Let us have a moment of silence for the Eastman Kodak Company. I'm serious. “The Great Yellow Father,” as it used to be called in the photography press (when there was a photography press), has filed for bankruptcy.
Oh, sure, there will be a Kodak brand out there in some form for awhile, maybe as a sticker put on strange gadgets sold on the middle cable channels in the fashion of the once proud Bell & Howell and Polaroid, but the behemoth by which all photographic products were measured is no more.
“Kodak” was a made-up name for the earliest lines of cameras offered by George Eastman and his little company in Rochester, N.Y. They were the first populist photographic devices. You bought one for a dollar, took some pictures, and sent the whole thing back with another dollar. Soon you would receive your photographs, the negatives, and another camera, loaded with film.
The company soon found that it could make even more money, and customers found photography could be even more convenient to the point of no longer being a novelty, through Kodak's widespread introduction of roll film and cameras that used it. The leatherette-covered wooden box camera of a century ago was so common that until a few years ago you could find them in any junk shop for a buck or two. Those of a certain age will remember the brown, rounded-corners bakelite box Brownies that were the best-selling cameras in the world until the Instamatic was introduced — by Kodak, of course — in 1963. The company also produced photographic devices so elegant that they deserved to be on display. Many of those that survived are exactly that, on display.
There was a vast line of folding “pocket” cameras, though you'd need pretty impressive pockets to hold them. There were the “Autographic” cameras, which had a little window on the back that allowed the tourist to enter a caption right on the film itself. There were huge models whose negative was so big that the contact prints (where the negative is placed right on top of the printing paper for a print of the same size as the negative, as opposed to an enlargement) were sent back printed on postcards that the photographer could then send along with their “wish you were here” messages. Some were even bigger than that, with lenses as good as any in the world, exquisite shutters, gold-plated appointments, and real Moroccan leather in red.
The Kodak Retina cameras were, and in many cases still are, as good at making photographs as anything you'll find.
Those who would enter the darkroom (as, it seems, almost every adolescent boy did at one time or another over the years) quickly grew intimate with other Kodak products: D-76, the standard by which all film developers are measured, as well as Microdol-X, and DK-50, and HC-110; Indicator Stop Bath, and of course Fixer, either the original hypo or the later high-speed stuff that came with acid that, if you were really careful, you could leave out when printing, for prints that washed clean more quickly. The famous “Tri-Chem Pack” that allowed amateurs to mix up very small quantities of the developer, stop bath, and fixer to make just a few prints (a lot of pros got saved by those at one time or another, too), Polycontrast paper and Azo, Kodabromide and all the others. Your parents and grandparents had their wedding pictures printed on those papers.
The Eastman Kodak Company manufactured and sold all those things, but it did far more than that. It put a camera in the hands of anyone who wanted one, and everyone wanted one. It gave us the drama of waiting to see “if the pictures came out.” There is something lovely and now absurdly quaint about waiting until getting back to the darkroom or, more likely, until the film was shipped off, processed, and returned, to see our pictures (which invariably were augmented by imagination in the interim, so as to be disappointing when converted to shiny-paper reality). Kodak and its cheap everyman cameras gave rise to competition among photo processors: first there was next-day processing, then same-day, finally, one-hour! (Except when you shot Kodachrome slides. You always had to wait for Kodachrome. But you know what? It was worth it.)
Kodak was a victim of the digital age, of course, in which telephones make pictures, cameras talk to computers, one isn't limited to 12 pictures per roll of film, and no one would wait even an hour for pictures that, today, are seen on monitors, not in photo albums. Photographs have become so cheap and plentiful, so omnipresent, that their value has not increased but diminished. What care do you take making a picture when you know if you don't like it you can take another in a quarter second, on and on, at practically no cost, pretty much forever?
There was a time when that familiar school-bus yellow lined the walls of things called camera stores. Behind the counter, there were the stacks of yellow boxes of film in every size. Along another wall, the yellow boxes and envelopes of printing paper and, nearby, the yellow boxes and yellow cans of chemicals. Materials separated from their potential greatness only by the judicious application of light.
It's all gone now, or all but gone. And for that we really should be a little sad.
Dennis E. Powell is crackpot-at-large to Open for Business. Powell was an award-winning reporter in New York and elsewhere before moving to Ohio and becoming a full-time crackpot. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.