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The Rise and Fall of an American Tech Giant

When i was in fifth grade, my class took a field trip to the George Eastman Museum, in Rochester, New York, as the fifth graders at my rural elementary school, 30 minutes south of the city, did every year. Housed in a Colonial Revival mansion built for the founder of the Eastman Kodak Company in 1905, the museum is home to one of the most significant photography and film collections in the world. But our job there was to stare at old cameras the size of our bodies, marvel at the luxury of having a pipe organ in your house, and write down what a daguerreotype is to prove that we’d been paying attention. At the end of the tour—in a second-story sitting room full of personal artifacts—we were presented, matter-of-factly, with a copy of Eastman’s suicide letter, dated March 14, 1932: “My work is done. Why wait?” Eastman shot himself in the heart with a Luger pistol at the age of 77.

Telling this story to a bunch of 10-year-olds was not meant to be morbid. It was meant to be edifying: To work is to live. And nobody could argue that Eastman hadn’t worked. His company, founded in 1880, invented the first easy-to-use consumer camera and thereby amateur photography; it achieved a near-monopoly on the consumer-film business, capturing the imagination of the entire world; it was Hollywood, and it was New York, and it was as grand as history—with a simple search, even a child can find images of Eastman hosting Thomas Edison, nonchalantly, in his backyard. The city where we stood was just another of his accomplishments: Eastman funded Rochester’s colleges and its hospital system, its cultural institutions, its nonprofits, its parks, its suburban housing developments. In 1920, his free pediatric dental clinic removed the tonsils of 1,470 children in seven weeks. Even in 2003, when I made that class trip, we were encouraged to believe we should feel lucky that he had chosen Rochester to lavish his attention upon.


And then, one day, there was Kodak. The first camera for ordinary people was a long black box, about the size of a loaf of bread, introduced in 1888. It was marketed with advertisements meant to convey ease of use—in the images, both women and children were using the cameras successfully. “You press the button, we do the rest,” the ads promised, which was God’s honest truth: Once an amateur photographer had used up the film in her camera, she mailed the entire thing back to the Kodak factory, then awaited her pictures and a reloaded machine. Kodak’s advertising made personal photography a national phenomenon, a new way of seeing and remembering daily life. “Prove it with a Kodak,” one tagline went. “A vacation without a Kodak is a vacation wasted.” “Let Kodak tell the story.” In time, Kodaking became a verb, as natural as Instagramming. Many early Kodak ads mentioned the company’s location, planting it firmly on the map: “Rochester, New York, the Kodak City.”

The business model was simple: Distribute tens of millions of cheap cameras—at times even giving them to children for free—and create lifelong customers for the far more lucrative product, film. And wealth made Kodak ambitious. The company created the film formats of Hollywood; invented the Super 8 technology, which inspired the age of home movies; and built the photosystems that would map 99 percent of the moon’s surface. To the Office of Strategic Services during World War II, it offered teeny-tiny cameras that could fit into matchboxes, for spy stuff. “Kodak was the eyes of the world for over 100 years,” Steve Sasson, the inventor of the first digital camera and one of the company’s most famous employees, told me. Throughout the 1960s and ’70s, Kodak sold 70 million of its $16 Instamatic cameras, and the average owner used eight rolls of its signature Kodapak film each year. The most famous recording of John F. Kennedy’s assassination is on 8-mm Kodachrome film, captured by a random bystander in Dallas, Abraham Zapruder, who was filming because he had the opportunity to film—the Kodak mindset.

In her 1977 book On Photography, Susan Sontag saw cameras as a tool of “colonization” after the opening of the transcontinental railroad. She commented on the signs that Kodak put at the entrances of various towns, providing suggestions to tourists of local attractions they might wish to photograph: “Faced with the awesome spread and alienness of a newly settled continent, people wielded cameras as a way of taking possession of the places they visited.” Similarly, Kodak laid claim to the American imagination with its “Coloramas”—18 feet high and 60 feet wide—in Grand Central Terminal, in Manhattan, which were swapped out every three weeks and reportedly elicited an “ovation” from passing crowds. Many of those images depicted the adventurous and still-mysterious West. In 1961, Ansel Adams contributed a photo of an Oregon wheat field—he participated because he found the project “technically remarkable.” The rest of the Coloramas were Kodak’s vision of ordinary American life: a Texas family in a convertible, a beauty pageant in Alabama, a family swimming pool in New York (Rochester, of course).

In the famous Kodak episode of Mad Men, which aired in 2007, the ad guru Don Draper wows his clients by coming up with the name for the Kodak Carousel slide projector, filling it with photos of his own gorgeous family and reciting a dictionary definition of nostalgia as he flicks through them. As usual, he’s extremely moved by his own words, feeling things he struggles to feel outside an advertising context. The pitch resonates because Kodak didn’t just teach Americans to take photographs; it taught them what to take photographs of, and it taught them what photographs were for.

The Kodak mythology, though powerful, was and is easily seen through. In the final year of the Coloramas’ installation at Grand Central, The New York Times’ Andy Grundberg composed a eulogy for them, lightly mocking the “idealized pseudo-snapshots of happy families doing happy-family things.” Still, Grundberg admitted, more people had probably looked up at the Ansel Adams photograph in the train station than had ever deliberately sought one out in a museum. The landscapes were wonderful. The effect couldn’t be denied. It’s a cliché at this point to say that there is “something very American” about any particular event or idiosyncrasy, which is maybe why it’s unsatisfying to say that the Coloramas were very American. But in their obviousness I think they were even more very American than they looked: Nobody was really duped, but at some level people wanted to be, or at least they had to concede that the effect was impressive.

Read entire article at The Atlantic