Photography and Economics 102

(C) 2012 by Metta Anderson

In the October 2011 issue of “ARTnews” Magazine, page 30, there is a review of an exhibit at the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, New York, called “Full Color Depression–First Kodachromes from America’s Heartland.” These photos were taken during the 1930s and 1940s by photographers working for the Farm Security Administration, and the government project even today is better known for its black and white images. Reading this review, however, was disheartening.

For starters, the writer, Rebecca Robertson, referred to the prints on display as “from negatives” and named someone as being in charge of working with the negatives. That this glitch surfaces in one of the most prestigious art magazines in the US only underscores why digital has become so popular. Digital photography requires no education whatsoever, on any level.

Kodachrome, discontinued in 2010 by Kodak, was a slide film. It did not produce negatives. Ever. It was and remains famous for its saturated colors and for the fact that only a handful of photo labs in the United States could process it. This took a few days, but the rewards were not only great color but a very long life after developing. Kodachrome’s colors did not fade. (They do, and they shift, but it takes Kodachrome a very very long time for that to happen.) Kodachrome was the film of choice in the sciences and the arts. My stepgrandfather took his stereo slides with it. The “National Geographic”‘s best known photos were made on Kodachrome. The latest cars and fashions were photographed with it.

Kodachrome was not Kodak’s only film, and given its particular characteristics, probably never its top seller, either. But its existence points to the business sense with which the company functioned for most of its lifetime. It recognized a professional market and an amateur one, and produced films compatible for each one. Professional film was more expensive, but any amateur could buy it. Pro color film was expensive because it was allowed to age, like a wine, so that the colors (dyes) suspended in the emulsion would set up and stabilize. The price reflected the cost of keeping the film in the warehouse for a few days before shipping it out to camera stores.

Professional photographers work with more expensive equipment, take a little more time with a shot and make their living by selling the images. Amateurs, for the most part, can use high quality cameras but might tend to shoot quickly and only for special events. Nevertheless, a Kodak film gave each party a color image that pleased. The pro market is frankly smaller than the amateur one, even now, and Kodak accepted that.

Fast forward to the present. Digital images are usually quite pretty, even when taken by a cell phone (mobile phone, in English). Attach a cable to a computer or a printer, press some buttons and the image will be printed out. It’s not as fast as a Polaroid, but close enough. And everyone’s happy to have the image.

But I think that what happened with Kodak was beyond that corporation’s ability to control, in some respects. In the US, there were lots of labs and camera stores (pre-digital) and books and workshops to help people improve their photos. Some of these elements are still in place, and workshops seem to be on the rise, which indicates that digital cameras really are not as simple as their manufacturers want the public to believe. But outside the US, in countries with large illiterate populations, photography was restricted to a small middle and upper class, often people who had no intention in the world of sharing their knowledge. As these countries developed a larger and more prosperous middle class, however, the Kodak offices in some of these countries did absolutely nothing to capture that market with workshops, knowledgeable staff in Kodak stores, or books in the countries’ language(s). Kodak Colombiana is a case in point–unwilling to offer workshops, hire knowledgeable staff in their stores or sponsor any kind of photographic competitions or expositions. As a result, when mobile phones with cameras came on the market, local labs quickly invested in equipment that allowed the downloading of images and their printing for a very low price to anyone with a mobile phone or digital camera. They are doing very well. Kodak is not. In fact, Kodak Colombiana pursued the very tiny professional market with such zeal that it lost track of the entire idea of photography for non-professionals. Multiply this attitude by thousands and Kodak’s overseas returns diminished almost over night.

In the US, there has been a dumbing down of the US population that should cause the country deep embarrassment. Flashy advertising and a lot of “not-exactly-the-truth” advertising, along with super-simple cameras at low prices have convinced previously intelligent adults that they, too, are professionals because they can max out their credit cards on zillion-mega-pixel cameras with powerful zooms and then sell the images on Flickr. (Truth:  Flickr forbids sales on its site.) Pro photographers are caught in a bind–competing with people who happened to be someplace and are willing to sell their rights for less than S$100, which pros can not afford to do.

And simultaneously with this situation, Kodak’s shareholders (invariably large pension funds and hedge funds, not individuals) demand bigger and bigger returns, and at a faster pace than even a few years ago. These shareholders have no interest in the markets the corporation serves, either in the US or in foreign countries. They just want their money. My question is–do these shareholders re-invest in the company? Are they able to think into the future? Or maybe the future frightens them–a future with no Kodak because everything’s recorded digitally and backed up on “clouds” (computer bunkers) and used without permission, causing major long-term lawsuits over copyright. I find that kind of future extremely depressing. Holding a photograph, putting it in a frame or an album to show in the future, even printing in a darkroom, all keep people in touch with their own lives and realities. But it seems that, today, everyone has put money and economics far ahead of any other consideration. (There is a certain hypocrisy here, too, I suspect. Many CEOs of pension funds and hedge funds are big art collectors and photography is an art that is collected. It is hypocritical to donate a lot of money to a museum that wants to expand its photography collection, while screwing over the company that made the photos possible. And yet, from a business point of view, it makes sense. Without Kodak and its products, the existing photos rise in value, which is good news for the  executives who collect photographs.) (How’s that for a paranoid vision of the future?)

In sum, I am less inclined to blame Kodak for its downfall. I look at what’s happening with Ilford and even Agfa and Fuji, in terms of reducing production but keeping the products available. I hope that Kodak can do something similar. I have a Kodak digital camera and am charmed by its images. I like to play with them with Adobe Photoshop Elements 9. Sometimes I make prints, although my current problems with Epson’s lack of paper distribution tends to kill my enthusiasm for going digital completely. But my photos taken with Pentax or Mamiya, with film and printed either by a lab (color) or by me (black and white) ignite an emotional response I still do not feel from digital. If Kodak did anything wrong, it was putting economics ahead of its customers or even common sense.

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