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February 15, 2012

Sad Times for Eastman Kodak

Kevin E. Dayhoff

There have been many tragedies of economic malaise in the last five years. Kodak’s recent filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy seems especially sad; and it is only fitting that we pause for a moment to pay our respects.


According to an article in The Wall Street Journal by Mike Spector, Dana Mattioli and Peg Brickley on January 20, “Kodak's board, meeting by telephone, voted to seek bankruptcy protection at 4:48 p.m. Wednesday after a 75-minute discussion of the company’s position, a person familiar with the matter said. The company filed the documents shortly after midnight.”


Then, as if the laws of nature endeavored to pour salt in the wound – and our collective memories – the venerable 132-year old icon of American hard work and innovation announced it was going to stop making cameras.


The company, as we know it today, was founded as the Eastman Dry Plate Company in Rochester, NY, in 1880, by 24-year-old George Eastman. The same year, for those who like newspaper trivia, the first half-tone picture printed in a daily newspaper occurred in The New York Graphic. “Meggs' History of Graphic Design,” by Philip B. Meggs, Alston W. Purvis reports that on March 4, 1880, the paper printed, as opposed to engraved, a picture entitled “A Scene in Shantytown.”


With Kodak’s bankruptcy in the back of my mind, I recently pondered the history of photojournalism when I took pictures of a train accident and filed the entire news story from my cell phone.


The story was on’s website before I got back to my office. Perhaps younger readers may find this to be a ‘whatever;’ but for someone who fondly remembers the days of yesteryear – of my trusty typewriter and fumbling-around trying to load a fresh roll of film in my Instamatic camera at a news scene – I found myself nostalgic and reflective.


That is, until I realized I was on deadline to file another story in which part of my research involved reviewing digitized old photographs, no doubt taken with a Kodak camera.


In a Los Angeles Times article from December 4, 2011, Michael Hiltzik reminisced. “Kodak Brownie and Instamatic cameras were once staples of family vacations and holidays — remember the ‘open me first’ Christmas ad campaigns? But it may not be long before a generation of Americans grows up without ever having laid hands on a Kodak product.”


Then an Associated Press article carried in The Washington Post last Thursday reported that “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…”


To make fact stranger than fiction, as reported in the Post article, “It’s an especially poignant moment for Kodak. In 1975, using a new type of electronic sensor invented six years earlier at Bell Labs, a Kodak engineer named Steven Sasson created the first digital camera. It was a toaster-size prototype capturing black-and-white images at a resolution of 0.1 megapixels.”


Many stories, including the February 9 Post article noted that “Kodak was 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.”


Ironically, one of my earliest childhood memories is recalling my Dad’s World War II stories, illustrated by his photographs taken on a Kodak camera, of occupied Japan.


My thoughts returned to my train accident story when I read in the Post article that “through the 1990s, Kodak spent some $4 billion developing the photo technology inside most of today’s cellphones and digital devices. But a reluctance to ease its heavy financial reliance on film allowed rivals like Canon, Inc., and Sony Corp. to rush into the fast-emerging digital arena. The immensely lucrative analog business Kodak worried about undermining was virtually erased in a decade by the filmless photography it invented.”


The takeaway for me, in the same article, was “Today, the standalone digital camera faces stiff competition, as smartphone cameras gain broader use. Kodak owns patents that cover a number of basic functions in many smartphone cameras.”


At the scene of the train accident I had my ‘stand alone’ digital camera in my pocket. I never once thought of using it for my news report, until after I had already sent the pictures and texted the story to my editor wirelessly and bumped into it looking for my truck keys.


Mr. Hiltzik noted: “The last spool of yellow-boxed Kodachrome rolled out the door of a Mexican factory in 2009. Paul Simon composed his hymn to Kodachrome in 1973, but his camera of choice, according to the lyrics, was a Nikon.”


For someone who grew-up on Kodak cameras and Kodak film, the camera in my pocket, of which I rarely use now because my cellphone takes better pictures, is a Nikon.


Mr. Eastman’s business reputation and success was based on a philosophy of following a “razor-blade strategy” of “selling inexpensive cameras and making large margins from consumables — film, chemicals and paper.”


Kodak has announced, according to the Post article, that “once the digital camera business is phased out, Kodak said its consumer business will focus on printing.”


For many who have horrid memories of early computer printers and are loathsome of the cost of printer ink, this sounds like a strategy leading to certain extinction. I hate my printer and have little interest in printing anything, much less family pictures.


Kodak’s current business approach is nebulous, foggy and anything but “razor-blade.”


The future of Kodak is uncertain at best. For the rest of us, the only certain thing about the future is uncertainty.


Remember, it’s not how you fall, it’s how you get up.


. . . . .I’m just saying. . . . .


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