Kodak moved quickly to swat down rumors of bankruptcy last week, though they didn’t provide a particularly good explanation for why a company in obvious financial distress retained Jones Day, a law firm specializing in corporate bankruptcy.
Kodak was founded in 1888 and quickly captured the photography market with a combination of mass production, extensive R&D, and a reputation for quality. Their motto “You push the button, we do the rest” brought photography out of the realm of scientists and chemists and put cameras in the hands of anyone who could afford the processing.
The 131 year old company has been struggling for some time and it really comes as little surprise to those of us in the photography business. Kodak stopped making their flagship Kodachrome 64 in 2009, after previously phasing out other speeds in previous years. On December 30, 2010, Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas, developed the final roll of Kodachrome, bringing to a close the product that dominated the photography market since 1935.
Although not unexpected, Kodak’s passing will mark the end of an era for many in photography. The days when seeing the big yellow and red sign in a foreign country meant you count on finding film in date, fresh batteries and other photography supplies you could count on, even far from home.
Kodak was killed off by a variety of factors, not just digital photography. In 1948, just a few days before Thanksgiving, Edwin Land offered consumers a the first instant cameras. Why wait for processing when you could get pictures on the spot?
In the 1980’s Japan’s Fuji started selling rolls of film way below what Kodak was use to charging. Fuji’s willingness to cut prices was popular with growing discount retailers like Walmart.
Then there was Kodak’s bizarre purchase of Sterling Drug in 1988. Instead of investing in R&D, Kodak was investing in M&A (Mergers and Acquisitions) in fields they didn’t understand.
The digital photography trend finished off what Fuji started. Kodak was never able to rationalize the transition to lower margin digital cameras when so much of their profit came from their film business.
I remember Kodak sponsoring seminars in Hollywood to promote movie production on film in the mid-2000’s, right up until RED fielded their first RED One in 2007. While other companies were working hard to put big sensors behind quality glass, Kodak was still promoting film.
That seems bizarre considering Kodak had big sensor technology before many other companies in digital photography. We may never know why we didn’t see the Kodak One instead of the RED One or the Kodak big chip DSLR instead of the Canon 5D.
What do you think, is Kodak dead or can they reinvent themselves?