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Sunday, August 24, 2014

Fast Forward

I recently came across some references to a lavishly produced book entitled The Story of Kodak by Douglas Collins.  When I looked up the book at Amazon I found that it had been published in 1990 and -- much to my surprise -- a "very good" used copy could be had for less than a dollar.  Even with the added four dollars for shipping, I would still be out only about five bucks to own a copy.

The author, Collins, writes resonably well and he tells some pretty good stories about the founding and development of Kodak throughout the Twentieth Century.  As is clear in the Acknowledgments, however, his primary sources were Kodak publicity people and the book is quite clearly an officially-sanctioned history of the company.

Given that caveat, there are some interesting things to be found in Collins' account and I learned quite a lot about some of the major players in the company's history including the founder, George Eastman, the company's first research director, Kenneth Mees, and the pair of musician/scientists who invented Kodachrome,  Leopold Godowsky, Jr. and Leopold Mannes.  The real value of the book, though, is to be found in the final chapter in which Collins becomes the mouthpiece for the delusional vision of the company's directors about The Future of Photography that would quickly bring the giant of the photo world to its knees.

Collins briefly quotes the opposed opinions of an academic and a professional photographer about the likelihood of electronic imaging replacing the use of film in photography.  He then says:
"Between these two positions lies the question of whether Kodak should aggressively enter the business of electronic image making.  Simply put, will video render silver-halide photography a quaint, antique way of making pictures?  Kodak analysts think not.  By all accounts film remains and will continue to remain the preferred medium for picture taking...

...One Kodak executive has speculated that electronic imaging is currently about where the video-cassette recording industry was ten years ago, and that it will take at least that long for its impact to be felt.
     For amateurs then, despite the imminent arrival of electronics, the chemically produced photograph is still the established and favored way to make visual records.  The same is true of televised news, the demand for silver-halide pictures shows no signs of decreasing...

...The world may be linked by electronic images, but the act of sitting in a darkened theater and watching events unfold on the silver screen seems to special to be replaced by more private forms of entertainment."

All that seems to be an amazing lack of foresight for a company that had nearly limitless resources of information and expertise.  Certainly, much of the failure to come at all close to predicting the near future can be attributed to inertia and self-delusion.  I suspect, however, that what was of more importance was financial skulduggery and the push for short-term personal gain by upper management -- the same kind of forces that drove the general recessionary crash of 2008.  Collins' account, of course, sheds no light on those crucial internal events in the company's Rochester headquarters.

So, there is another book to be written about how it all came apart at Kodak.  Perhaps more importantly there is also a book which might be written about the company's real accomplishments and the people who made them happen beyond the few top dogs Collins talks about.  What is most interesting about his cast of characters is the omission of so many really important ones including the scientists, engineers and designers directly responsible for so much of the innovation in photographic imagery during the recently-concluded Century.  For instance, Rudolf Kingslake, the great Kodak lens designer, does not even rate a listing in Collins' lengthy index.

The Wikipedia page about Eastman Kodak fills in a few of the gaps in the Collins narative and Google searches on names including Rudolf Kingslake, Arthur H. Crapsey, Jr., and Miller R. Hutchison, Jr. will turn up useful nuggets.

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