Kodak: the Apple of the Apple State

I got started with photography using a Nikon 35mm slr that I bought used at a camera shop in Wyoming. I learned to develop and print in the Center for the Arts in Jackson, WY, after hours, thanks to a good friend who also happened to manage the darkroom. We'd listen to Manu Chao and print until the early morning. It was just a hobby then, and I had no idea I'd be a full-time photographer some years later. My point is, film has always been important to me. If my clients have the budget and patience for it, I always suggest shooting on film. I'm not into retro anything and I'm not on some high horse (or hipster schooner), I just like how it looks. I like how it acts with light.

I use a lot of different brands and types of film, but the two in top rotation are Kodak Tri-X for black and white, and Kodak Portra 400 for color. I love them. So while I was in Rochester, New York, over Christmas, a visit to Kodak founder Mr Eastman's house was definitely in order.

George Eastman House. photo: Ian Tuttle

Back home in San Francisco, there are a lot of headquarters for companies that are global juggernauts... Facebook, Apple, Google, Twitter, Uber, etc. These companies offer products and services that shape the day-to-day lives of billions of people around the world. While touring the Eastman House and learning about Kodak's founder, I kept thinking about Steve Jobs and Apple. With its iconic branding, coveted products, and streamlining of difficult technology for everyone's enjoyment, Apple strikes me as a modern-day equivalent to Kodak. Much ado has been made about Steve Jobs (ie 1, 2, 3), and I have no basis to compare his character to that of Mr Eastman's, since I never knew either man, but there are some interesting similarities between the two companies.

A portrait of George Eastman in the George Eastman Museum. photo: Ian Tuttle

Eastman thought about photographs and cameras the way Steve Jobs thought about music and computers. When Eastman started, photography was arcane and difficult. There were fragile glass plates involved, and toxic chemicals, and pitch black darkrooms. It was 1880. People didn't want to deal with that crap. Eastman began his company by selling prepared dry plates (what the hell are those, right?) but knew he needed to simplify this obscure, technical, complicated medium in order to bring it to the masses. By 1888 he'd figured out a new way of doing things, and the slogan for that first Kodak camera was, "you push the button, we do the rest." You'd buy a Kodak camera with film already loaded, shoot your pictures, then mail it in. Your film was developed, printed, and your camera returned to you loaded with fresh film. So easy! Kodak invented roll film, then film that could be loaded and unloaded without a darkroom, then motion picture film, then Super 8 for making your own movies at home, (they even developed a top-secret hand grenade for the nascent CIA during World War II). All of these inventions simplified difficult processes for the masses (even the grenade! It was modeled after a baseball to give young American soldiers a familiar throwing experience).

Kodak's hand grenade... the top secret T13 Beano. Image courtesy CIA.

A century later, in 1984, the Macintosh computer debuted without a programmable language, meaning, you didn't really get under the hood of it... you just plugged it in, and all that arcane code showed up as a clean, familiar, visual "desktop." So easy! It was the result of Jobs' desire to simplify the messy personal computing process.

The original Macintosh, circa 1/24/1984. Image credit: "Macintosh 128k transparency" by w:User:Grm wnr - Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

The original Macintosh, circa 1/24/1984. Image credit: "Macintosh 128k transparency" by w:User:Grm wnr - Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.

Another big similarity between the two is their mad genius for branding. KODAK is a made-up word. Mr Eastman intuited that a strong brand could bring huge success to his young company, and in 1888 he created the iconic name while playing anagrams with his mom. He wanted a name that would be easy to pronounce in many languages, that would sound enduring, and not resemble anything else. Eastman is quoted as saying K "seems a strong, incisive sort of letter," a "letter that stands on its own two legs." The Kodak logo was the first ever corporate logo that integrated it's name with an immediately recognizable symbol, and the colors yellow and red became a constant. In 1996 the Kodak brand was considered the 5th most valuable brand in the world.

Kodak logo circa 1987, from Kodak.com

Kodak logo circa 1987, from Kodak.com

"Apple Computer Logo rainbow" by Rob Janoff, circa 1987

Look at those logos! Even right now, today, in 2016, both of these decades-old logos resonate!

Jobs also understood the power of brand. He told his designer, Rob Janoff, to make something "not too cute" that would be simple and bold. The 1984 launch of the Macintosh was announced with a now famous $1.5 Million Ridley Scott-directed television ad during the superbowl. The Apple brand, today, is widely considered to be one of the top five most valuable brands in the world (the most valuable brand, depending on who you ask). Both Kodak's and Apple's products were revolutionary. Their branding and advertising were similarly so.

And now, Eastman and Jobs are both gone. Eastman's health started failing around 1930, and he grew increasingly infirm. He couldn't work anymore, and had trouble walking, and in 1932 he shot himself in the heart. He left a suicide note that said: "To my friends, my work is done -- Why wait? GE."

Kodak thrived for many decades after Eastman's death, rolling out new products to eager customers. New film stocks (ektachrome, kodachrome, tri-x...). Movie cameras. Slide projectors. Super 8. 110mm film cartridges. These things sound quaint now, but they were huge when they hit the market. From 1972 to 1975, 25,000,000 instamatic pocket cameras were produced. In 1976 Kodak sold 90% of all film in the U.S. In 1981 Kodak surpassed $10 Billion in sales (worth about $26 Billion in today's dollars).

On tour in the Eastman House. Photo: Ian Tuttle

Apple's annual sales are a clean order of magnitude greater... currently around $234 Billion (source), but that steady stream of covetable, never-before-seen new products is the same. Apple releases the Macintosh, the iMac, the iPod, the iThis and the iThat (yes, I know, here we are on the iTuttle website...ha ha. But I can't help my name, and iantuttle.com was taken, by another photographer no less!!), and people around the world can't wait to get their hands on them.

While making this comparison during the Eastman House tour, I kept imagining Silicon Valley in 75 years. I'll probably be dead (though, that's debatable). But Sillicon Valley might be dead, too. All these products and services that are integral to our lives now will be replaced by things we can't even fathom right now.

Kodak dominated image-making for over a century. The very first digital camera was invented at Kodak in 1975. (The company famously failed to act on this invention until too late, to the great delight of Harvard Business Review authors and strategy wonks everywhere). Many factors conspired to crush Kodak; it wasn't just digital photography (as evidence, many old-school photo companies survived the digital transition, including Leica, Ilford, Nikon, and, perhaps most notably, Fuji). And while it's hard to imagine Apple ever disappearing (I'm typing this on a Mac, and my iPhone just rang with a text in my pocket), it will. Already, the seamless operation is showing some cracks. I stopped using iTunes a few generations ago because (a) it got too complicated, and (b) Spotify works better and streaming music is a better value. I'm not going to get into a tech debate here, my point is that change comes whether you like it or not. Kodak employed 145,000 people at one time. Apple currently employs 115,000. Back in the 1980s and '90s, nobody thought Kodak would go down. It was listed on the Dow Jones Industrial Average for over 70 years! But... down it went.

Rochester New York is still a vibrant city, with universities, its own orchestra, an Alec Baldwin approved supermarket chain, and plenty of gorgeous mansions, but it's also a little hollowed out. Kodak is gone, in a real sense. Sure, the company exists and still produces terrific photographic film (I AM A FAN!), and movie film [QUENTIN TARANTINO IS A FAN (Hateful 8!), as is JJ Abrams (the new Star Wars!), Vincent Gallo (Buffalo 66!), Todd Haynes (Carol!), David O Russell (Three Kings!) and on and on]. Kodak also makes money by auctioning off its patent portfolio, licensing its still-beloved brand name, and even came out with it's own Smartphone a few months ago (how great is that for the purposes of this article?! It's full circle!). But you don't level 80 buildings in your corporate campus if things are going gangbusters. (I guess for Apple it'll be easier... their entire corporate campus will be in just a single building).

Kodak's new phone, circa 2015. I'm not making this up.

Kodak's new phone, circa 2015. I'm not making this up.

Apple's new phone, circa 2015.

Apple's new phone, circa 2015.

Anyway, I enjoyed the museum. I would have loved to have met George Eastman. By all accounts, he was a very generous, kind, energetic, and brilliant man. He was extremely charitable, believing that it was the duty of wealthy people to give back their money in the form of public good -- schools, research, endowments for the arts, etc. By all accounts, Mr Jobs was maybe not a delight to be around, though as far as charity goes it's likely he was also extremely generous, just anonymously so.

Downtown Rochester's now defunct subway system. Photo: Ian Tuttle

If you find yourself in Rochester, visit the George Eastman Museum. It is beautiful, and it is thriving. One of my favorite photographers, Brian Ulrich, was showing in the gallery. An exhibit showing the evolution of Kodak cameras shows you how a singular company brought photography to the masses, allowing us to record our everyday moments and special occasions, and ultimately paved the way for the tiny digital cameras on all of our phones. Concerts are performed there, and the photographic archive is one of the greatest in the entire world. It's a remarkable legacy that he and his company have left. And through it all, I still find myself wondering how Silicon Valley might look in 75 years, after the Next Big Thing hollows out another core. Until then, I'll just keep shooting. ...on Kodak film, as long as it's available.