Saturday, February 11, 2012

A Kodak moment, no more

I still remember the first time my Dad let me borrow his old black metal Kodak Brownie camera for a third-grade class trip down to Chapel Hill. It was the first visit I can recall to that wonderful place, and it was the first picture I recall having taken.  The power of the knowledge that I could capture a moment in time, in a little black box, and keep it forever was overwhelming.  You'd think I might have picked a more memorable subject -- the Old Well, maybe, or Old East, the dorm where my father had lived one year in the 1920s, but the memorable picture I took at the Forest Theater was one of my friend Charlie McNairy taking a picture right back at me on his Dad's Brownie. We thought this was clever beyond imagination.

It would be years more before I had my own camera -- a little Kodak Instamatic -- and many more years before I had the object of my dreams: a 35mm single lens reflex camera with the swing-up mirror that allowed capturing exactly the image you saw in the viewfinder.  And after getting my first job, I finally got the holiest of the photo grails, a used Nikon with a 35 mm wide angle lens and a 135mm telephoto.  Hot stuff.

I wanted most to make my living with a camera, and for a time collected cameras -- many of them the early Kodaks -- of every variety. I had a Crown Graphic 4x5, a Yashica twin lens, an early Sears view camera with red leatherette bellows, a large 5x7 mahogany view camera that was sold to me by a portrait printer in the Army Photographic Agency lab at the Pentagon, where I was stationed. My favorite was a Kodak 1A Autographic Jr. that had a little flip-up slot on the back that allowed picture takers to inscribe a name or date or place where a photo was taken. That information would show up, in the photographer's handwriting, at the bottom of the print. You could sign your own picture, thus carrying your autograph in the picture taken on your Autographic.

I found an image of the camera online after a short search following disquieting news that arrived Thursday: Eastman Kodak, the company that was to photography as Ford Motor company was to the automobile world, would no longer make cameras. Here's  a graf or three from the AP story:

Eastman Kodak Co. said Thursday that it will stop making digital cameras, pocket video cameras and digital picture frames, marking the end of an era for the company that brought photography to the masses more than a century ago.
Founded by George Eastman in 1880, Kodak was once known all over the world for its Brownie and Instamatic cameras and its yellow-and-red film boxes. But the company was battered by Japanese competition in the 1980s, and was then unable to keep pace with the shift from film to digital technology.
The Rochester, N.Y.-based company, which filed for bankruptcy protection last month, said it will phase out the product lines in the first half of this year. It will look for other companies to license its brand for those products. 

Here's a link to the full story at the News and Observer.

That failure, or inability, of Kodak to foresee and take advantage of the sweeping changes of the digital age is hardly novel. A surprising number of major industries, including the newspaper business where I worked for decades, were unable to fully anticipate the changes that the electronic revolution would bring about even though Kodak virtually invented the digital camera and even though newspapers, for example, were often on the cutting edge of creating the best Internet Web sites in the early days of the digital boom. That was before information consumers, who used to be called readers, got used to getting most if not all of their news and other information for free, just for the taking.

There was a time when I spent much of my day with Kodak products -- using Kodak Plus-X and Tri-X film, processing prints in Dektol on Kodak photo paper, shooting KodaChrome film and marveling at the vivid color of slides.

More lately I have contributed to Kodak's bankruptcy.  It has been years since I worked in the darkroom, years since I bought Kodak (or anyone else's) 35mm film, though I have bought Kodak digital printing paper to run through my HP photo printers.  Last fall I acquired, for the first time, a new Nikon digital camera with a couple of lenses and more tricks than I can even tell you about. The thing will figure out exposures, set them, focus the image and do everything but grab you a beer so you can watch a big screen slide show full of the images you took 30 seconds ago. When I was a kid it was sometimes 30 days before we got back blurry black and white photos, so I'm not complaining. Today is a marvelous age, and electronic gizmos are scary smart, fast as whips and will do things George Eastman could not have imagined a century ago when he was building Kodak into an industrial giant of the 20th Century -- for what turned out to be just a Kodak moment.  Say cheese.

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