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After the Kodak Century (2)

A. D. Coleman, September 2013. Photo by Anna Lung.[A little under three years ago, the Eastman Kodak Corporation went bankrupt. Slightly over a year ago, Kodak completed its bankruptcy process and, much chastened, began its modest rebirth. To celebrate the first anniversary of its return to fiscal solvency, I’m posting here — complete with footnotes — the essay I wrote for Swiss photographer Catherine Leutenegger’s monograph, Kodak City, just published by Kehrer Verlag. This is the second of two parts; click here for part 1. — A. D. C.]

George Eastman bequeathed his house and gardens[1] to the University of Rochester. Eventually this became the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, an independent, non-profit museum opened to the public in 1949: the world’s oldest museum of photography, and one of the world’s oldest film archives. Honoring George Eastman’s memory, Kodak for many years provided much of the museum’s support.[2]

Today you can find such museums all over the world; the Eastman House established the template for them. The field of photography benefitted from Kodak’s patronage in other ways as well. Though the corporation did not lavish free film and cameras on photographers or build a major collection, as Polaroid did,[3] in the 1980s and ’90s they funded a number of projects by individual photographers (Benedict J. Fernandez, Susan Meiselas, Elizabeth Sunday, and Marilyn Bridges among them).

Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie, Arles, France, logoMore importantly, in terms of impact, starting in the 1970s they became the primary sponsor of the very first photography festival, the Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie in Arles, France, and thereafter underwrote, in whole or in part, dozens of those that followed as the photo-festival circuit burgeoned. These events served to expand and internationalize the photo scene in unprecedented ways. Kodak’s seeding of this global network of platforms remains an underappreciated contribution to the medium’s public visibility and the expansion of its audience.

The irony, of course, is that instead of getting devastated by the digital evolution the Eastman Kodak Corporation could have owned it.

"Control Room Kodak Park," © 2007 by Catherine Leutenegger

“Control Room Kodak Park,” © 2007 by Catherine Leutenegger

The very first digital camera, after all, got born in one of Kodak’s own labs, the invention of one of its engineers, Steven Sasson. Sasson devised his prototype in 1975.[4] At that moment Kodak dominated the U.S. market, with its products earning 90 percent of film sales and 85 percent of camera sales in this country (according to a 2005 case study for the Harvard Business School[5]), and had substantial sales around the world.

A triumphant first century had given Kodak unprecedented brand recognition internationally in the field of lens-based imaging. Sasson’s creation positioned them to further that legacy and build on that momentum with groundbreaking imaging systems that would bridge the transition from analog to digital photography.

But a corporate culture built on the production and sale of light-sensitive films and paper, wildly successful at that for generations, could not envision a world in which dematerialized electronic files would replace the photograph as a physical object. Afraid — and rightly so — that digital imaging would undermine the robust market for their films, papers, and chemistry, Kodak’s upper-level management shelved what Sasson had wrought.

World Press Photo logoNor did they learn much in the ensuing years. In 2000 I delivered the keynote address to the World Press Photo Awards Days, an annual celebration of documentary, photojournalism, and press photography held in Amsterdam, where World Press Photo was founded in 1955. In that talk I described what I foresaw as the practice of a young photojournalist just graduating and entering the field professionally in the year 2020, her toolkit almost entirely digital.[6]

Since Eastman Kodak served for many years as WPP’s main sponsor, mid- and upper-level Kodak executives, most of them middle-aged, filled the hall. I heard from colleagues seated among them that they grumped and grumbled throughout my presentation, whose projections they found ridiculous.[7] A year later, at Photokina in Cologne, Germany, Kodak would declare that the company was (belatedly) taking the plunge into the digital realm. In 2011 Kodak busied itself denying the proximity of bankruptcy after a disastrous slump in its market value, primarily the result of the company’s failure to make its mark in the digital-imaging industry. The next year they went under.

Lo, how the mighty have fallen.

"Technology  Boulevard, Rochester," © 2007 by Catherine Leutenegger

“Technology Boulevard, Rochester,” © 2007 by Catherine Leutenegger

The first time I visited Rochester, in 1971, in my role as an emerging photography critic and participant in a George Eastman House winter symposium,[8] Harold Jones, founding director of the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona, then an assistant curator at the GEH, had the assignment of squiring me around the place. I got the usual visiting fireman’s tour of the current exhibitions, the collection, the print study room, the library.

Then Harold guided me back into the great entrance hall (known there as “the conservatory”), to stand in front of the massive Aeolian pipe organ ― an unusual feature in such a mansion, to say the least, so large that its pipes disappeared into the high ceiling. “Eastman loved his mother very much, you know,” Harold reminded me. “She lived here with him, and he mourned her fiercely when she died. He had this installed after her passing, and hired an organist to play it regularly for him and his guests.”

“Kodak World Headquarters, Wall of Fame, Rochester,” © 2007 by Catherine Leutenegger

“Kodak World Headquarters, Wall of Fame, Rochester,” © 2007 by Catherine Leutenegger

He led me over to the antique elevator, took me up to the second floor, and opened the door of a small room above the entrance hall. The ends of the pipes from the organ, rising from below us, filled it almost completely. In that enclosed and now-crowded space, the volume during a performance would have been deafening. “This had been his mother’s bedroom,” Harold said, smiling.

If the ghost of Eastman’s mother haunts the George Eastman House, the ghost of Eastman himself haunts the city of Rochester. He bears no blame for Kodak’s collapse; the executives whose collective and individual failures of imagination led to the company’s downfall were, if even born, mere toddlers when he ended his life in 1932. An inventor himself, one who anticipated the future, he’d perhaps have jumped on Steve Sasson’s idea and committed company resources to it. Unlike the nearsighted suits whose complacency set the company on its downward slide, Eastman understood that Kodak sold not a product line but a way of life that wove photographic images into quotidian experience. Of his initial project he would say much later, “The idea gradually dawned on me that what we were doing was not merely making dry plates, but . . . starting out to make photography an everyday affair.” His goal? “To make the camera as convenient as the pencil.” Today’s digital photography — with most of the citizenry carrying cameras and sharing photos with each other as soon as they’re made — fulfills Eastman’s dream, even if not in a form that he would immediately recognize.

Catherine Leutenegger’s attentive, deadpan studies of present-day Rochester describe the face of a city once central to photography but now marginalized and adrift, as it might appear to Eastman should his specter bicycle through the streets as he once did in the flesh. Will Rochester go the way of Detroit and other rust-belt cities in the post-industrial age? Can it reinvent and reconfigure itself for the 21st century? What happens to Rochester now depends not on Kodak but on Rochester itself — its citizens, its elected officials, its small businesspeople and corporate heads. Rochester’s revitalization will require inventiveness and inspiration, for both of which the city can look to this native son and the world-changing enterprise he built and nurtured there.

(Part 1 I 2)

[1] From the website of the George Eastman House.

[2] Eastman had his ashes buried on the grounds of Kodak Park. Rumor has it that they’ve been stolen.

[3] See my 2009-2012 reports on the post-bankruptcy dispersal of the Polaroid Collection.

[4] In 2010 Pres. Barack Obama awarded Sasson the National Medal of Technology and Innovation. An interview with Sasson detailing the invention, “Steven Sasson – The Dawn of Digital Photography,,” appears at MegaPixel.

[5] See Giovanni M. Gavetti, Rebecca Henderson and Simona Giorgi, “Kodak and the Digital Revolution (A).”

[6] “2020 Vision: Photojournalism’s Next Two Decades,” delivered on April 16, 2000. Unpublished.

[7] To my surprise and delight, the late Tim Hetherington, then a young WPP-award-winning photographer who joined me, Manfred Heiting, Grazia Neri, and several others for a panel discussion following this keynote talk, prefaced his comments by saying “I’m the photographer A. D. Coleman just described.” In his own brief talk the following afternoon he proceeded to demonstrate that in detail.

[8] “Transitions and Translations of Photographic Response,” George Eastman House, February 1971.

Catherine Leutenegger and A. D. Coleman, ICP booksigning, NYC, 10/3/14

Catherine Leutenegger and A. D. Coleman, ICP booksigning, NYC, 10/3/14

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