Kodak, as we all know, was a giant in the world of photography, both in its own-brand cameras but also, of course, in film production. These days we agonise over this sensor versus that sensor. Yet in the days of film there was just as much discussion about the relative merits of various grades of film. And everyone had a favourite brand.
A recent article in The Street set me thinking about Kodak and the place it used to occupy in both amateur and professional photography. The article takes a look at the final chapter of Kodak as we knew it and recounts what the author describes as “the end of an American moment”. Recommended reading if you are a film buff.
In my recollections from my early journalism days, when all our images were in black and white, was that Kodak and Ilford reigned supreme in the bags of professional photographers. I’ve always kept this association in my mind.
I tended to have a foot in both camps in my early B&W photography days. For lower sensitivity, I favoured Ilford’s FP4, rated at 125 ISO, while Kodak held my heart for “high sensitivity work” with its 400 ISO Tri-X. I can offer no explanation for this. I think I picked up the habit from spending long days out on motorcycle road-test photo sessions with our band of staff photographers — among whom at this time in the early 1960s was Don Morley who had started his renowned career as a news and sports photographer even earlier, in the ‘fifties.
Even though I now do very little film photography (which is a pity because I have quite a few cameras to exercise), I’ve always been a bit nostalgic about Kodak’s film. And, in common with many in my generation, I was brought up with the Kodak Box Brownie as my first camera.
Don Morley read the same article and tells me this story of Kodak’s demise touched a raw nerve. In his professional days he had been a major consumer of Kodak materials and recalls how Kodak UK, based in Hemel Hempstead, was a company loved by professional photographers.
The Kodak saga
Don recounts how he became deputy and, later, chief photographer at the massive United Newspapers during the 1960s and formed a strong bond with Kodak. I’ll let Don continue in his own words:
“Every week in the later 1960s and early 1970s, the Kodak reps would do the rounds of Fleet Street, the home of British newspaper publishing. They were happy to take orders, of course, but they were all very highly qualified people, most of them with relevant degrees such as in chemistry. They came visiting as real experts.
“Hence, if we ever had a processing problem or a bad batch of paper or we were not happy about film quality or whatever, they would take our concerns back to the factory and replace whatever was faulty. They also became very valued friends, a bit like the bank manager in your cupboard who we always looked forward to seeing.
Kodak through and through
“Moving on to 1975 when Tony Duffy and I formed our All-Sports Photo Agency, we used Kodak materials exclusively, no doubt influenced by the high degree of personal service and friendship we had experienced from these representatives over the years. We even installed our own Kodak colour processing machinery, and were visited by Kodak representatives on a very frequent basis.
“By the later 1970s, we employed some thirteen full-time staff of photographers and darkroom personnel who were using up to £50,000-worth of Kodak film and products every year. Kodachrome was our main film requirement, however, and Kodak would not let us process it. The only people who could process our Kodachrome was Kodak themselves, simply because they would not release the processing chemicals or process machinery patents.
“This made life very difficult, but we were so sold on the film being the best for our purposes that we bought a motorcycle and employed a full-time despatch rider to take our exposed Kodachromes up to Hemel Hempstead every day and fetch them back the next. This situation eased a little when Kodak later acquired Agfa. Agfa had a factory and film-processing plant quite near to us at Deer Park Road in South Wimbledon. And, wonderfully for us, Kodak soon converted the old Agfa factory into the new European Kodachrome processing plant.
“Sadly that near-ideal situation was quite short lived and Kodak moved everything to a new site near Heathrow Airport. That led to a sort of two-pronged way of getting the films developed, first by continuing to use our motorcycle courier, second by taking advantage of our own frequent use of Heathrow. Tony and I were in and out of the country every week and, no matter how tired we were after a long flight, we would go straight to the Kodak factory and drop off our films into a dedicated night safe before driving home.
“Again, unfortunately, this factory didn’t last and the reps’ visits were becoming increasingly infrequent. Eventually, our much loved and respected rep told us that he and all of his colleagues were being laid off. The Kodachrome processing plant (and, as far as I can recall, whatever was left of the Hemel Hempstead unit) was being moved to France. For us, with deadlines to meet, this was just terrible news. Even if we put the films directly onto a plane ourselves, it still meant a seven-day turnaround.1
“Around this time, I pulled out of All-Sport but continued using Kodachrome, often taking it to Paris to be developed myself. By then I was still having to shoot black and white as well, so had a darkroom assistant plus another photographer working for me. We continued to use Kodak films, papers and chemicals. But, with no friendly Kodak representatives, we had to order by phone or letter. There was no internet or email in those days. Our orders were still very substantial, running to perhaps as much as £30,000-worth a year. Over the years Kodak did very well out of Don Morley and his works…
“The awful crunch came in the early 1980s when I received a glowing letter from someone within Kodak’s management, thanking me for being such a good customer over so many years.
“The letter was full of praise until I got to the last paragraph. To paraphrase, Kodak was doing me a big favour by closing my account. In future it would be much easier to buy my films and materials at discount shops. I just cannot tell you how hurt I was, not just for myself but also for the great Kodak company I had known.
“Worse, in a way, film was then still king. And Kodachrome was still best. As much as I would have loved to tell Mr Kodak to put his cassettes where the sun don’t shine, I kept on using Kodachrome and taking it to France for processing. This was despite Fuji begging for customers at the time and, no doubt, offering a better service.
Kodachrome after 60 years
“I never regretted the decision to stay with Kodak despite the provocation. Kodachrome is a triple-layer die transfer film which does not use silver halide and so is grainless, unlike Fuji or Ektachrome. And, quite apart from that, the colours of my sixty-year old Kodachromes have remained stable whereas the old Ektachromes have not.
“I am scanning and still selling my old Kodachrome images almost every day. In the same way, I loved Kodak Plus-X and Tri-X, and I have never wavered from my conviction that Kodak is the best.
“That said, the Kodak management of the late 1970s and early 80s was guilty of persuading this once fantastic company to commit suicide.”
In a way, Don’s experience offers a snapshot of the gradual decline of the once-mighty Kodak empire. Kodak film may still be with us, but the great Kodak enterprise, with its peerless support for amateurs and professionals alike, died a long time ago.
Linked article: Kodak: The End of an American Moment – TheStreet
- In Europe, only Kodak could process Kodachrome which came process-paid with a return envelope. But in America, the anti-monopoly laws forbade this, so the film sold was not process paid. The buyers took it to the local photography shop and paid them to have it processed. The shop then, of course, sent them to Kodak anyway, but a few of the big publishers such as Life and Sports Illustrated did deals with Kodak and so, at very great expense, were allowed to set up in-house Kodachrome process plants. Since I often worked in the USA for such publishers I was able to get them to develop my films. ↩