The news of Kodak’s impending bankruptcy has stirred up thoughts of my own photographic journey. The first camera I used was my family’s Kodak Instamatic 100. It took 126 cartridges and produced square images that look a lot like Instagram images.
When we visited the national parks in the late 70s, the Instamatic pretty much became my camera. By 5th grade, I was shooting with a Vivitar camera that took 110 cartridges. I did not like the image quality that camera produced with its small little negatives and moved back to using the Instamatic after a while.
I found an old Kodak Brownie deep in my dad’s closet somewhere around 6th grade and was surprised to find out it had some film in it. I believe we had the model F. I used the rest of the film and developed it and got some awesome old family photos from the earlier shots. It was probably my dad’s camera from his childhood. The images on the camera were about eight years old.
I did not own an SLR until high school at Stuyvesant, when I purchased the Pentax K-1000. I shot pretty much exclusively Kodak film, using Tri-X black and white for every day use and Kodachrome slide film on vacation. I tried to get into Fuji Velvia but never could quite do it. I still have boxes and boxes of Kodak carousels filled with photos. And yes, I own a slide projector.
My junior year I became photo editor of my high school newspaper, the Spectator. That gave me the needed excuse to carry a camera every day to school. I also had a darkroom at home and spent many, many hours developing and printing images. Finally senior year I upgraded to a Nikon FG. It was 1985.
I took the ferry every day from Staten Island to Manhattan. The commute was about two hours each way. That provided me with ample photographic opportunities. I was never comfortable taking photos of strangers (street photography), so most of my photos outside of friends were of landscapes.
At Dartmouth I got a part time job shooting sorority formals. My main take-away from that experience is that photos of sorority sisters together without their dates sold a lot better than those with the dates in them.
When I went to Stanford for graduate school in 1989, I took fewer photos initially. But then Kodak started returning CDs of scanned images from film, allowing me to create a website. One of the first every digital photos of me was this one, taken with a Kodak digital camera that Jerry Yang had.
Once I sold my first company in 2000, I bought the camera system of my dreams including a film-based EOS 1v and a bunch of really big Canon lenses. But by then, digital was mainstream and I spent most of my time shooting with a Canon D30 that I bought around the same time. By 2002 I sold my Canon 1v, having probably shot less than 500 photos with it.
In graduate school Mark Heinrich and I used to maintain our own websites of photos so it seemed natural to us that everyone else would want to too. I also worried about losing my digital photos. Hence, Phanfare was born, a combination of archive and presentation system. We started working on Phanfare in early 2003, before facebook was born.
Phanfare reflected my relationship with photography. I had always taken images for myself and to share with a small group of friends and family. I had never considered photography to be art. I think the art comes in the story telling, editing, and compilation of images. Sure a few news photos are incredibly emotional, but still it feels that the photographer witnessed the moment; he did not create it.
I pretty much knew Kodak was going to zero in 2000. I shorted the stock that year, but eventually removed the short because I was afraid they might have some short term success (they didn’t).
As I look back, I ask what Kodak could have done differently. The obvious answer is that they could have become facebook, which is the largest photosharing site in the world. But we all know that was never going to happen. It was not in Kodak’s DNA. Kodak was always about the photos and the photographic technology, not about the people. And Facebook is about the people. The photos are just collateral to help those people tell stories to each other.
Maybe Kodak could have become Canon. Kodak invented the digital camera. Had they plowed all their energy into learning how to do beautiful industrial design, I think that was fully possible. Of course, Canon might have its own troubles in the future with smartphones taking over in the point and shoot space. But they are much healthier today than Kodak.
I just got back from a big trip tot the Galapagos Islands. After slogging it out eight years with Phanfare, trying to create a sustainable service that is both high quality and customer centric, there are days when I don’t really feel like taking photos at all. I took the big camera to the Galapagos because it seemed like too much of an opportunity to not take it. But I also took a little Canon S95 and was perfectly content to shoot with it much of the time.
Of the 1284 photos and videos we took last week, this was probably one of my favorites. My son is developing the photography bug. Happy new year to all.