the threat of digital imaging. In the mid-1990’s, I was involved in a consulting project with Kodak, having to do with some digital imaging initiatives. A group of us, including a high-level Kodak product manager, sat in an executive conference room high above Rochester at their corporate headquarters. Clocks labelled with the location of Kodak’s many international locations, lined the walls, each showing the correct time in that time zone. At a certain point in the discussion, the product manager made this observation about digital imaging: “How do we stop this thing?”  Twenty years later, I can still remember with astonishment this utter refusal to acknowledge the digital freight train bearing down on Kodak’s future. Kodak was going to hold back digital imaging and that was that."
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