Last summer I wrote "Minority Report," in which I observed that it was tougher these days to figure out exactly what kind of photographs people were making and what they were doing with them. Not impossible, not in the least, just that we had lost the easy tracking that film provided.
I didn't really get into it at the time, but if you had asked me what I thought was happening to printmaking, I would've guessed that it was probably on the decline. Nothing precipitous, just that the huge increase in the number of photographs that people were making digitally wouldn't compensate for the declining percentage that were being turned into prints. The conventional wisdom, after all, is that digital pictures are the e-slides of our era, photographs that are made to be viewed but hardly ever made to be handled.
About a year back, in fact, there was a widely cited article that described the photofinishing industry as being one of 10 industries that was on "life support." From one business perspective, it was true. The number of people working in photofinishing labs has steadily declined starting in the second half of the 1990s, long before the digital revolution ate film's lunch. One-hour minilabs popping up in every chain supermarket and drugstore eroded the dedicated photofinishing businesses. Come the digiterati and the rise of the online printing services, the big-box stores' in-house photofinishing, and home printing (not that important, dollar wise, but it takes its bite), and employment in the industry is down by 50% from its peak and will continue to drop.
That's bad news if you're a photofinishing employee or own a lab. It turns out, though, that it leads you to the wrong conclusion about printing in general. It's not dying.
It's on the rise.
In fact, it's risen every single year, with the exception of 2009-10, where there was a modest drop which more than got made up in 2011. It's a mixture of services and products: online printing services, self-service kiosks in supermarkets and drugstores, traditional photofinishers, and new products like calendars, greeting and personal note cards (those are really big growth items), online-printed albums and small books. As well as your usual small prints.
Today that's all part of photofinishing, as the purely digital printing processes, almost entirely inkjet, supplant the traditional RA-4 wet papers. Those are still major items, but the chromogenic print volume will decline and fade into insignificance. (Honestly, photofinishers have been looking to replace it for more than a third of a century, I can tell you from first-hand knowledge.)
Photofinishing as a whole is currently a growth industry, especially the totally digital side of it. Whodathunk?
When Kodak announced that they were going to continue to deemphasize and discontinue traditional photo materials and processes in favor of inkjet materials and printers, it was much decried as an act of foolish desperation by a dying company that would only hasten their demise.
I do think it was an act of desperation, and I am not remotely convinced that Kodak has either the resources or the managerial smarts to get themselves out of the rather deep hole they find themselves in. Foolish, though? I think Kodak identified one of the few industry segments where they have a realistic chance of making real money. At least over the rest of this decade. (Beyond that, who knows? The digital revolution is still far too much a work in progress for us to have any idea what the long-term looks like.)
Let us not forget that Kodak has always been mostly a photofinishing company. That was its initial model for success. "You press the button, we do the rest." Think about it. Most of its product expansion throughout the twentieth century was in an effort to establish horizontal and vertical monopolies around that business.
Be that as it may, the counterintuitive situation in the photofinishing world demonstrates how trusting one's instincts and hunches in the absence of concrete knowledge is a perilous endeavor. Often that's all we have to go on. Doesn't mean we'll be right.
Ctein has reported on the photo industry for numerous publications over several decades. His regular weekly column on TOP appears on Wednesdays.
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Original contents copyright 2012 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.