Forgetting the Kodak Moment - Icon Week


By Brian Fencil

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

We shouldn’t mourn them, the loss of the Kodak film company. It’s just concrete and steel; a factory, and an office. We heard their ads, we bought their products, but if it wasn’t from them, then it would have been from some other collection of concrete and steel, from some other name.

They created “the most significant camera in the history of photography.” But if not them, then someone else would have, maybe a decade later, maybe by the 1890s.

From then on until the 1980s, they were the first in many other triumphs. Kodak pushed from dry-plates to film, from black-and-white to color, and they constantly worked to improve the quality of photos while making them easier to use.

Through this innovation they became America’s favorite camera company and at their height, they sold 90 percent of the film in America and 85 percent of America’s cameras. But if it wasn’t from them, we would have bought from Fuji or someone else, so why would it matter?

Arguably, they made the best film. It was the choice of many professional photographers, and has been used for the photos that covered National Geographic. Steve McCurry, whose photos have often been on National Geographic covers, said Kodak’s Kodachrome film, “really kept its color, and the color [was] sublime… it was really the best rendition of reality.”

In 1975, Steve Sasson of Kodak invented the first digital camera. “That’s cute,” the short-sighted corporate heads of Kodak said, but let it alone, for somebody else. And, a few years later, Sony decided they could be that somebody else.

Kodak studied the digital technology threat: the cost of digital equipment, the compatibility of all the components, and the quality of the images, and realized they had 10 years before digital cameras could replace their film base, but they were not worried. Let it be somebody else; photography had always been a print business.

Soon time caught up with Kodak and before long, the company was in decline with bankruptcy looming. Kodak tried to catch up with digital, oddly, the technology they invented had taken off from them. In 2007, they released this commercial, bragging about its innovations. Still, they couldn’t let film disappear. Kodak then invented the Advantix Preview, a film camera that had a digital preview of your photos–a blend of both worlds. It quickly became a $500 million failed exploration into keeping film alive.

By 2009, film was coming to an end by all accounts. Production of much of their film slowed, and some stopped including Kodachrome, one of McCurry’s favorite films. He decided that he wanted to honor the film by shooting the last 36 reflections of the world on Kodachrome. He traveled from New York to India and around, like a jockey walking the lamed champion out to the field to be put down. “I think most of my best photographs were shot on Kodachrome,” McCurry said.

By 2012, Kodak shed more weight. They finally filed for bankruptcy, sold off their digital sensor department, and stopped making digital cameras, pocket video cameras, and digital picture frames.

Before their reign ended, when shutters clicked open at birthdays, weddings, and on a summer docks, these moments were “Kodak Moments.” But isn’t that just good advertising?

Kodak was the first to revolutionize photography, and because of this, we have decades worth of photos that the world otherwise wouldn’t have taken. Also over the years, Kodak became synonymous with our favorite times. On the backs of our photos, printed on Kodak’s paper, we wrote the names of our gathered friends, the places and dates, all next to the faint imprint “Kodak.” Each time we pulled out our camera, grabbed a new roll of film, we were reminded: Kodak. Each time photo albums are pulled from shelves, we’re reminded: Kodak.

It wasn’t just good advertising, it was years of tying associations between Kodak and our favorite moments.

But now, that connection and that meaning are lost. A “Kodak moment” no longer means “a good moment,” but is “the moment when you realize that it’s already too late to do anything.” No company has been able to be so pivotal in our lives as to become synonymous with our great moments. Because of this, we should less mourn the loss of Kodak and instead mourn the loss of the Kodak Moment.