The State of Kodak at PhotoPlus Broke My Heart
There are a few names in this industry that have always meant something. Nikon. Canon. Hasselblad. Fuji. Kodak. The latter has had a rough go of things in the past couple years, culminating in what can essentially be called a final meltdown in early 2012. Chapter Eleven bankruptcy and a rapidly collapsing stock price have left the company a shell of what it was. This week at PhotoPlus, I saw the realization of that at their booth, and it was one of the saddest things I have experienced in recent memory.
You’ve probably felt this before. You’ve put love, time, effort, sweat and tears into something only to have it be ill received by everyone you have been trying to impress. Maybe it was a photo project that just didn’t take off. More likely it’s an issue in corporate America, where you can see the problem but at every turn, the solution that you see within easy reach is either dismissed or worse, ignored. For many of us, such defeats can be crushing. It leaves you with a sense of worthlessness. You are dejected, crestfallen and beaten down. Shoulders slumped, you are defeated, and it hurts you down to the fiber of who you are. It weighs on you physically, and your shoulders droop, your eyes sag, and you are suddenly a shell of the person you were. It’s hard to smile when you have to, and even when you put on that happy face, the hope and light is just gone.
Most of us bounce back. We recover and pull ourselves out of that hole. Some aren’t so fortunate.
I was asked to visit the Kodak booth by Kodak’s public relations team. Their intent was to reassure me, and therefore eventually reassure you the reader, that things were on their way back up for Kodak. Film and paper are still going strong! “Both businesses continue to perform well,” they said. “We continue to be impressed and inspired by the work we see both emerging and established photographers creating using our film and paper.” They were fine, chapter eleven was behind them, and things were all sunshine and happiness.
Naturally I was perplexed. I, first of all, was surprised that they had a booth at all. And not a small booth, but a sizable and centrally located one. Everything so far seemed to back up their statement. Things were apparently looking up. I was ready to be a believer.
My meeting with Kodak was first thing in the morning. Coffee in hand, I arrived and was ready to be basked in that glorious light they cast on their company. Hooray! Kodak is back! Kodak, despite slowly discontinuing lines of paper and film, was going to make a turn around. They had a plan. They were going to share that plan with me, and we all could rest easy knowing that we could once again believe in Kodak.
The remaining film varieties still available from Kodak.
What followed was one of the most depressing experiences I’ve had this year. The booth was shiny, the setup was well planned and gorgeous, and the handouts and marketing materials were fresh new and invigorating. All these things were in stark contrast to the folks attending the booth.
First of all, I mean absolutely no disrespect to these fine people from Kodak. They obviously love what they do. The person who had been working for Kodak the shortest amount of time had been there 13 years. But despite the shine and sparkle of their booth, all the life was gone out of their eyes. They were tired. Their shoulders showed the weight and strain of the past year. They looked defeated.
I asked what the plan was, how Kodak would survive, would film’s renaissance among hipster college students be enough to revive the dying brand? “We hope. We always hope.”
The plan is hope. Hope that sales increase. Hope that whoever purchases the film and paper brand keeps it alive. Hope that someone buys the floundering brand at all.
But it was apparent that the hope they were leaning on was becoming more and more brittle. They offhandedly mentioned the new iPhone app that helps film users. Either they didn’t know much about it, or they weren’t believers that it was going to help. Maybe they were just out of hope.
I strongly believe that if you plan to pursue photography as a career, you should spend some quality time in a darkroom. Truly knowing photography in the analog format makes a world of difference when you transition to digital. It slows you down, forces you to understand what you are doing in order to make a quality image. It literally gets your hand dirty (I still love that pickle smell on my hands after hours spent developing negatives). We all need film, even if you don’t know you need it.
Unfortunately, that’s not the way this world is headed. Support for film is just about extinct. A few more years, and just finding a place to buy fixer is going to be a treasure hunt. In five to seven years, it will become like the search for Atlantis.
There is really no way for us to make a difference in this area, no matter how much we might want to. The money isn’t there anymore. The consumer would really have to change his and her mindset in order for film to return, and in the age of instant gratification, that just won’t happen. With each passing minute, we all become just a little less patient. Dial up to DSL, DSL to cable, cable to fiber, we have all just gotten used to things being in our hands in an instant. That mentality is completely at odds with what film is and what film stands for.
Kodak, there isn’t much room left for hope unfortunately. I dearly want you to succeed, but unless we as consumers fundamentally change what we have come to expect, I’m afraid that just won’t happen. And when we all lament and cry when you finally do disappear, we will have no one to blame but ourselves.