The news last month that Kodak has filed for bankruptcy protection had a lot of people talking. Kodak isn’t just another very big company going broke; it is an icon that for years defined photography, which in turn has helped define our very culture.
Photography can be high art, such as the much-loved black and white landscapes of Ansel Adams, we know what the great leaders and thinkers of the past century look like thanks to brilliant portrait photographers such as Yousuf Karsh. Journalist photographers have made news events real to us for almost a hundred years. Kodak made the equipment and film that enabled all this but more importantly, they made photography available to everyone.
The founder of the Kodak Company, George Eastman, was an inventor and entrepreneur on the same level as Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell. Many think he invented photography, though he didn’t.
He is widely credited with inventing roll film, the ability to put several images on one piece of celluloid. Other sources say it was invented by a farmer who lived in Dakota (which inspired the name Kodak) who then sold the patent to Eastman but whatever; it was Eastman who put the invention to work. Roll film enabled the motion picture industry, which is momentous enough on its own, but it also enabled the snap shot; ordinary people capturing moments of everyday life, which may be even more important.
Eastman was a brilliant marketer. He had the rights to produce roll film which could be very profitable only if it was manufactured in mass quantities. To do that he used what is called the Razors and Blades model; make one item (razors) available cheaply so people will purchase the complimentary item (blades) which has a much higher profit margin. If you’ve ever purchased an ink jet printer or a cell phone, you’ve experienced razors and blades first hand.
Eastman introduced the Brownie camera on February 8, 1900 as his razor. It sold for $1 and was a roaring success.
The Brownie was created by Kodak designer Frank Brownell but the camera wasn’t named after him; it was named after characters created by Canadian author and illustrator Palmer Cox. His verse and entertaining drawings had been highly popular with children throughout the 1890's. Eastman adopted the name and used the characters in advertising to emphasize the simplicity of his camera. Kodak later used Disney characters and children were featured in almost all advertising for the Brownie.
The Brownie became synonymous with popular photography; it was no longer just for professionals, now anyone could take good pictures and pretty well everyone did.
The Brownie is also a collectors dream. It’s historically significant; it so it’s worth collecting. Brownies sold in the millions, making it easy to start a collection, you can easily find nice, early examples of Brownie cameras for under $5. They look good just displayed on a shelf but most of them still work and many people love taking pictures with them. When you are ready to expand your collection, there are plenty of rare and exotic Brownies to keep you engaged in the hunt.
The first Brownies were basically a cardboard box with a lens and a means of loading Kodak film (natch). The very first prototype models opened at the back with a push-on lid but Eastman dictated that his cameras had to be reliable; the lid let in unwanted light so all production Brownies used a hinged back with a metal latch to keep it closed tight. The lidded box ones are very rare; they were only distributed in Europe.
Gradually, the plain box was augmented with fancy faceplates and better lenses. Variations on those designs are what make collectors salivate. Some of them can be quite intriguing and very hard to find as they were often limited to very small runs.
For instance the Beau Brownie camera was available from 1930 to 1933. It had a beautiful front plate designed by noted designer Walter Dorwin Teague, who also designed iconic porcelain-clad Texaco gas stations as well as the interiors of all Boeing aircraft starting with the Stratocruisers.
Kodak introduced a folding Brownie, with a bellows, in 1904. In 1905 they produced a stereo folding Brownie with two lenses. Even fancier fold-out models came along in 1915. The 1930s models were the most attractive of the box type; they came in several colours and had beautiful art deco faceplates.
The next big change came in 1934 with the Baby Brownie, a smaller Bakelite camera that sold for the original Brownie price of $1. The most collectable of these were made specifically for the New York World’s Fair in 1939.
Brownie box cameras continued in production up to 1949 when Kodak introduced the Brownie Hawkeye; a sleeker, Bakelite camera that came with an optional flash.
Many variations followed, all in plastic, some with built-in flash, some very plain, but they all stuck to the basic Brownie principles; they were cheap, reliable and easy to use so anyone could take good pictures and gobble up lots of Kodak film.
The Brownie name was also applied to movie cameras and projectors, giving collectors a whole new area to explore.
By the 1960s Kodak was one of the largest and most profitable companies in the world. They were so dominant in the film industry that most of their competitors simply contracted Kodak to make film for their cameras. That dominance bred arrogance in the executive office which became their undoing.
It seems inevitable that leaders of very large corporations, just like captains of very large cruise ships, begin to think they are invincible. They ignore the warning signs and leave themselves open to disaster.
Despite their dominance, Kodak always kept innovating. They invented Kodachrome colour film, the Instamatic camera and, in 1975 an engineer at Kodak Labs invented the first digital camera based on the charge-coupled device (CCD) that had been invented at Bell Labs just a few years earlier. Unfortunately those in charge saw the new technology as a threat to their very profitable film business so they didn’t pursue it, thinking film would last forever.
By the time they got into the digital business in 1990 it was already too late. As usual, they made a great product that was easy to use. It was a top seller but by then overseas competitors were making millions of cameras very cheaply so Kodak was forced to sell their cameras at a loss in order to compete. Soon they were bleeding badly.
Now, under U.S. Chapter 11 bankruptcy, they have to come up with a restructuring plan by February 15, only four days from now, or they will be dissolved. Most people think the company will survive in some form or another but nobody knows for sure just what that form will be.
Let’s hope they get it together; a lot of jobs depend on it and a lot of vintage camera lovers want to keep getting film so they can relive the golden era of photography for a little while longer.