Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Eastman Kodak Company

Over the past few months I have read a lot of posts about the troubles Kodak is having.  Some have long lists of the mistakes that Kodak made and how they might have kept going strong as a company.  Myself I think people are asking the wrong question.  Instead of wondering what happened to Kodak it might be good to look at why they did so well for so long.

Most companies only stay in business a short time.  Only a very small percentage of those ever come to dominate their field.  Kodak not only has lasted a long time it had dominated its field for over a hundred years.  To me that success is the extraordinary thing while Kodak's current problems are more ordinary since eventual failure is the norm for a business.

It seems fairly obvious that the initial reason for the success of Kodak was they were the first to make photography fairly easy for people.  And this helped Kodak to sell a lot of film.  Kodak then continued to innovate with film while also making a product of reliable quality.  While other companies made film Kodak was the company that the average person trusted the most.  Kodak did make other products, however these were often made with the idea of selling more film.

All this worked well as decade after decade Kodak remained the leader in photography.  It even allowed the company to absorb failures like disc cameras and their attempt at instant film.  Then of course digital came along.  Many have said they should have seen it coming.  And many have said that Kodak made major mistakes in not capitalizing on digital even though they did some pioneering work in that area. 

Still Kodak mainly was a film producing company.  That is what they knew how to do and they did it extremely well for a long time.  I am not sure how much they can be faulted for a failure to develop products in a new area with which they would experience a similar level of success.  If they had in some ways that would have been extraordinary.  Instead they faltered as most every other company in history as done when faced with a severe decline in demand for their most important product. 

Like any company that produces a successful product Kodak's strength also was its greatest vulnerability.  Generally demand for a product does not last forever. The mass demand for film did last longer than the demand for most products.  And I think Kodak should be praised for doing so well for so long at supplying that demand instead of being criticized for not developing the hypothetical products that may have kept them out of trouble.

Hopefully, Kodak will at least continue to survive to make a reduced amount of film.  Still it is doubtful that we ever will see Kodak being the presence with the masses that it once was. I imagine there already is a strong dividing line age-wise between those who still fairly quickly think of Kodak when they think of photography and those who may not be aware of Kodak at all. 

Ad from 1956.


  1. Great essay.

    I've been in the business world long enough to know that transforming a business is really, really hard. Amazingly hard. Mind-bendingly hard. Because once all your energies are headed in one direction, inertia if nothing else makes it hard to adjust.

    1. It seems like a lot of the people who are posting about Kodak don't understand that. It is hard to change the direction of even a small business. Just imagine changing a company as large as Kodak with its years of doing things one way.

  2. Great post. I still prefer Tri-x and TMax 100. Great films. Film is a niche market. It will always be there. I don't mind digital for its speed, but to me it just lacks "body". I am not caught up in the Digital Craze, even though I love our D90 and HDR and all of that. Have you noticed the trend. Every Magazine out there is about "gear" because we are such a technical society. There are very few magazines or focus (pardon the pun) on just the art of Photography. I'm staying with Film, and I hope Kodak does too. I think there is still a market for Kodak. But I also agree with the other writer above, kodak will need leadership to turn that lumbering boat around to face new horizons.

    1. I also am finding myself using film more and more. To me is has a feel that I find missing in digital. Although I do find digital useful at times.

      I have some old photo magazines and they don't talk much about gear. Most of the focus is on skills that could be used with a lot of different cameras. I'm not sure when the magazines switched over to more of a focus on gear. Maybe I am being too cynical, however I suspect that some of the focus on gear is because they want to keep people hyped up on needing their advertisers latest products.