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Kodak: The end of an American Moment

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Mohammed Ali at his best (©Don Morley)

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.

Photo sessions

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.

Randy Mamola reckons Don is No.1 (©Don Morley)
Randy Mamola reckons Don is No.1. Kodak Kodachrome (©Don Morley)

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.

Harold Wilson, British prime minister from James Harold Wilson from 1964 to 1970 and 1974 to 1976 (©Don Morley)
Harold Wilson, British prime minister from from 1964 to 1970 and 1974 to 1976. Kodak Tri-X (©Don Morley)

“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.

Wayne Gardner leads Eddie Lawson and the pack in the 1987 French Grand Prix (©Don Morley)
Wayne Gardner leads Eddie Lawson and the pack in the 1987 French Grand Prix. Kodachrome (©Don Morley)

“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.

Thomas Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990), English journalist and satirist (©Don Morley)
Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990), English journalist and satirist. Tri-X (©Don Morley)

Short-lived ideal

“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.

Scottish Six Days' Trial (©Don Morley)
Scottish Six Days’ Trial. Kodachrome (©Don Morley)

“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…

Dear Don…

“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.

Mohammed Ali at his best (©Don Morley)
Mohammed Ali at his best, as was Kodak once upon a time. Tri-X (©Don Morley)

“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.


Read more about Don Morley on Macfilos

Linked article: Kodak: The End of an American Moment – TheStreet


  1. 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.

8 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you, Don, for your history lesson and a chapter from your auto-biography down ‘Memory Lane’. (Metaphorically speaking). I also appreciated your photographic illustrations. Superb!
    So you are still scanning film. I bet you are rediscovering forgotten gems every day.

    • Hello David,

      Yes I am glad to say I am still scanning and sending picture requests out on more or less a weekly basis which pleases me to think at least some of my shots still get remembered, called for, and used again something like thirty five years after I retired and stopped taking Pro pictures.

      The requests can be quite funny though on occasions with me not having or wanting a web site some book or magazine publishers can find me hard to find often resulting in letters, emails or sometimes even phone calls asking ‘Did you used to be Don Morley?’ Bit naughty perhaps but I cant resist replying with something like -yes I think so.!
      Best regards, and stay well. Don

  2. Beautiful piece of history.
    Kodak lived from films and as I read in Street they couldn’t hold the payment to Polaroid.
    “They realized they’ve been making the same crap for 119 years at the same site,” is mentioned.
    Later they went for Safari holidays.
    Leica was near to close in the times of The M8, with a Kodak sensor. They bet for tradition and they could go on recreating M models…, making the same crap in the same site. Amazing.
    Kodak had not that chance because film sells was dramatically dropping, and wasn’t able to find a place in the market.
    A long moment of a great brand. Beautiful article.

  3. Thanks for this amazing article which brings fond memories when I was using kodachrome in the late seventies when I started photography. It was an amazing positive film that neither Fujichrome or Ektachrome emulated. For black and white my loyalty was to the Ilford FP4 or Pan F films, papers and chemistry . The Pan F was magic in the darkroom. Although digital imaging makes things easier I often miss the magic of the darkroom and the magic of films.

  4. Kodak, where do I begin? As an amateur waiting for the yellow box to come in the door and then the wonderful colour of Kodachrome slides in that box. Nothing in digital photography even remotely compares to this. Then there is the whole story of George Eastman who took a nascent technology and made it into an industrial success and at the same time gave large numbers of people who were not in the business of photography an opportunity to become photographers themselves. Then there were the wonderful products such as the Brownie and the Vest Pocket Kodak. Not everything that Kodak touched turned to gold. There was the ‘autographic film’ which could have details written (scratched actually) between the frames using a stylus attached to the camera. Kodak paid the almighty sum of $300,000 just before WWI for the license for this process, but it never really took off.

    Not a lot of people may know that there are some Kodak cameras with Leitz (not strictly Leica lenses) Elmar lenses in Compur mounts. In the 1930s Kodak took over the German Nagel Camera firm which used some Leitz lenses in Compur mounts. I have a Nagel Vollenda camera with a Leitz Elmar Compur lens on its way to me as I write this. In those years the Compur (and some other similar designs) were the ‘L mounts’ of their day and could take lenses from the major German manufacturers such as Zeiss, Schneider, Meyer Gorling and Leitz. When Kodak took over the company it used its own Kodak ‘Compur’ mount with existing supplies of lenses, which included some Leitz Elmars. I drew this to Jim Lager’s (the man who has written the standard texts on all things Leica) attention some months ago and he told me that he had never seen this before, but accepted that this could have happened- there is a photo on the internet of a Kodak with a Leitz lens. Kodak manufactured in Germany even after WWII and its output included the high quality Retina models which were light years away from the cheap Brownies and Instamatics.

    The path to Kodak’s demise started long before the ‘digital turn’ and one the keys was the ‘M’ word, monopoly. Kodak earned ‘super normal’ profit margins which would no doubt have attracted others to enter the market or look to make substitutes.Then there were several failed attempts, like the disk cameras, attempting to compete with Polaroid and failing in court and going into printers etc, etc. Then digital was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Kodak had been established in the 1880s to produce dry plates and then it came up with a wonderful new creation called roll film. It became too large and too much of an institution and not agile enough when the market shifted 15 to 20 years ago. I still buy various types of Kodak film. A friend in the Leica Society who is a former Kodak employee keeps encouraging me to buy more Portra 160 film as it contributes to his pension fund.

    Don, your article is wonderful and who can forget that Randy Mamola shot which was considered scandalous in its day? You touch on several factors which led to Kodak’s demise. The idea of you flying to Paris to pick up your processing and then the termination of your account all point to a company that got too big for its boots. Hopefully, there will not be many ‘Kodak moments’ in the camera industry in the years to come. I will continue to buy Kodak film as it is good and because of my friend’s pension.

    William

  5. Just one thing to add to my long post above. I have just finished shooting a roll of 116 Kodak Pan Verichrome film that is 65 years old. I had to make allowances for loss of sensitivity during that time. The camera I used was even older at 92 years old. Results may appear here in due course.

    William

  6. Thank you for the great insight and events with Kodak. My memories come from the retail side. Kodak was such a dominant brand, film, processing chemicals, books, instamatic type cameras, anything with the Kodak name would sell because they made a good product. Unfortunately, their customer service and support (we rarely saw a rep) were as poor as their products were good. If I had to sum up Kodak with one word it would be “arrogant”, because they could be. Ultimately they paid the price, and it is sad to see a once great company with many good (outstanding) people pay the price. To see the contrast in companies we see Fujifilm that is thriving today in a difficult environment for the photography business.

  7. Kodak could be hard to work with. I used Eastman organic chemicals (a Kodak division) in my Lab at Johns Hopkins Hospital back in the 1960s. I remember phoning to place an order. I had the empty bottle and the new catalogue in my hand and was told this was not an Eastman product. I do not give up so phoned back and was able to order the chemical, but was asked where our railway siding was.
    For a hospital. When I said I only wanted 100 grams It was sent out free because it would cost too much to write an invoice. Bullets and feet spring to mind. I still use Tri X (or TLI X on a roll I bought from a Japanese traveller). The Kodachrome A shots I made in New Guinea in 1959 with a 1937 Retina are still colourful.
    Cheers
    Philip

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