How could we pass K without perhaps the last word going to the most iconic of iconic brands? Yes, this installment of the A to Z of Photography outlines the rise and fall of Kodak. Can the phoenix arise from the ashes of it's photographic self-immolation? Yevgeny Khaldei accompanies Kodak and, whilst not a household name, his signature image is one of the the most recognizable. Read on.
Yevgeny Khaldei was a Russian naval officer and photographer known for one of the most enduring photos of World War 2, "Raising a Flag Over the Reichstag". It is perhaps fitting that the photograph that depicted the international powerhouse of the Soviet Union, was shot by a photographer born two days after the Russian Revolution began.
The image was taken on 2nd May 1945 during the Battle of Berlin, the final major offensive of World War 2 in Europe. After several days of intense fighting, the building was seized, at which point Khaldei scaled the badly damaged shell in order to stage the shot that had been envisaged. He purportedly had a flag ready, sewn from three table cloths, specifically for this purpose. Who is in the photo remains less clear due to the Soviet propaganda machine — every aspect is politically charged, however Khaldei later said he asked three soldiers at hand, rather than anyone specifically. The image was taken — ironically — with a Leica III using a 35mm lens.
The image was published 12 May in Oganyak after Khaldei had returned to Moscow. It is also a good early example of misinformation in our era of "fake news" - Khaldei removed the second of two watches adorning the wrist of the flag bearer (suggestive of looting) along with the addition of smoke in the backdrop to make it more dramatic.
Khaldei was born to Jewish parents in Donetsk, Ukraine, in 1917. Fascinated with photography from an early age, he joined the TASS news agency at the age of 19 before becoming a Red Army photographer in 1941. Khaldei supposedly traveled to Berlin with the specific purpose of staging a "raising the flag" photo at the Reichstag which, upon publication, made him famous across the USSR. After the war he photographed the Nazis at the Nuremberg trials before being made redundant in 1948 due to downsizing. He operated as a freelance photojournalist through to 1959 before joining Pravda, working for them until his retirement in 1970. His work was subsequently discovered by the West following retrospective publication in the 1980s.
Khaldei's work remained hidden from western eyes for much of his life and whilst, in contrast, the Family of Man can be seen as western iconography, we can learn much about the foundation of a global visual lexicon by examining the work of photographers from other nations. it provides us with a much broader dictionary from which to understand the world.
This image is potent because it marks the victory of the communist left over the fascist right, the successful birth of a new nation both politically and economically. Capturing the Reichstag symbolized victory over the Nazis by conquering the very heart of Germany. It's not often an image can reach such lofty heights.
Iconic amongst camera brands, through the lens of history Kodak can be seen as a leader and innovator that ushered in many technical developments that transformed the industry, including the introduction of digital cameras. However what it will be remembered for is a gargantuan corporate blunder that ripped apart a highly profitable and successful company turning it into a shell of its former self, eventually filling for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2012 that saw it sell off its patent catalog and film/scanner operations. It now focuses on manufacturing enterprise level inkjet print and packaging solutions, but, with a turnover of $1.5B, it's no slouch! So where did it all begin?
Kodak, was founded in 1880 by George Eastman and Henry Strong, manufacturing dry plates. In 1888 they started the production of cameras for novices and so began a core corporate strategy: sell the hardware cheap, then make high profit margins on the consumables. This might sound familiar if you own an inkjet printer! The savvy business acumen was the purchase of roll film patents and then their incorporation into a camera that anyone could use, which almost single-handedly created the market for amateur photography. Mass market photography had genuinely arrived. Initial cameras were box type, with folding versions subsequently introduced before the release of the long running Brownie in 1900. In 1930 Kodak started the first of 74 years listed on the Dow Jones Index. George Eastman died at the age of 77 (1932), committing suicide after health problems and leaving the briefest of notes:
To my friends, my work is done, why wait?
In 1935 Kodak started manufacturing Kodachrome, followed in 1936 with hand grenades! Yes they were the 62nd largest military contractor in the US during World War 2. It was also a period that saw the release of the Retina 35mm camera. The Starmatic, an auto exposure Brownie, arrived in 1959, then the Instamatic in 1963, the latter pretty much the last word in point-and-shoot film simplicity (and 50 million sales!). Steve Sasson demonstrated the first digital camera in 1975, followed by the invention of the Bayer array in 1976.
The 1970s marked Kodak's heyday where it was the number one film and camera manufacturer in the US, commanding 90% and 85% of the market respectively. The Kodakdisc arrived in 1982 (which seemed like a good idea at the time, but now looks faintly ridiculous!), then the world's first megapixel sensor in 1986, and the Digital Camera System (DCS) in 1991. The DCS was the first digital SLR, mounting a digital back on to a Nikon F3.
Even with these massive strides in its research laboratories and exploratory products, Kodak didn't pivot to digital until the release of the EasyShare in 2003 which introduced the first camera dock on a printer for direct printing. The following year Kodak stopped manufacturing film cameras and was also delisted from the Dow Jones Index. However the EasyShare system proved popular and the product line continued to develop with WiFi equipped and dual lens models. The smartphone effectively ended the low-cost digital camera market and after divesting itself of various sub-divisions Kodak eventually filed for bankruptcy that has seen it emerge as an enterprise print focused business. Interestingly, Kodak's liabilities to the UK Kodak Pension Plan (KPP) saw it spin off the Personalized Imaging and Document Imaging businesses and settle $2.8 Billion in KPP claims. KPP brought back Ektachrome in 2017 to much fanfare.
Kodak was a large company, peaking at 120,000 employees in 1973 and $10 billion sales in 1981 (equivalent to about $40 billion today), and has an extensive and impressive history both directly in the photographic industry, as well as more widely. It is hard to do justice to a business like this in few short words. How the current Kodak's future develops remains to be seen, but it is worth remembering that it is really not a photographic company anymore. KPP handles the personal and document imaging, whilst the digital cameras have been spun off. Whenever you see the Kodak logo it may be hard to know who is actually behind it. A salutary lesson for any business, as well as an example of how assets and brands are split and sold.
Other K's that didn't make the cut this week include Andrew Kertesz, Nick Knight, kodachrome, Kodak, Joseph Koudelka, Kenko, KMZ, Kyocera, Konica, key light, kirlian photography, and Kiss at the City Hall Paris.
A to Z Catchup
Lead image a composite courtesy of Skitterphoto and brenkee via Pixabay used under Creative Commons and Wikipedia, in the Public Domain. Body images courtesy of Smart and Jason Leung via Unsplash used under Creative Commons.