Friday, January 6, 2012

The Fall of Kodak

I heard yesterday about Kodak’s impending bankruptcy and I stopped to consider the differences between Kodak and Fuji, which were one time rivals in the film business. This rivalry, at least in the US, got started in the 1970s, though of course both companies had been around for many previous decades. Since I learned photography in the 70s, Kodak was always a big part of my personal history in photography. Tri-X and Kodachrome were the films to use, if you were a photographer. The familiar yellow boxes have been a comforting sight for a long time. But times do change and the transformation of the photo industry from silver-based photography to digital imaging has not been an easy one for all the companies involved in this paradigm shift.

Agfa, Minolta, Konica, Yashica, and Contax have all gone extinct. Ilford nearly went under, but managed at the last minute to pull off a switch to inkjet papers. Before it’s all said and done, I’m sure others will fall as well. So now it’s Kodak’s turn. Film and processing, which used to be the majority of Kodak’s business, have all but disappeared. Kodak used their R & D prowess to develop digital sensors for other digital cameras, like Leica and most of the professional medium format digital backs, but despite a few attempts in the beginning to develop professional DSLRs, they stayed out of the serious digicam business. Of course, I know they have made and continue to make several economically priced digicams, but nothing that could compete with the major players like Nikon, Canon, and Panasonic. So they slipped out of the consciousness of serious photographers.

Meanwhile, Fuji has fared much better than their American cousin. Until recently, they played on the outskirts of the digicam trade, but they always had a few models that attracted the attention of a few vocal fans. Now, they have some of the most exciting cameras that have been introduced in the past few years, the X100 and the X10. Both of these cameras are targeted to the interests and predilections of professionals and enthusiasts, especially those who long for cameras with traditional styling and simpler, manual controls. There is even talk of Fuji introducing an interchangeable lens version of the X100. I wouldn’t be surprised if it is a full-frame model with the Leica M-mount, in a direct counter to Leica’s high priced M9. Though they lost the film business, just like Kodak, they have managed to weather the switch quite nicely.

Still, I hope Kodak survives. The latest rumor has them declaring Chapter 11, which releases them from past debt, unfortunately including all the retirement pensions they’re paying to past employees, but allowing them to continue in business. There is no doubt that these are tough times, and businesses will do whatever it takes to survive, if they can, but I hope they can live to make better business decisions and make the changes needed to thrive in this new digital environment. It would be sad to see those yellow boxes disappear forever.