A Century on Film: How Kodak Succumbed to the Digital Age

By Ullrich Fichtner

Part 3: The Golden Age

The success stories of the 21st century are more fleeting, modest, less spectacular and less heroic than those associated with Kodak. Indeed, at the very end, the company proved to be a rather crazy organization whose corporate culture in the glory days seemed almost socialist. Robert Shanebrook recalls how Kodak was an "all-inclusive" business: It paid its former employees pensions, it offered free medical treatment and it even helped organize leisure-time activities for its employees.

The Dodge minivan rolls past the front of Building 28 on West Ridge Road. Inside the immense, windowless brick structure are gyms and sporting halls in which employees used to play basketball and volleyball. In the golden age, it also had hobby rooms for stamp collectors, cameras were lent out free of charge, and 50 darkrooms were reserved for workers to use for their own purposes. During lunchbreaks, 20-minute segments of Hollywood movies were shown in the almost 2,000-seat auditorium; over the course of a week, employees could see the entire film.

The city used to boast a free dental clinic funded by Kodak-founder George Eastman. Today, it is dilapidated and has its windows boarded up. But the Eastman Theater and the Eastman School of Music are still there and in good condition, as is Eastman's former house on the chic East Avenue, home to the city's most beautiful and bizarre villas.

The living room boasts a life-size cast of an elephant head that Eastman brought back from Africa as a trophy. But the house contains one of the world's most important photography and film museums, including the private film collections of Martin Scorsese, Norman Jewison and Spike Lee. More than 4,000 historic cameras are also stored there, as are priceless photographs from the American Civil War, as are prints developed personally by Eugène Atget and Alfred Stieglitz, photos that link the 19th to the 21st century and are so valuable because they are so rare.

The most remarkable document is the farewell letter that Eastman, then old and sick, penned in 1932 before shooting himself in the heart with a Luger pistol. The note, which is displayed in a glass case, is only three lines long, and could be read like words of comfort for the doomed Kodak of today: "To my friends. My work is done. Why wait?"

A Circuitous Route Back in Time

So what is Kodak waiting for? If it's going to survive, it will need a miracle. As part of its bankruptcy proceedings, the company has been given another $950 million in loans from Citigroup to try to get its finances in order within the next 18 months. Management hopes Kodak can become successful again with printers, but that doesn't seem all that convincing because Kodak has always been about pictures. No matter how wonderful they've been, all stories have to end. And perhaps that's also sometimes the case with companies, as well.

Indeed, the story of Kodak pictures has already ended, and a new story is beginning. But this new story is one told by the torrent of digital snapshots flooding the Web by the billions. Likewise, little is "immortalized" anymore. Despite the wealth of images, fewer and fewer pictures are being printed. In a way, the world is taking an unusual path back to the very beginnings of photography.

In general, people who are in their 90s today have, at best, only a few photographs of their own childhood. Thanks to Kodacolor, today's 60-year-olds have a somewhat larger picture archive. Forty-year-olds already have a photographic record of at least the key moments in their lives, often captured on Ektachrome slides by their parents. However, the children born in the 21st century have been photographed so often that their lives could be charted almost in their entirety by a biographical flip-book of these snapshots -- that is, if the pictures were ever printed.

Strangely enough, despite the flood of digital pictures, moments are becoming fleeting again. "I'm always telling people that they should make paper prints," Shanebrook says. "Otherwise, in 10 years, they won't have any pictures anymore." Shanebrook may have a point. The snapshots we send out today by email are easily lost, and our virtual folders of digital images are constantly threatened both as we move from one computer to the next and by the technological advances racing along at an ever-faster pace.

Perhaps the future will have less need for quality printed photos. And perhaps people will be satisfied with recording their world and their lives with shots taking spontaneously and more or less on the fly.

If so, it might just be that the 20th century will be the best-documented era ever, archived in countless photo albums and slide boxes as well as on movie films, postcards and artfully printed posters. It will be a century that has been captured, a century immortalized.

And, of course, we'll owe it all to Kodak.

Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt

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