Photography and Economics 101

(C) 2012 by Metta Anderson – All Rights Reserved

First of all, economics for me is more like conceptual art–there are concepts which are abstract but relate to a specific idea, usually money. However, in this case, economics ties into what I want to talk about, which is Kodak and photography and social history. Together. And not necessarily under separate categories.

Kodak, once known as “The Great Yellow Father,” was founded in 1889 by George Eastman. My great-grandparents on my father’s side were born in June 1864 and got married right around that time. They were photographed together for their wedding announcement. Their daughter, my grandmother, was born in July 1892, and was photographed often as she grew up. This year she would be 120 years old, so Happy Birthday, GaGa.

Her husband, my grandfather, was also born in 1892, in February, in Pueblo, Colorado, and much of his life, like my grandmother’s, was photographed. In fact, over the courses of their lives, if they were not taking pictures of events, someone else in the family was. And that’s not all.

My great-grandfather, R. E. Olds, not only loved photography, he loved films!!! He began Oldsmobile, and later the REO Car Company, and between those two industrial events (recorded with photographs), he could hire camera people to FILM parties at Albemarle (his house on Belle Isle, in Michigan) and at other homes he owned in his lifetime (such as the 17-bedroom cottage at Lake Charlevoix).

His daughter and son-in-law, in addition to the photos they took, made a few films, too. One in particular was taken in the 1930s, before their divorce, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. There’s my father as the defiant teenager of the time, next to his sister, and unhappy teenager, and my grandfather’s mother,  mugging for the camera in a grainy black and white.

The film rolls on. My grandfather is showing us the landscape and some of the customs of the area, and then, lo and behold, a small adobe church which would become a major art icon just a few years later, on the canvases painted by Georgia O’Keeffe. She’s not in these films, but another artist is–E. I. Couse. He was part of the Taos Artists’ Society, and a little elderly when the film was shot. He’s seen coming out of the screen door of his house in Taos, walking toward the tiny garden. His resemblance to Monet is striking, which is cool, because the Taos group brought the philosophy and techniques of the French Impressionists to bear on American painting in the Western US. My grandfather bought their art and photographed the artists as they painted outdoors in the Taos-Santa Fe area.

At some point, my father and his sister got their own cameras and recorded the rest of their lives with them. My father went into photography for personal but never expressed reasons. I came to that conclusion after looking at his films and photos. He liked the aesthetics of photography and he liked the chemistry of it. He learned to print color in his own darkroom (he had an Omega enlarger which probably still works, with the appropriate set of Kodak filters), and I sincerely regret that I never got that far. There is a fascinating combination of chemical precision leading to the possibility of flights of fantasy when working in the darkroom that just does not exist in digital. Digital avoids the “happy accident” that has often resulted in more interesting photos than the photographer had planned.

For years my father used a Speed Graphic that took 6 x 7 cm negatives. He knew that camera so well that he used it as a kind of spy camera, sneaking shots that surprised everyone later. He took it with him to Egypt and accidentally photographed the name “E. Anderson” scrawled in an upper right corner of a tomb wall by some irreverent person who, we still hope, is NOT related to us.

He took the camera on a trip to Japan. He got a lot of the usual tourist shots, but the one I liked best was taken of the Golden Temple from across the lake in front of it, but through the pine branches. Dad said that the group was led to a spot across the lake by the tour guide and told that, from there they could all get nice photos of the temple. Dad agreed that yes, you could, but when he glanced at the ground, he discovered that the spot was worn down to nothing by the endless army of tourists who had stood in the same spot to get the same damn shot. Good for them, but not for Olds Anderson.

He moved off to one side and wrapped himself–sort of–around the trunk of a pine tree. Through its branches he could clearly see the temple, but through the viewfinder (parallex corrected), he could compose something much more interesting.

And another Kodak moment was born.

When I was born in June 1945, my father got permission to photograph me in black and white, no flash, in the bassinet in the pediatric ward. I was less than 24 hours old.

And when I was five, I got my first camera, a Brownie that took 620 film. Later I got another Brownie, and then a Fiesta and finally a Pentax Spotmatic (1968), and so on.

I am, at this point, very pleased to report that the films and photos from my great-grandparents’ and even grandparents’ generation are in museums. Try the Transportation Museum (R. E. Olds Museum) in Lansing, Michigan. Try the Museum at Michigan State University. Try the Michigan Historical Society. And then, “if you’re feelin’ lucky. . .,” get in touch with my brother and my stepsister and my half-sisters.

And I have not even touched upon the incredible collection of stereo-optical slides taken by my stepgrandfather, Harry L. Conrad, in his travels and events. Michigan State University’s Museum has those, too.

My mother’s family also took pictures, but my mother was pretty bad about keeping them, so few exist. I think my brother has them.

When I say that Kodak is part of my family, I’m not kidding.

Therefore, to see Kodak in financial problems is almost like being told that a member of the family has been poisoned and is dying a slow and painful death. But, who did it?

My money is on Wall Street, and yes, the pun is intended.

Brokerage firms have been telling the American public for too long that it has an obligation to its shareholders, and then presents the image of decrepit elderly people barely hanging on til their next dividend check arrives. Boy is that a crock!

Yes, corporate law dictates that corporations pay dividends to its shareholders (who are its investors) as a reward for loaning the corporations money in order to keep going. (I’m referring to publicly held companies, national and international.) But those shareholders are large pension funds which have invested in mutual funds (when they don’t set them up for their own benefit) and hedge funds and private equity groups. They could care less what Kodak or GM or even Hershey’s produces. They only care about the bottom line and how much (quantity) of the product has been sold so that a good-sized dividend can be paid out. Better yet–let’s produce it abroad (say, China or Afghanistan) for fifty cents per item, pay no Social Security nor other benefits to their workers, pay little taxes in the host country and make ga-zillions of bucks. Tax structures allow for write-offs and deductions, so the pure profit is much greater. Figure that the dividends represent maybe 15% of gross (or net), and the rest goes to the executives, and then down to secretaries and some other people. This structure sidesteps the issues of social responsibility–the amounts of money previously set aside by corporations for funding cultural or social programs locally or nationally.

I think Kodak fell into this trap. It is a multinational corporation, but like other companies, its product line is relatively narrow–photography and the items related to that. (I am excluding GM from this. Not only does that multinational have multiple product lines, it made some financial mistakes and buried itself in its own hole in Detroit. Only psychiatrists with experience in forensics will ever be ablel to understand GM’s problems.)

But here’s the interesting part. Kodak–in this sense like GM–sells its products quite successfully OUTSIDE the United States. The Chevrolet Division of GM has excellent sales in Latin America. In Colombia, Chevrolet is the number-one-selling automobile in an expanding market. That may not represent much in US dollars, but it certainly helps fund the shrimp platter at a GM cocktail party in Bloomfield Hills.

Also OUTSIDE THE US–people still take pictures with film! Really! Kodak and Fuji are easily available. Kodak has a manufacturing plant in Mexico, which lowers its distribution costs for all of Latin America. It used to have another distribution point in Bogotá for the Andean region (Venezuela, Colombia, Equador, Peru, maybe Bolivia), and the network may still be in place. I don’t know how Fuji handles distribution of its products, but it’s probably similar to Kodak, and frankly, I think Fuji’s black and white film is fabulous, especially in the 120 format!

The US has covered itself with quite a bubble, and maybe even bubbles within bubbles. Digital photography has gained ground for a lot of reasons, one of them being that it’s exceptionally simple. Actually, so was shooting color with a Brownie in 1960. The only real difference that I can see is this–digital is ever so DISPOSABLE!!!!!!!!!!!! With a negative, you are stuck with the image. It’s always going to be there, unless you burn the negative, which might be a little difficult because of the chemical nature of the film itself. With digital, on the other hand, just click on “Delete” and it’s gone, just like your memories. In fact, the digital image is like the film image–it is a visual memory of what was in front of the camera at the split-second the shutter was pressed. With film, the memory stays. With digital, it’s gone.

That has become so Very Very Very A-M-E-R-I-C-A-N!  ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !  NOTHING is permanent!!! All is ephemeral!!!!!! All is DISPOSIBLE!!!!!

I read just last week in a column in “El Espectador” newspaper that if Kodak had migrated to Silicone Valley, it could have saved itself by being in the center of all the new technology and all those hot young minds who are so (wowie!) up on all the latest trends!!!!

Actually, the bigger problem is not Silicone Valley nor Rochester, New York (nor even Rochester, Michigan). It’s the American lifestyle that has gone off the deep end in terms of gullibility, of wanting Absolutely EVERYTHING RIGHT THIS GODDAMNED VERY SECOND!!!!! In short, a nation of snotty little kids. In the roughly 45 years I’ve lived in Colombia, I’ve flown back and forth between Bogotá and Detroit (and other US places) more times than I can count. The distance between Bogotá and Miami is fixed, geographically, and the flight time has not changed very much (approx. 3 hrs 20 minutes, airport to airport) regardless of the type of aircraft involved (707 to 747 to Airbus).  In the past, it was a nice flight. These days, it’s just a little horror with wings, and I’m not talking about security. It’s the airlines’ idea that you absolutely MUST pack into the plane more people than can comfortably fit, and THEN! Not serve them. No food. No drinks. Just, “Shut up and SIT THE FUCK DOWN!”

And once you get to Miami or Atlanta or wherever, you are disgorged from the aircraft and pretty much forced to do a double-time march through miles of airport corridors in order to get on the next plane, which left ten minutes ago.

It is absolutely NOT the fault of the passengers that jet fuel prices skyrocket. It is probably not the fault of the passengers that they really have to carry luggage and can not live out of a small briefcase for two or three weeks. For most airlines, the ideal passenger is George Clooney in “Up in the Air.” Well, sorry, but we’re not. Deal with it.

It is this mindset that is killing Kodak and many other businesses, not the products nor how and where they’re manufactured. Yes, fast food chains are “upgrading” their product lines  (along with their prices, of course), but the genuine bottom line is that eating even healthy food quickly and then running off to do something the eater thinks is “important” will make you sick. It’s not that “healthy fast food” (such as it might exist) will keep you slim. It won’t. The stress of daily life will keep the pounds off for a while, but when people are stressed out, they eat. And they eat in a hurry (so as not to get caught eating), they end up getting sick. Or even sick-er.

With photography, yes, in many cases, the digital image is very helpful. Commercial photographers love to be able to show clients and art directors or whomever a series of images right on the spot. And yes, it’s fun to take pictures at a party and be able to show them seconds later. I had that experience once, using someone else’s new Polaroid X-70. Polaroid worked on its product so that you could get the image in about 10 seconds, instead of 60. (I remember my grandmother GaGa experimenting with a Polaroid in the late Fifties. It only took black and white, and she had to have my father’s help to pull the photo out of the camera body, so she stuck with her Minox, whose color film had to be sent to a special lab in St. Louis, MO, or maybe Chicago. She loved getting her pictures back, even though she had to wait a few days.) In Colombia, the university students now seem to need to take pictures and videos all the time with their cell phones and upscale (purchased in Miami over Spring Break) DSLRs, but their parents and grandparents are quite happy to wait for their film to be developed and printed at Foto Japón and other minilabs. What’s the big rush?

Kodak and GM need to sell their products in order to survive. DUH! But I think the public is asking for miracles. Film is film, and it is not instant, but it is definitely a viable visual medium. More than that, it becomes a link to a personal past over time. GM needs to produce cars, but it is without question absurd to insist that the corporation create a “crash-proof car.”  Cadillac used to be a prestigious marque, but after the 1970s and a few unfortunate movies, I see an Escalade or Sedan de Ville and think, “Pimp-mobile.”  (And then I see a Mercedes-Benz and think either, “Nouveau so riche the ink’s still wet,” OR “narco. . .”) I know from experience that Nikon is an excellent camera and so is Hasselblad, but I find their advertising so male-ORIENTED and, in some instances, so full of crap that I refuse to own either one. I do own a Kodak Z981 digital camera, because very frankly, it has a Schneider lens (Schneider-KREUZNACH Variogon with ED (extra dispersion) glass). I find that it reproduces the quality of the light here in Bogotá breathtakingly, and I suspect its film speed algorithms are based on certain Kodak films. Great! But I still love my Pentaxes and Mamiyas and the films they use. I still like to work in the darkroom, and more so now that the Epson Stylus Photo R1900 that I purchased in November 2010 is doing strange things. Please Note:  A US$500 price tag for digital equipment may not seem like much in the US, but when translated into a foreign currency, it may become prohibitively expensive. In Colombia, US$500 for a printer translates into Pesos $1,500,000.00, because the exchange rate is just below 2000 pesos to the dollar, but factor in import and local taxes, and the exchange is 3000 pesos to the dollar. The average Colombian will definitely think twice before getting into digital photography with these prices.

I think that Kodak, GM and other companies these days face this conundrum–poor sales at home, good sales abroad, and “shareholders” (those pension funds) who just do not understand that life is lived differently outside the US.

How to deal with this? I don’t know. Privatize? Sell off all the publicly-held stock and let all the employees and their families and friends buy into the corporations. What the corporations earn goes to their employees. The pension funds and their kith and kin can go suck blood someplace else.

So to answer my question, who’s poisoning Kodak, I think the answer is–the American people who made it great. How’s that for maturity?

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