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Thursday, 05 January 2012

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It's over, then, isn't it? Film photography.

It was a classic "camera store" of the type I once dearly loved..

Me too. There used to be a few like that here in the Sydney CBD. Foto Reisel in Kent Street comes closest now. There's still a few others, like Mainline, further out.

They'll all go unless people stop chasing the absolute lowest price on the net. Have some principles, I say!

I’ve always wondered why Kodak never really got into high end camera and lens market. With Kodak resources it seems they could compete with the likes of Canon and Nikon.

Quite the elegy. ... Good read.

It's over, then, isn't it? Film photography.

Not for me.

My hometown, Tacoma, (where I live again, since 2010) not only lost its last real camera store some time in the years I was away, but has no actual new book store. Fortunately, a suburb, has one of each (though the book store is just a Barnes & Noble).

Of course, we (in the aggregate) have ourselves to blame for the loss of retailers that can impart professional guidance since we shop based on price, and complain that the lowest cost retailers, i.e. the big boxes, have sales staff that are neither knowledgeable nor helpful.

Patrick

It's fascinating how Kodak frittered away all their legacy advantages and even their lead in digital imaging. Meanwhile the whole net is ablaze with excitement over Fuji(film)'s impending camera. Kodak's managers did it no favors.

Dear Bill,

Oh, hardly. It's just over for Kodak.

~~~~~~~~


Dear Lloyd,

Ummm, Kodak used to OWN the high-end digital camera market. They destroyed their market with the DCS 14n. If you type that into the Google box in the right column, you'll get a bunch of pointers to that sad story.

pax / Ctein

This is no more "the end of film" than GM's Chapter 11 was 'the end of cars'.

"I fully expect to walk into a big box store 20 years from now .."

Actually, there probably won't be too many big box stores (at least for cameras and electronics) around. Forbes has a good article explaining why: http://www.forbes.com/sites/larrydownes/2012/01/02/why-best-buy-is-going-out-of-business-gradually/

Well, 20 years from now we'll not be ignored by real big box stores' employees. We'll be pestered by virtual TOI seller-bots at amazon mega-cyber-store or something.

Penn Camera was no B&H or Calumet, but they were friendly, knowledgeable, still stocked some B&W chemistry, and, best of all, they were a 5 minute walk from my office. I often stopped by on my lunch break to pick up a roll of film or check out the used counter. I wonder if they still have that XPAN that I saw over Thanksgiving?

In Australia a nuclear physicist, once head of the Australian division of Kodak, was discussing in forum this week the fatal error of managing well a business in decline. It might be managed well, with continued high margins, but decline it is still, nevertheless. To have survived would have required the acceptance of the uncertainty of borrowing, new products, new markets, and much narrower profit margins. To abandon the short term continued higher margins required courage, humility, foresight and imagination that was lacking. It has very little to do with the fate of film as a medium. It is a problem of the Kodak company.

Is George pre-flashing the film?

"...*I fully expect to walk into a big box store 20 years from now..."

In 20 years from now there will not be 'big box' stores.

Wow, Penn is closing, I went to GWU(I think about the same time as you) and spent a lot of time(&$) in that store.

Rod, I would say that having consumer principles means chasing the lowest price on the net.

Thanks for the post, Mike. It triggered a forgotten memory of mine from when I was about 14 years old- that of looking forward to the arrival of the Sunday NY Times. In the back of the Arts section were pages and pages of camera ads from all the big camera stores. My favorite was Olden Camera. I think their tagline was "Olden does the impossible!" There was a used Leica M3 listed for 212 dollars. I was always trying to figure out what kind of work I could do to earn such an ungodly sum of money. Never did get the camera but in high school I did save enough for a 480 dollar new Leicaflex SL, which lasted 35 years.

the Houston Astros are said to have a "Director of Decision Sciences". Near as I can tell this a statistical geek who pores over the stats that baseball is so fond of. A nametag title of DDS would make him sound like a dentist.

Bloody shame about Kodak... As an egoist to the very core, I still hope they will not go down. Or if they do, then someone else (Fuji?) will buy Ektar and keep making it...

Lloyd brings up an excellent question. I too wonder why EK never invested in the necessary R&D to produce their own line of digital SLRs.

I know there were the early Kodak attempts based on a Nikon body, but it seems to me they could have produced a truly unique product at the dawn of digital photography to compete with the Big Two. Can you imagine what a Kodak Antistigmat or Ektar lens mounted on a full frame digital rig, either 35 or medium format, would be like?

Kodak has/had the capability to develop large sensors capable of beautiful captures early on. And they continue to manufacture sensors for the likes of Leica's M9 and Pentax's 645D (but for how long, who knows!).

One last thing. Kodak knows film better than anyone. Why they never produced a sub-$1000 dedicated film scanner, especially in later years, is beyond me.

So many photographers I personally know use a hybrid workflow - shooting film and scanning it, and printing on high end inkjet.

Instead, it seems like they chose to bunt over the years, and now the bases are loaded. it's bottom of the 9th, two outs, and Perez is at the plate with two strikes and no balls. Sad.

I was so sad to hear about this on Wednesday. Does that leave Ace Photo (in Ashburn) the only "real" camera store left in the area?

Not to throw a wrench into the elegy, but by the time I got to DC in 2001, Penn camera was a disaster! My pals that had been in the area since the early 1980's said it was much better when they first got there, but still not anywhere near the camera stores I, and they, grew up with in Chicago and Milwaukee. And there was nothing like Darkroom Aids in DC at all!

The downtown store actually had minimum wage people working in it that knew nothing about photography, and like many a DC photo establishment that I tried to frequent, they thought the sun rose and set on photojournalism, and their stock and knowledge didn't extend beyond that. The rental department had one forlorn Speedotron 2400 in broken-up shape, and tiny little strobe kits of some sort that would only be usable to a 35mm/DSLR user. No darkroom supplies of note, and no real stock of the stuff needed for digital either.

There WAS a pro-shop in the area, someplace out in the Virginia area south east of the Pentagon, but I can't remember the name (maybe Photo-Tech). At least they had multiple formats for sale and big strobes for rent, and even a lot of print paper for that new fangled digital stuff. Also there were far better shops in Baltimore, and a fabulous rental darkroom for conventional and digital work in the Hampden neighborhood of Balto (gone now, tho)...

I think ALL the great pro-shops, tho, have gone by the way-side. They used to make so much of their money in 'soft goods', like film, and darkroom supplies; that when digital killed that, they died. About six months after I moved to DC, BOTH pro-shops in Milwaukee went out of business! Last time I was in San Francisco, Adolph Gasser was still hanging on, with a decent rental department and interesting staff; but even the SFO Calumet looked run down, dirty, and had a lethargic staff.

Maybe you need a blog on "last of the great old timey pro shops"!

I shouldn't be feeling like the wet-behind-the-ears kid at the age of 52. I came late to the art of photography (45 years old), started with digital. Now that I'm nurturing an interest in film, it seems all the great sources of supplies and knowledge are drying up.

One good thing to come out of the birth of digital photography is just how inexpensive camera gear is, though. But will I be able to buy film and darkroom supplies?

I fear all the darkrooms will be locked and shuttered* before I have a chance to step into one!

Edie
On the other hand, it may mean the end of Holga prints...

*yes, I know, darkrooms by definition don't have windows, and therefore no shutters either. It's just an expression.

The photo is of a young Ansel Adams.

Further thoughts on the demise of camera stores: Upon some reflection the passing of the local camera store is just another step in the reduced intimacy in the act of creation. People rejected photography as art when it was first invented (some still do) because of its mechanical nature. In a painting or drawing one could see "the hand of man" in the brush or pencil strokes. It was clearly a subjective version of reality.

A lot of us got used to thinking of the photograph as an art by working in the darkroom, coaxing images from film, chemicals and paper. Eventually much of the public came around although ironically photojournalists clung (and still do) to a notion that their work was/is entirely objective, reality recorded by a machine with minimal human subjectivity intervening.

Digital has removed the process further. Presets in editing software now produce with a mouse click effects that film photographers struggled to create, not to mention effects never dreamed of in darkrooms. While I enjoy the things I can do digitally I have an unease about them. How much am *I* really contributing vs *the machine*.

The passing of the local camera stores is symbolic of the loss of intimacy between the photographer and his/her medium. We change cameras through anonymous retailers on the 'net, for the newest model with the latest features the way fashionistas change their wardrobe with each trend. Our software gets automatically updated regularly so that we can do new things to our images, not things we learned to do, things the software learned to do. Our intimacy with the process is reduced by each step. No wonder that I find myself contemplating taking a course on how to make tintypes.

As an aside, my ancestor is Freeman Harrison Owens. I am a Harrison, also. The above photo of George Eastman and Thomas Edison reminds me of Owens, as he was a FOX Movietone Newsreel cameraman at about that same time, before he went on to work with DeForest, develop a method for sound on film, develop a color process for Eastman and other inventions.
http://farm8.staticflickr.com/7010/6647316087_709e5259c1.jpg

I loved the craft of film photography. So much busy time mixing chemicals, timing development, fixing, washing. The excitement of seeing the image emerge on the paper. This alone time was so satisfying even though an entire evening may not result in a keeper print. I'd write my notes on how I'd improve on the next try, and although the time and effort was meaningless to those who appreciated the finished print, to me it was a labor of love.

I've moved on long ago to digital blessed and I feel better with the knowledge gained from traditional film based photography.

Kodak did have its forays into high end cameras. The Medalist, Retina, and Ektra are but 3 examples of cameras meant for the masses that they produced. Plus lots of more specialised equipment for the military and others with deeper pockets.
However, Kodak seemed to have forgotten the quality element of cameras to be sold for the masses. Quality consumer cameras disappeared from the Kodak line in the late 60's Instamatic Reflex?
They seemed too interested in selling cameras to folks who would shoot a couple of rolls of film a year rather than also chasing the folks who shot a couple of rolls of film a day.
Kodak could easily have taken their digital/film hybrid model a few steps further, except they kept tripping over their own feet. Similar with Super8 to video. They were among those first out of the gate in video, again they stumbled.
The instant print business? they could have bought Polaroid at one time, didn't. they could have bought Xerox at one time, didn't. Kodak did own the plastics business at one time, sold it off for nothing.
Too many business missteps.

Last year my daughter had a volleyball tournament in Rochester at one of the old Kodak headquarters buildings. It must have been something in its heyday. When we were there, the building was empty except for the girls playing volleyball on the old corporate courts. They were located on the second floor of the building with the large swimming pool on the floor above. There were large realtor signs in the lobby indicating that the property was "available." The courts were beautiful, but in disrepair. Snow was coming in through several broken panes in the enormous windows. I enjoyed numerous, vigorous volleyball matches while taking pictures for the teams, but it was quite disheartening knowing the significance of my surroundings.

I used to take all my film work to Penn, as they always did the best job with fresh chemicals and great prints. I even had a roommate who managed the 17th street location years ago.

I'm mostly digital now, but I just took a roll of 120 there the other day for developing and a scan. I guess I'll forget the foray into medium format film unless I use NCPS or someone else online.

I hold onto my equipment for a while, and I confess that my (first and still current) DSLR came from the Ritz closeout sale. Maybe I'll pick up a bargain at the clearance sale. I feel like a vulture.

Your description of Penn Camera reminds me of my trips to St. Louis Photo with my dad, a professional photographer. Stan was the salesman my dad dealt with and he was the complete opposite of your Charlie. Stan was a nice friendly man who seemed perplexed when I went with my dad in 1978 to trade in the Nikkormat (given to me by my dad) for a brand new Canon AE-1. I still remember seeing his expression at the time as he was probably thinking you want to trade this fine piece of equipment for a piece of overrated junk. Oh well, that's progress. By the way, I still have the AE-1 and a few years ago I purchased another Nikkormat to replace the one I traded in so I am sure Stan (where ever he is now) would be happy.

I work in the Chicago Loop and find that my lunchtime walk often takes me past Central Camera at 230 South Wabash. I thought of going over at lunch time today to snap the delightful store front on my iPhone to post - and then found this picture on Google images: http://www.flickr.com/photos/timchambers/5325809098/

I'm guessing that proximity to the School of the Art Institute and the focus on serving photographers rather than store upgrades have kept this wonderful place in business. Worth a visit any time you visit the Art Institute of Chicago!

There are still camera stores like that. Superior Camera in Chattanooga, TN is doing it quite successfully, although on a much smaller scale.

Mike,
Reminds me of the time I recommended Darkroom Aids on Compuserve's Photography forum to someone who was looking for a item and you informed me they had gone out of business. It was so unexpected as I had been there only a few weeks before. I loved combing the aisles of that place and finding a used item at a great price that I could use. I picked up my dry mount press, paper trimmer, temperature mixing valve and all kinds of great stuff there. (sigh!) Doesn't matter anymore since I haven't used my darkroom for the last ten years.
Tom

"Lloyd brings up an excellent question. I too wonder why EK never invested in the necessary R&D to produce their own line of digital SLRs [snip]"

They DID. Almost all the early DSLRs were Kodaks.

Maybe we need to do a post or two on a little remedial history....

Mike

I'm getting increasingly grouchy reading uninformed Internet comments from people who actually, honest-to-God firmly believe that death of Kodak = death of film.

Apparently none of them are aware of Ilford, Fujifilm, Foma, Efke/Adox, Rollei and a motley of Chinese film manufacturers such as Lucky and Shanghai. Or that Kodak don't make or sell black and white photo paper. Or that they haven't made Kodak branded photo chemicals for several years. It's somewhat akin to saying that air travel will cease to exist because American Airlines are currently in Chapter 11 protection.

And yes, Mike, I do understand there's a big (if subtle) difference between your "end of the film era" statement (which is true) and the "death of film" claims some are making (not so much).

To address another apparent internet misconception, Chapter 11 bankruptcy means both Kodak and Penn Camera could survive in some form. It's not a guarantee; creditors might not agree to the reorganization plan or the company may emerge from bankruptcy only to fail later. But it offers the possibility of continuing normal operations while they figure out how, or if, they can get their act together.

Either way we'll just have to wait and see.

Bob Shanebrook, who the WSJ article quotes, has a book available on how Kodak film is made:

http://www.makingkodakfilm.com/

As soon as my credit card recovers from stuffing our freezer with 5x7 and 8x10 Tri-X, I'll be picking up a copy. :)

I can still re-live my formative photographic years at Foto-Ernst in Zurich

http://zurich.dailyphoto.forthmedia.com/index.cfm/2009/2/6/FotoErnst

we're living in an age where black and white film will either be Chinese or eastern European. Guess I'd better work out how to tank develop Lucky...

Penn was THE professional store in D.C., except for the place at about 19th and Penn Ave upstairs. I shopped mostly in Silver Spring at Industrial but Penn served most of the folks covering the Hill and White House plus tons of enthusiasts of all skill levels.
Yep, they're gone and so are most of the stores like them but then so are many of the outlets for photojournalism.

I'll miss that time, 1950's-1980's when film and equipment were as much fun as the work.

The rise of internet retailing has done a lot of damage, just as the rise of the "super-stores" like WalMart did a lot of damage to small-town retailing. At one time, people in small towns paid a kind of "tax" in the form of higher prices to support livable-wage jobs at local retailers, but in return got prosperous families and locally relevant merchandise. With WalMart they got lower prices and minimum-wage jobs, and many small towns were economically hollowed out at the core. The same thing is repeating itself with internet sales -- prices may be lower, and products more accessible out in the countryside, but the net is also destroying local sources of expertise and local jobs. The fact is, very few people will buy a $5,000 Nikon from a local store, with a 6% sales tax, when they can get the same thing overnighted from Amazon and save $300 in tax. I would very much like to see a federal sales tax on internet sales, to be divided on a per-capital basis between the states. That would solve the problem of local sales taxation on the internet (not really practical) but would also level the playing field somewhat for retailers like Penn, and save some of that local expertise and access.

I just hope Pro Photo (19th and I, NW) makes it. I've made big ticket (for me, anyway) purchases from Pro Photo and Penn, feeling some sort of moral obligation to try and keep local establishments afloat. (I see Melody Records is also closing.)

What kind of havoc will Kodak's demise have on the photographic distribution channel.

100 rolls TrX, 500 rolls KR400, 3 Canon duehickeys.

How much "stuff" got sold piggybacked on a Kodak order.

-Hudson

Arrg

And to compound the pain , B&H had just started listing Kodak 70mm B&W film as available again by special order.

Re Olden which hung on for years as real estate play:

I miss Spiratone and Olden (Bob Olden would buy out distributors of camera equipment I remember buying a new Alpa 10 for $200 then stupidly returning it a week later) but Camera Barn was absolutely amazing. They had somehow gotten a ton of Agfa paper and a pile of Graphic XL cameras. 32d street was pretty cool in the 70s. Willoughby's is the only store from back then that is still sort of in business as far as I know.
In retrospect the photo business had started it's decline in the mid 70's which is why all those stores were able to have incredible deals on the inventory of failed businesses.

Hobby computers are what killed the hobby photography biz.

"we're living in an age where black and white film will either be Chinese or eastern European."

That depends on how one defines "an age." Based on its commitment to the medium and time remaining on its site lease in Mobberley, I expect Ilford to be providing top-quality black and white film as well as paper until at least 2026.

Adapt or die. Sadly both these demises are the direct result of management failures, though in the case of Kodak there are far fewer excuses. They were sitting on a massive patent portfolio but insisted on hanging on to their high margin business and letting the risky stuff go instead of leveraging everything they had to adapt to the "new world order" and accept a few hard knocks along the way. I have no doubt the board were partly influenced by a lot of stuffy institutional, risk averse investors as well.

But I daresay if Penn Cameras had taken a leaf from B&H they would be fine. Guess it was not in their nature.

Penn Camera was my bricks and mortar version of a photo forum, especially the E Street location. Walk in ask a question (when it is relatively quiet) and often a great, informative discussion would commence. It was akin to several really good moderators and just you, with your questions. Sad day indeed.

On a smaller scale there is Pro Photo on "I" Street in DC. Very knowledgeable owner, lots of do dads in the shelves behind the counters. Fewer opportunities for a forum type discussion given the small staff size.

Further north in Baltimore is Service Photo. Bigger store, nice used inventory and loads of current, new gear. Great mix of staff another great bricks and mortar forum location.

""we're living in an age where black and white film will either be Chinese or eastern European."

That depends on how one defines "an age." Based on its commitment to the medium and time remaining on its site lease in Mobberley, I expect Ilford to be providing top-quality black and white film as well as paper until at least 2026."

In addition, neither Mortsel in Belgium where the Gevaert plant is operating (the source of most Rollei-branded films by Maco), nor Monheim on the Rhine, where the company Inoviscoat is using former Agfa know-how and machines for some products sold under the Adox brand by Fotoimpex, or Bad Saarow near Berlin where Fotoimpex is setting up a previous Agfa laboratory size coater for more Adox-branded products are exactly in China or Eastern Europe...

There never was a "transition" for Kodak to make into digital photography. This is more obvious in hindsight.

Let's say the average amateur spends $3000 (inflation-adjusted) on photography. In the 1990s, that might have been $1000 in gear and $2000 in film and processing. A pro might be even more skewed toward film and processing: $2000 on gear and $12,000 on film and processing per year.

The $3000 is mostly a reflection of income and enthusiasm. So, maybe it doesn't change much. In the digital age, the hobbyist spends $2500 on gear, and $500 on software.

So, to get a piece of the digital cashflow, Kodak would have had to become a camera maker. Alas, Kodak has not been a serious camera maker since the days of the Retina and Medalist (pre-1950). After that, it was a mountain of Brownies, Tourists and Instamatics for the low-budget masses. This was a continuation of thier original box camera business.

In the early days of digital, Kodak had some semi-competitive camera models, but Nikon and Canon soon left them in the dust. Kodak was still active in the point-and-shoot digital market -- and it still is today -- but it is not competitive with Panasonic or Canon. Camera making is hideously competitive.

Plus, as we know, cellphones are taking over the digital point-and-shoot market. Kodak's big losses today are not on film, as many continue to believe, but rather, on their digital camera business! The point-and-shoot segment is shrinking, and they were always a secondary player to begin with. Film has actually been Kodak's most profitable (or least unprofitable) division in recent quarters.

The other possibility for Kodak was printing. In the film days, there was a lot of printing because everyone got prints when they developed their film. This translated into printing machines, photo paper, chemicals etc. for Kodak. Today, 99.9% of digital snaps never get printed. This wouldn't have been obvious pre-2000.

Kodak experimented with some Internet-type stuff, but was surpassed by flickr and other options. None of this has turned out to be a cashflow generator for anyone.

Kodak still has a sensor business, but again, making silicon chips was never Kodak's business, and it is also a terribly competitive business that requires huge capital outlays.

Thus, the "transition path" for Kodak would have been to get out of consumer photography altogether. Fuji's Imaging Solutions (all film, paper, and digital cameras) generated 101 billion yen of revenue in the last quarter, out of a total of 1083 billion yen for the company as a whole. Yes, less than 10%. Their Information Solutions division generated 435 billion. This includes medical systems, graphic arts, FPD materials (coatings for LCD TVs), recording media (data tapes), industrial materials (color mosaic for image sensors), and optical devices (camera phone lenses). The document solutions division generated 486 billion yen. This included office products, office printers, production services, and global services.

So, Fuji's businesses are mostly imaging and optical-related, but what we call "photography" today, including digital cameras, is peanuts.

The potential path forward for Kodak was not to "transition into the digital photography age." It was to "transition out of the photography business" somewhat like Fuji has done.

If camera stores are just showrooms for Amazon or B&H, then local service and support will finally disappear. The first time you will be able to see how a camera feels in your hand is after you unbox it from the internet store.

I'm not so worried about being able to handle cameras or lenses before buying. I've bought many camera bodies without fondling them first, and done pretty well with that.

But for camera bags for example I find it absolutely necessary to see and feel the real thing, and mostly try my actual equipment in it. I've always bought camera bags locally; If I need to fondle the merchandise, I need to pay the price that includes that.

I bought the Tokina 12-24 DX lens and my Nikon D200 locally -- because availability and price were right up there (the D200 was from Best Buy, which doesn't help support real camera stores, but it's a real local brick-and-mortar store; Adorama and B&H were out of stock).

Well, anything very near Berlin was in Eastern Europe the way the term was used for essentially all my life.

The fall of the communist government in Poland for example didn't change the geography any, and it doesn't seem like German reunification would either; if the concept of "Eastern Europe" still means something, then it seems like it should include Berlin and environs.

(I can also see arguments that the former DDR has changed much faster and more directly towards being "western" than the other parts of classical Eastern Europe, though.)

Dear Nathan,

An interesting and curious bit of information-- I recently stumbled over the industry figures for the photographic print business. The number of prints people are having made has finally leveled off, but it has not declined! (not yet, anyway)

If Kodak's been failing to make money from that business, it would have more to do with market share than the total volume of the business.

pax / Ctein

Ctein,

I don't have your stats, but I would guess it shows separate print orders. In the days of film, the typical consumer would shoot negative film and get prints with their processing. There's a presentation on Kodak's history that shows them blowing up their photo paper factories around 2006. At 36 4x6 prints per roll, times billions of rolls, I find it unlikely that people make more prints today than in the past.

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