The Last Days of a Photography Giant?

In case you missed it, a one-time giant of Wall Street reached a dubious milestone the other day.  Eastman Kodak of Rochester, N.Y., once the gold standard of photography companies and a component of the Dow Jones Industrial average, has fallen on hard times.  The per share price of Kodak stock has fallen below $1.00, meaning that it could be delisted from the New York Stock Exchange, and the company announced this past week that it is preparing for a possible declaration of bankruptcy.

In the age of pocket-sized digital cameras and digital SLRs that boast of being able to withstand 150,000 “actuations” (once known as pictures…) I probably don’t have to elaborate on the cause of Kodak’s woes.  The company, which is 131 years old and once employed over 145,000 people across the globe, owned the photography world for much of its history, producing film brands — Kodachrome, Ektachrome, Tri-X black and white — that were revered and coveted by professional photographers and amateurs alike.  Kodak still owns over 1,000 patents and will always be recognized as the 20th century’s foremost innovator in consumer photography products.

But the company proved remarkably inept when it came to making the adjustments necessary to survive in photography’s digital age.  Yes, Kodak had entries in the compact digital camera market — rivals to the Canon Powershots and Sony Cybershots, the Fujifilm Finepix and Nikon Coolpix.  But Kodak always seemed to trail the pack in quality and concept.  And it continued to produce and develop film.  It was almost as if the company couldn’t decide where it belonged; did it dive into the digital age, or did it remain the film leader and corner that traditional market, which still has some appeal for professionals shooting larger format cameras?  It tried to do both and managed to succeed at neither. Even as the other digital manufacturers buried them in the new market, Fujifilm made its Velvia and Provia films indispensable to a new generation of film photographers.

As a long-time amateur photographer, I once was devoted to Kodak products.  I would only shoot Ektachrome and would only allow Kodak to develop my slides.  They were the best, and I wanted the best for my photos.  And though I turned away from Kodak years ago, buying Fuji Velvia for my film camera and preferring Canon cameras for my digital images, I am sad to see company failing.  It is a bit like watching a once great athlete struggle with his or her sport at the end of a hall-of-fame career.

Like all forms of hard competition, the market is unforgiving and uncompromising.  Wall Street doesn’t care that Kodak used to be the best, nor should it.  But I have to admit that I find it sad to contemplate a world without those bright yellow boxes of film, without “Kodak Moments,” a world in which no one under a certain age understands what Paul Simon means when he begs “Mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away.”

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