No company has been more central to photography over the past century than Eastman Kodak, or Kodak as it has been more commonly referred to. And no company has been more emblematic of the fall of traditional film photography.
Despite its efforts, Kodak was unable to keep pace with its more digitized competitors. The year 2012 was the worst in the company's storied 123-year history, with it filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in January, indicating in February that it would stop making digital cameras, pocket video cameras, and digital picture frames, and announcing in August a plan to sell its venerable film business as well as its commercial scanner and kiosk divisions.
For the time being, it's holding onto Kodak Motion Picture Film. As a sign of its orientation, the headline of this part of its website reads: "The Classics Are Alive." But clicking on the "About Kodak" link at the bottom of this page takes you to "Page Not Found."
Eastman Kodak, still headquartered in Rochester, New York, was founded in 1889 by George Eastman. The name Kodak was a neologism, coined by George Eastman to be original, simple to pronounce, and easy to remember. It was.
What American older than 30 has not taken pictures with a Kodak Instamatic camera or used top-quality Kodak film. Paul Simon immortalized Kodachrome slide film with his 1973 song “Kodachrome." Who hasn't had a "Kodak moment," an experience so special you want to capture it on film? This term became so generic that the "K" was sometimes lowercased.
The highpoint for Kodak was the mid-1970s when it owned 90% of the film market in the US, and its profits were booming. The beginning of the decline was 1990 when Logitech introduced the first consumer digital camera, the Fotoman, a primitive, black-and-white low-resolution product but a presage of things to come.
Ironically, it was Kodak's in-house engineers who invented digital photography in the 1970s, developing a prototype digital camera in 1975. These efforts were stymied, however, because Kodak's management felt they would cannibalize its film business.
Kodak's film business began to seriously falter in the late 1990s with the increasing sophistication of digital cameras. Then, around 2002, the quality of the photos from some good-quality consumer digital cameras reached parity with good-quality traditional film cameras. The end was in sight.
Despite an internal culture that, in the minds of some, looked backward, Kodak did produce some outstanding digital innovations. In 1992 it introduced the well-regarded Kodak Photo CD system, which was a way of efficiently transferring high-quality photos from traditional cameras to personal computers using CD-ROM discs.
PC and Mac users could then use Photoshop or other image editing software to enhance or otherwise edit their photos. Originally targeted to consumers, Photo CD was a big hit with professional photographers before being eclipsed in the late 1990s by the more efficient JPEG photo file format and low-cost, high-quality desktop scanners.
Kodak did get into the filmless digital camera business, but late, and it experienced problems with product quality, which contrasted with its earlier reputation for quality film. Kodak notified the Better Business Bureau of Upstate New York in 2006 that it would no longer respond to consumer complaints submitted by them, and in 2007 Kodak resigned from the national Council of Better Business Bureaus.
No doubt as a result of its late start, Kodak was never able to catch up with its digital camera competition, which includes traditional 35mm single-lens reflex camera manufacturers such as Nikon, Olympus, and Canon. Some digital cameras today have resolutions so high, combined with high-quality optics, that they surpass film cameras for picture quality even among professionals.
But Kodak's coup de grâce was the popularization of non-camera devices such as smart phones, including Apple's iPhones and the various brands of Android-based smart phones by Samsung and others. In the minds of many, why buy a camera when you have a good one already inside your phone? The optics aren't are good as with most dedicated digital cameras, but the resolutions have gotten so high that picture quality for many consumers is excellent, particularly for online use and under ordinary lighting situations.
The last year that Kodak made a profit was 2007. At the time of its bankruptcy filing in January 2012, the company had assets of $5.1 billion and debts of $6.75 billion.
People will no doubt be experiencing Kodak moments for a long time to come. But this expression in all likelihood won't have the same longevity.
Reid Goldsborough is a freelance writer based in Pennsylvania.