Good Mourning Kodak

Perhaps not so good. I’m writing this on thursday, 19 january, 2012. I feel oddly sad. It really makes no sense to take it so personally, it’s merely one more casualty of progress. This morning Kodak (the Great Yellow Father) filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. It almost feels like a death.

Is Kodak really dead? Probably not, yet digital imaging, which is the most significant revolution in photography since its inception in 1839, seems to have conclusively done in Kodak, after being on its deathbed for about a decade. Digital has forever changed how we make and process camera images. For commercial purposes, film has been obsolete for years, but with this event it can be declared that silver halide chemical photography is officially an alternative process. It has joined the likes of tintypes, cyanotypes, gum bichromate, among other archaic chemical processes. These bygone techniques are only practiced by a small number of dedicated aficionados who are after a specific look and feel for their images—a look that one could attempt to fake by electronic means, but can never be fully realized by any means other than the original. Nothing can replace an image made of real metallic silver. These historical processes have a niche in the spectrum of artistic media.

George Eastman transformed photography in the 1890s with the first roll film, a gelatin silver emulsion on celluloid, thus making photography available to everyone. Before Georgie, photography was a complicated, time and material intensive operation, a messy wet procedure that made it impractical for anyone but the most zealous and devoted to tackle. Over the years Kodak consistently lead the pack by a large margin, even into the digital age. Kodak is Photography. (Fuji, Ilford, Agfa, et al, remained in its shadow.) Unfortunately, the megalithic nature of its gigantic investment in film and chemistry, and the lightning speed of the digital takeover, made it nearly impossible for Kodak to gracefully resize and adjust itself to the rapid changes in the photographic marketplace.

My hope is that Kodak finally sees its true future—a small specialty company producing a unique product for a demanding community of dedicated artists. The magic of seeing an image gradually appear in a tray of developer under the dim amber light of the darkroom, the scent of sodium thiosulfate, the mystery of the entire photochemical process is a transcendent encounter of indescribable wonder. It’s a rush most young photographers may never have the opportunity to experience first hand.

Long live Kodak.

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