The passing of another buggy-whip manufacturer

The year I graduated from college I became rather seriously interested in photography.  One reason, of course, is that I am a techno-enthusiast, and the intricacies of composing a scene, taking the picture, and developing and printing final photograph intrigued me. Having been born with four left feet, and consequently never adept at drawing, or any other manual art, photography seemed to be a means to artistic expression. Another reason, I suppose, was that it was the year of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow Up, a psychological cinema drama about a photographer in 1960s swinging London who inadvertently photographs a murder, or so he believes. I confess that the prospect of becoming a chick magnet by means of photography crossed my mind after seeing that movie. As soon as I could afford it, invested in a Canon single-lens reflex camera, which I still have, though its been unused for some time, and began taking photos with abandon. Since I soon went into the military service where nearly all posts had darkroom facilities for photo hobbyists, I didn’t have to invest in developing equipment and supplies for awhile. Most of my work was with monochrome (black and white) film. I did take quite a few color slides, but found that developing and printing color film was tricky, and too expensive. I let commercial labs do the developing for those. Upon returning to civilian life, I attempted to take photographs for pay from time to time, with some, but not much success. I remained a sometimes hobbyist, and occasionally was able to use my photographic skills, such as they were, in my work. One result was the acquisition of a good deal of equipment over the years. All in all, my interest waxed and waned throughout my adult life. Within the past decade and a half, however, film has been pretty much supplanted by electronic digital photography, as well as computer manipulation of photographs, rather than the use of smelly (and for some color processing, poisonous) chemicals in darkrooms. All kinds of interesting effects can now be had by nearly anyone with the patience to learn how.

The development of electronic photography for the masses has had a less desirable effect for some, the most prominent being the Eastman Kodak company. Around a century and a quarter ago, in 1888, George Eastman invented a camera that was simple for anyone to take photographs on a roll of film. That film could then be developed and printed inexpensively at a laboratory. The process made it possible to rank amateurs with no training (like me, 75 years later) to become photographers. More than that, Kodak’s business model was not to make money selling cameras, but by selling film, over and over again. (A similar business model emerged not long afterward, when the Gillette Company began to sell razors at nearly at cost in order to sell disposable blades over and over again.) Kodak was quite successful with its model for over a century. Then electronic technology made photographic film obsolete for most mass market purposes. There are conflicting reports regarding whether Kodak failed to realize the impact on the film market, or whether management was just too hidebound to respond to it. The company did get into the digital camera business, but it seems to have been too little, and too late. Manufacturers of mostly high-end cameras, like Nikon, Canon, and others, entered the digital market with a great deal of enthusiasm. On the strength of their reputation and panache as quality cameras and lenses for the serious photographer, they outsold the more pedestrian Kodak.

Now Eastman Kodak is contemplating filing bankruptcy, and trying to raise cash by selling its numerous patents, which may or may not have significant value. Most who will mourn its passing are the many employees in Rochester, New York, the firm’s home from the beginning. The digital electronic revolution, like political revolution, produces casualties, But it also creates opportunities. Not many farriers ply their trade to the mass market these days; but the tire business is quite healthy. Manufacturers of buggy-whips don’t easily find employment; but high-tech employers cannot find enough engineers. I haven’t seen many typewriters for sale in office equipment stores lately; but a day doesn’t pass without e-mails that advertise computers and printers. On balance, we are all better off for it.
As for Eastman Kodak, it appears to be heading for the same end as its founder. On March 14, 1932, at age 77, Eastman died by suicide with a single gunshot to the heart, leaving a note which read, “To my friends, my work is done. Why wait?”
Je pense; je suis.

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