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02/23/2012
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A Century on Film

How Kodak Succumbed to the Digital Age

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The most important moments of the 20th century were captured on Kodak film. But the once-dominant American company could not compete in the digital age. Eastman Kodak's bankruptcy has left the company's remaining employees with uncertain futures.

Robert Shanebrook pulls his Dodge minivan up to an immense building in snow-covered Kodak Park, in Rochester, New York, and says: "These days they make spaghetti sauce here." He takes pains to sound morose, as if he wanted his words to bridge the entire period since the day, more than 40 years ago, when he first came to Kodak as a young engineer. Back then, the company was building the camera that would capture the images of the Apollo 11 mission, which delivered perhaps one of the greatest "Kodak Moments" of all time, or pictures of the first men on the moon and of our planet seen from space.

Shanebrook, a tall, gray-haired man with a scraggly beard, wears hiking boots. He's kept active since retiring from Kodak in 2003. For 35 wonderful years, he had the privilege of working -- and traveling the world -- for the company. He was at Kodak in the 1990s, when its shares were worth as much as $70 (€54) each. He was there in the 1980s, when the company employed more than 30,000 people in this city on Lake Ontario. At that time, the employees' biggest worry was finding a parking spot near where they worked on the sprawling campus of 195 buildings.

"It's hard to imagine nowadays," Shanebrook grumbles. He drives his Dodge across snow-covered parking lots that are much larger than football fields but only have a few cars in them. These days, Kodak employs fewer than 7,000 people in Rochester, and the news from the 19-story corporate headquarters at 343 State Street is devastating. On Jan. 19, or two days before our trip with Shanebrook, the company was forced to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. "Did I cry?" Shanebrook asks. "No. Was I shocked? Yes. And I still haven't recovered from it."

The very next day, published reports indicated that panic was spreading in Rochester. Newspaper editorialists cast Kodak's move as yet another symbol of the dismal state of affairs in America. Others said Kodak served as an example of a company that had disregarded the signs of the times -- and only had itself to blame for having dozed its way to doom.

However, none of these interpretations is correct. If anything, Kodak symbolizes the deep-seated structural changes that have taken place across the world in recent years. Indeed, the story of Kodak is not a simple parable of rise and fall. Instead, it is a complex tale with an ending that is more comforting than one would initially expect.

From Small to Huge to Nothing

If you were to turn back the hands of time to almost any point over the last 132 years, you would come across Kodak without having to look for long -- and often without even realizing it. The red-and-yellow logo and yellow film boxes were as much a part of everyday life in the West as Coca-Cola. Indeed, film made in Rochester was the universal storage medium for pictures from weddings, holidays and vacations long before the dawning of 12-megapixel digital cameras and wafer-thin smartphones.

All around the world, people immortalized themselves on Kodacolor, the first "true color negative film," introduced in 1942. Later, they put Ektachrome slides in gray plastic frames and flimsy carousels. Eventually, they would use Kodachrome, the film its creators claimed could see "better than the human eye" and which, according to the Paul Simon song of the same name, "makes you think all the world's a sunny day."

Kodak was at the heart of all the world's images. Company founder George Eastman was hailed as the Steve Jobs of his era, and Kodak was its Google. In 1900, Eastman gave the world's consumers the "Brownie," the first relatively portable photographic camera for the everyman. The Brownie would change our view of the world forever and spawned an amazingly novel -- and profitable -- business idea: While selling its cameras cheaply and in bulk, Kodak made a killing by developing the film that went in them.

This ingenious model paid off handsomely for exactly a century and, in 1999, the company enjoyed record profits of $2.5 billion. For one, last time, the company could look back with satisfaction on a century of having decisively shaped the world of images.

Indeed, Rochester produced far more than the raw materials needed to take photographs. It made film for X-ray photography, microfiches for archives, reels of 16mm and 35mm movie stock, and film for Super 8 video cameras. Slide projectors were manufactured in huge numbers, as were video cassettes, lithium batteries and floppy disks for the first desktop computers.

In all those decades, Kodak literally flooded the market with newer and newer cameras. In fact, it wasn't unusual to see the company launch 20 or even 30 new products a year. And then there were printers, photocopiers, recordable CDs, disposable cameras, photosensitive paper and films of all kinds.

Kodak was everywhere. Between 1928 and 2008, every single movie to win the Oscar for best film was shot on Kodak stock. The fact that this honor has gone to Fujifilm every year since 2009 says a lot. But it says even more that cinematic production will soon be able to do away with film stock altogether by becoming completely digitized.

Only the Best for the Best

In that earlier, carefree era, Robert Shanebrook had the best job the company had to offer. As a research engineer, he worked on optimizing the films used by professional photographers. His products had names like Portra and TX and, since they were the latest and greatest thing in the world of photography, they were tested by the century's greatest photographers. Shanebrook visited these master craftsmen the world over -- in Brazil, Uganda, France, Japan, Mexico and Singapore. He brought them prototypes for trials in the field and the studio and solicited their feedback.

He watched Ansel Adams at work, he discussed kernel sizes with Sebastião Salgado, and he listened to what Steve McCurry and Eric Meola had to say about color saturation and contrast. Shanebrook was constantly flying around the world to deliver new films, only to return four weeks later to collect them. And, when he wasn't flying, he was rubbing elbows with all the artists and reporters who immortalized the world's wars and crises, who shot the famous portraits of Hemingway and Kennedy, and who captured the poses of Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren for posterity. Shanebrook helped the people who created the images that were first etched into the emulsion of Kodak film and then into our collective memory.

Shanebrook is a man of few words when discussing his work at Kodak because he doesn't want to make his role sound overly important. He cares more about a thin book he published himself. With many pictures and few words, he provides an extremely detailed description of how film is manufactured. It is a technical manual, though one as dated as the processes it describes.

Nevertheless, reading it, you marvel at the amazing abilities of the Kodak plants, at the light-sensitive layers they put on films at a speed of 300 meters (1,000 feet) per minute. The films themselves were actually made up of a dozen layers and yet were only 0.06 millimeters (0.002 inches) thick. Shanebrook has sold a thousand copies of his book. The rest are stacked in huge piles around his house.

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