Eastman Kodak’s Slow-Developing Bankruptcy Moment

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Photo: via Instagram. Photo: Guy Solimano/Getty Images

Eastman Kodak is bankrupt, and nobody should be surprised. The company that more or less invented photographic film and once controlled 90 percent of the market knew the digital revolution was coming. In fact, one of its own employees, a guy named Steve Sasson, invented the digital camera in 1975, and correctly calculated that it would be a marketable product in about twenty years.

Yet when digital finally swept in, it happened fast, and Kodak as a company had always been sluggish to embrace change. (In the mid-twentieth century, it took Big Yellow twenty years to realize that a little company called Polaroid had carved off a big chunk of the amateur-photo market.) Kodak couldn't simply shift to making digital cameras, because that's a much lower-margin business than film, and companies that were better at electronics (Sony, Canon, Nikon) were going to eat Kodak's lunch anyway. Its executives kept casting about to find areas where its expertise could dominate — chemicals, cleaners, online photo-sharing. Nothing took off. The latest effort is inkjet printing, where Kodak thinks it can succeed by underpricing its competition, and one hopes it's right. We all hate paying $30 for Hewlett-Packard ink cartridges, and if Kodak can sell them for $12, that might buy the company some breathing room while it figures out its future. All the same, it seems like a stopgap rather than a long-term strategy that might restore Kodak to preeminence. "Me too" instincts rarely deliver a game-changing win.

Most of us stopped using film long ago. But fine-arts photographers have not — if anything, they've begun returning to analog materials, for their distinctive beauty and richness — and although Kodak is not shutting down, a lot of pros are very worried about what will happen next. A bankruptcy typically comes with a lot of hard-eyed looks at which business divisions are making money and which ones aren't. It's easy to foresee a future in which Kodak makes many fewer varieties of black-and-white film, or gives up on color movie film or other products that are now niche markets. That's tough on people whose artwork depends on these unique products. Already, a lot of those lines are gone. Plus-X, the workhorse black-and-white film that taught me how to make pictures, was discontinued last year. I hadn't bought any in a long time, and there's the problem in a nutshell.
 
The solution, unfortunately, is not simply to start up a boutique artisanal business. Whereas a vinyl-LP-manufacturing plant is not particularly technically demanding, and can be run at small scale for bands that want to order 500 copies of their new record, making photo film is really hard. You need to lay down micromillimeters of chemically complex emulsion on extremely thin sheets of plastic, and do it at high speeds, in total darkness. Film is the kind of product (like Toyotas or Oreos) that benefits from extreme mass production, which provides consistency as well as economies of scale. If someone asked you to build a car from scratch, it would take you twenty years and millions of dollars; asked to make reliable film, you probably couldn't do it at all. Certainly not for three bucks a roll.
 
There is an irony here. As we reject the expense and bother of film, we are embracing its aesthetic. Instagram makes fake photos that look like they were produced by a sixties Instamatic. ShakeIt and Poladroid turn pristine digital photos into ersatz Polaroid prints. Other apps and filters add fake vignetting, light leaks, and silver-halide grain. A pro can spot these effects in a second, of course, but as with so many other fields that have jumped from analog to digital, we consumers want it all: TV without ads, newspapers without the expense of news-gathering, and the look of film without the headaches. And, now, possibly without Eastman Kodak.

Bonanos is the author of the forthcoming Instant: A Cultural History of Polaroid.