Photo by Terri Monahan.
Written by: Ugonna Igweatu and Margaret Jacobi
In the 1960s and ’70s, one company dominated photography with such zeal it branded life’s most sentimental moments with its own name. Kodak, an iconic American brand, was once the preferred tool of professionals and amateurs alike. Memories captured on a roll of film were often referred to as “Kodak moments”.
The Kodachrome film, developed by the company in 1935, completely revolutionized the photography industry. Their later innovations and variations on this film made taking photos an accessible and straightforward process. The film was so beloved that it was famously the subject of the 1973 Paul Simon hit “Kodachrome.”
Its popularity made the company as synonymous as Coca Cola, holding stores all across the globe. However, their tight grip on the market couldn’t hold as new companies such as Polaroid and Fuji entered the market in the mid 1980s. The Kodachrome film, which required extensive processing, was antiquated by its competition. In 1988, the company eventually disengaged from film processing entirely and slowly backed away from manufacturing to focus on different ventures.
On January 19, Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In the past decade, the Rochester-based company has dwindled 80 percent; they are down to 17,000 employees compared to the 63,900 they had nine years ago. They’ve discontinued their line of digital cameras, released their retirees from benefits, and will try to no longer provide pensions for their current employees. Chief Executive, Antonio Perez, has stated that Kodak will focus on its line of digital printers and ink. The company’s stock has fallen by 90% and continues to plummet, making their shares virtually worthless.
So what contributed to Kodak’s decline? Well, it may have been their slowness to accept the future of digital photography. In fact, Kodak’s research scientist, Steve Sasson, invented the first digital camera in 1975 yet the company kept the camera for internal use only. Thirteen years later, Kodak’s biggest competitor, Fuji, released the first commercial digital camera in 1988. Still, it took Kodak three years to release their own.
This delay may have been an effort to protect its film format, the once profitable foundation of the company. Digital photography has stifled this revenue so intensely that in 2003, the company announced they would halt investing in film products; a decision that led to the closing of the 130 photo laboratories and 13 factories that once produced development paper, chemicals, and the film itself. Overall, this reluctance cost the company $3.4 billion in restructuring charges, reducing it to a fraction of its former size.
Through a garage sale of product licenses, and by aggressively enforcing patent rights, Kodak is preparing itself for a new future free of the archetypes of the past. Only time will tell how one of the former institutions of commercial photography fares in the Digital Age.
Here are a couple of iconic commercials from Kodak over the years. The first one is quite ironic: