January 19, 2012 marked the day Eastman Kodak finally caved and filed for bankruptcy—it listed assets of US$5.1 billion and debts of US$6.8 billion. It had been struggling since 2004 to stay afloat, trying measures from patent infringement lawsuits to changing its business strategy to inkjet printers.
The future of the company is unclear, but bankruptcy offers some protection to the company. Now it will be able to find buyers for some of its 1,100 digital patents, which account for a large part of the company’s value. The process will also help Kodak to continue its business operations, albeit with substantial changes.
When George Eastman founded Kodak in 1880, the company became the world leader in camera film. Things only started to unravel in the early 1990s, when the world began to abandon film and embrace digital photography. That marked the beginning of the end of an era where people captured their memories on film.
I am reminded of my youth, when my friends and I used to spend time in the darkroom where we mixed up batches of chemicals, and experimented with printing black-and-white photos. I still have all my negatives from those days, tucked away in a safe storage place. Just looking at them now shows me how I progressed in my photography: from thinned out, underexposed shots to smoother, evenly exposed frames. I can vividly recall the absolute magic of seeing an image emerge inside the tray of developer chemical. There was something very comforting about processing and printing—I would spend hours doing it. Kodak saw me through the growing years of my photography. I captured many frames, and as it promised, Kodak saved every moment.
But now, the days of film and those “Kodak moments” are numbered and will soon be just a memory. Although Kodak has been around for more than 130 years, spearheading the film and digital industry, revolutionizing items like film stored in rolls, and creating—ironically enough—the first digital camera which we are all so familiar with. Kodak has been one of the most innovative photography companies for more than a century, but it struggled to remain competitive in the face of cheaper competition. Kodak was quickly overtaken by high-tech Japanese manufacturing mastery in the form of Canon, Sony, and Fujifilm. Despite being a constant innovator and holder of a large portfolio of patents, Kodak never really succeeded in the digital photography arena. And that is the most likely reason why today it is in the throes of death.
Robert Burley, an associate professor at Toronto’s Ryerson University, told Businessweek magazine that Kodak is “a company stuck in time … their history was so important to them, this rich century-old history when they made a lot of amazing things and a lot of money along the way. Now their history has become a liability.”
For fans like me who cut their teeth using camera film, Kodak will always have a special place in our hearts and minds. Sad to say, generations after me will never enjoy the quiet thrill of hand-developing prints from film.
Daniel Poh is a City News photographer.