I woke up this morning, poured my tea and started reading the paper. It wasn’t exactly unexpected, but the headline jumped out and grabbed my heart. Kodak was filing for bankruptcy.
I’ll try to explain what this means to me. I was brought up on Kodak film. My father, a wonderful photographer (and genuinely nice guy) gave me my first camera and rolls of Kodachrome 25 when I was 11. He was a periodic beta-tester for Kodak film, although he rarely used anything other than K25. His photography around New York City was well known. In fact, a few years ago my sister and I agreed to donate some of his work to the Museum of the City of New York.
I remember my first assignments for National Geographic Society publications were shot on K25 and that newfangled film called Kodachrome 64 (good, but never as good as the legendary K25). Once in a while maybe an Ektachrome here and there, although I never liked its bluish cast and grain.
Once, when I was shooting an assignment on sea turtles, the National Park Service called me while I was at a conference and told me that a Loggerhead Turtle nest had washed out on the Shackleford Banks off the coast of North Carolina. If the eggs were not reburied within hours, the amnion might separate from the shell, killing the young. If I didn’t get there within two hours, I’d lose the opportunity to shoot the scene. The problem was that I was on the mainland and would never reach the site in time by boat.
A quick call to my editor in Washington, DC and he gave me the go-ahead to charter a helicopter. Unfortunately, I only had one roll of film with me. In my mad dash to the airport, I ran into a tiny drugstore on the Outer Banks.
“Do you sell film?” I asked, breathless.
“Yep,” the store owner, pharmacist, shelf stocker, soda fountain jerk, and cashier answered. With that he turned around and took out a fresh pack of film from what we used to call a “brick” (20 rolls wrapped in cellophane).
“No, I’ll take them all!” I said, grabbed the brick, tossed down a few $20s and ran out of the store. The guy thought I was nuts. Of course, the only film he sold was good ole Kodachrome (albeit K64). Thats the kind of standard the Kodak brand was in those days (1978). Boy, how the mighty have fallen.
Kodak was an icon for me. A trusted name in American business for generations. Quality all the way. And now this.
I know I’m as guilty as anyone. I made the switch to digital 7 or 8 years ago. As expensive as digital is today, I remember my last film assignment I shot cost me $1,600 in developing costs alone!
For the past decade I have watched Kodak’s steady decline. They just did not anticipate the speed with which digital would eventually dominate. They made some dicey moves, such as getting into the printer business. What hair brained consultant, I wonder, convinced them this was wise? Printers are one of the most competitive businesses in photography, with the likes of HP, Epson, Canon, and Brother barely holding on. Printers are nearly loss leaders nowadays, giveaways, with the business model depending on us constantly filling the pricey ink tanks to generate profits.
Well, there’s still hope. Perhaps Kodak will recover from their self-inflicted wounds and emerge healthier. I, for one, will be rooting for them.