in Culture

Kodak’s lengthy demise

This morning’s Wall Street Journal contains an article about Kodak’s imminent bankruptcy declaration. My only question was: what took them so long?

In Toronto, the Eastman Kodak Mount Dennis facility in Weston once employed thousands, but it closed suddenly in 2005 and was demolished two years later. (Excellent photos of the plant’s demise, by Robert Burley, are available on the Stephen Bulger Gallery website.) Then, in 2009, Kodak announced the end of Kodachrome, its iconic slide film — a harbinger of things to come, as Kodachrome, like Polaroid’s discontinued SX-70 film, was once widely used by professional photographers everywhere.

It’s an ignominious fall for a company that invented low-cost photography. In the 1890’s, photography was expensive, and subjects had to come to studios to have their pictures taken on light-sensitive glass plates. George Eastman changed all that, selling the portable camera and rolls of film to such success that the practice of taking snapshots on the street — often of unwilling subjects — was once known as “kodaking”. The portable film camera had a profound effect on society, too. Jeff Jarvis, in “Public Parts”, writes about how Eastman’s invention inadvertently started the first serious discussion of privacy as a legal right in the United States, a debate that continues vigorously today.

I’m saddened by Kodak’s inability to adapt to changing technological realities, but at the same time, they failed to anticipate the speed at which technology changes. In the 1990’s, they rested on their laurels for too long rather than embracing the digital revolution with both their powerhouse engineering talent and ubiquitous brand. At this point, I’m not sure what assets Kodak has left that they could sell off in a bankruptcy filing, other than their patents. Like Nortel Networks, Kodak seems to be a company that the world has passed by, and the end might come in the form of liquidation.