...So anyway, to continue my post from Friday: Last Thursday, after seeing the fine A. L. Coburn exhibit at George Eastman Museum (GEM), Geoff's and my day wasn't over. Thanks to my new friend Robyn, we had an introduction to her friend and colleague Todd Gustavson. Todd is the Curator of Technology at the Museum...a.k.a. the camera guy. You might know of Todd from such best-selling camera books as Camera: A History of Photography from Daguerreotype to Digital. After saying hello he kindly took time out of his day and led the way down to the catacombs for a tour behind the scenes.
That might not make you catch your breath, but I knew we were about to see the world's biggest camera closet. GEM has one of the most significant camera collections in the world, with around 16,000 significant pieces, many priceless (or very valuable) and many one-of-a-kind. They range from the Alphonse Giroux whole-plate Daguerreotype camera of 1839, to a Leica O-Series from 1923 in very fine condition (serial number 109), to the second Deardorff ever made (serial number: 2, written in pencil), to the camera payload from the Lunar Orbiter that first mapped the moon, to the "earliest known surviving" DSLR (we'll get to that story). And those are only a few high points. For photo nuts, there are treasures on every shelf. The deeper you delve the more there is to find.
But I'm getting ahead of myself. Todd led us down into a room the size of an airplane hangar filled with shelving from the floor to higher than you could reach. Of course we saw the original Kodak, the box camera that inspired the slogan "You Push the Button, We Do the Rest." And Todd wound it and actually pressed the famous button—and, obligingly, the shutter fired, with a little snick. Later he showed us a whimsical little accessory, a "dime bank," that was marketed with one of those very early Kodaks. It consisted of a metal cylinder a customer could fill with dimes, and it was marked on the side with the names of the cameras you could afford if you had enough dimes to reach the mark! Cool beans. It was to help people save up for a camera purchase.
Three old cameras?
Here's an example of what we're dealing with here. Just three old cameras, right? Left to right: Alfred Stieglitz's camera, a camera from Mathew Brady's portrait gallery, and the camera that took the flag-raising picture at Iwo Jima*.
Two of the fun things I saw: I was walking down one aisle when I spied an old camera with a masking tape label on it. Scrawled on the tape was "Property of Beaumont Newhall." I claim not to be a child (or a fan) of celebrity culture, but that's only because all my celebrities are photo-related. (Well, and snooker players, but let's not go there.) John Travolta has a house on my lake and I couldn't care less, but touching something Beaumont Newhall touched? Wow.
Another was seeing the Hasselblad 1000F, the company's second model—with a Kodak lens. It turns out Victor Hasselblad had the Kodak concession in Sweden, and in his day, Kodak's various optical subsidies still had the world's best lens technologies. (No longer the case, of course. When I asked the famous Kodak lens designer and optical polymath Rudolf Kingslake if he would write some articles on lenses for Photo Techniques, the then-93-year-old Mr. Kingslake told me, "I don't know anything any more."(!)).
Victor Hasselblad wanted Kodak lenses for his new cameras, but soon switched to Zeiss...they were cheaper.
Most of our tour concentrated on digital. Here's an interesting camera—developed by Jim McGarvey's Federal Systems Division (FDS) at Kodak, it's the "earliest known surviving" DSLR in the world. The reason for the tortuous descriptors is that the world's very first DSLR, also developed by FDS, was the so-called E-O, or Electro-Optic, of 1988. That one was a one-of-a-kind that was built for what Jim McGarvey calls "a U.S. government customer." Kodak still isn't allowed to say (I'd think three initials and a reflexive culture of high secrecy—could be one of several). So does the E-O, the world's first DSLR, still exist? Might; might not**. The agency that paid for it might still have it, or might not—but they aren't saying, and you can't ask!
Shown is the Tactical Camera of 1989, the world's, yes, earliest known surviving DSLR. Built with an off-the-shelf Canon New F-1 body. The oblong extruded-aluminum box next to it holds the electronics and the memory. FDS built two of these essentially as salesman's models to show to various government agencies.
The 1.2-megapixel NC2000e of 1994 was the newsroom standard
In fact, Kodak, which wrote most of the history of early digital (and was still causing a sensation with its cameras as late as the 2002 Photokina), had some problems. The first was that, where digital was concerned, they were doing R&D and weren't really thinking in terms of marketing. The first time out of the gate they didn't realize that if a digital SLR said "Nikon" on it up top—because it was built using an ordinary off-the-shelf Nikon body and lenses—the public would naturally give Nikon credit for the camera, even though everything that made it digital came from Kodak.
As you might remember, newsroom purchases drove the first penetration of DSLRs into the marketplace. The NC2000e shown above was the standard newsroom camera in 1994—at $17,500, it was too expensive for anyone else. Because of that name on the prism housing, people assumed that the camera was the result of cooperation between Kodak and Nikon. Not so. The first time Canon or Nikon learned of DSLRs earlier than this was the same time the public did—when they came to market. That changed in 1994 when Kodak entered into a cooperative agreement with Canon—they never had a similar agreement with Nikon. [Note: An earlier version of this post had this backwards. Sorry for the error. —Mike the Ed.]
Second, although it was a manufacturing company possessing considerable expertise, Kodak didn't make a pro SLR body.
A third problem, and the one that's kinda touchy now, was that Kodak had nourished a culture so protective of the sanctity of its film business that, in the late '80s, the pre-production, pre-DSC prototypes weren't even called "cameras." They were termed "imaging accessories." Cameras used film.
The common perception is that Kodak was late to adjust to digital. Not the case. Actually, more often it was the opposite: it was too early with too many of its developments—products were made before the demand for them had developed. It happened again and again—too far ahead of the curve, not too far behind it. Just as bad, really, for business success, but quite different from the common assumption.
The biggest problem, though, was in the business model that George Eastman established starting in 1888. Cameras weren't where the money was; it was in film. The profitability of film just couldn't be approached by selling digital cameras, sensors, or reusable media. The infrastructure of Kodak Park had been developed at great cost to manufacture film efficiently—and it would have been hugely difficult to turn on a dime to manufacture anything else. As Todd remarked, "'Making the elephant dance' would not be an easy task."
Here's another interesting artifact. Many of you will remember the clamoring for "digital film" in the middle 2000s—a module that you could pop into a film body to instantly convert it to a digital camera. Here it is, in a prototype from around 2000. (The thing on the right is not a camera, just a case—if you think about it for a second, you'll realize that the distance between the cassette well and the film gate is non-standard, so a physically different design would have to be made to fit every different camera.) The product existed, and worked. But the project never got capital funding to get it to market.
A certain sadness
Although George Eastman Museum is not a corporate arm of Kodak—it's a separate entity, independently funded, and doing well—there is a sense of both trauma and tragedy that lingers in the air here. Kodak was a proud American achievement—a brand of huge prestige and a vastly profitable company that was a blue-chip success for well over a century, something few businesses of any kind ever achieve. (Imagine Apple still being around 88 years from now and you'll get a sense of this. Kodak is 15 years older than Ford Motor Company.) It long outlived its founder, George Eastman. (Depressed by severe chronic pain from a degenerative condition and with no hope of getting better, Eastman took his own life in 1932.) That's something not many companies based on innovations and ideas achieve either. It not very long ago employed 60,000 people in Rochester, spanning generations.
Todd emphasized to us that Kodak was well prepared for the end of film—it had the start point and the end point accurately predicted on the graph. It just expected the decline in between to be gradual. It wasn't. It was much more abrupt—things went along better than expected for a while, and then the graph line fell off a cliff. (To give you an idea, in a recent dpreview interview, Toru Takahashi of Fujifilm said that demand for its film products today is less than 1% of what it was in 2000.) Kodak was prepared to adapt. Just not that fast.
The bigger the company, the more in danger it is from disruption. The jumble of severe disruption resulting from the nosedive of the demand for film and the carnage it caused within Kodak was harsh and shocking to those whose lives were entwined with the company and its work, and for the city it helped to both build and define. From a distance it's just the Darwinism of big business; from up close there are human lives and emotions deeply involved. Rochesterians had to witness the proud old "Great Yellow Father" go down like a stricken ocean liner hit by a torpedo.
The last Kodak pro digital camera was the Professional DCS Pro SLR/c of 2004, built by Sigma with a Canon mount. Fewer than 2,000 people work for Kodak today, and the majority of the old Kodak Park is rented out to other tenants. Kodak's Professional Camera Division never turned a profit.
Curiously, a little yellow film box, modest as can be, embodies one of the great consumer products of all time, the result of decades of intensive scientific research, tremendous manufacturing know-how, matchless expertise in quality control, and tens of billions of dollars of R&D—yet the film in the box cost less than the packaging around it! The profit margin from film sales was ungodly high, decade after decade. In digital, by contrast, everywhere Kodak looked it had to ask, "...but where will the money come from?"
So what does Todd Gustavson himself shoot with? None of the cameras in the collection. "That would be a conflict of interest," he says softly. He showed us his own black Nikon Dƒ, saying, sardonically, "I'm one of the two guys who bought one of these."*** He prefers the AIS Micro-Nikkor 55mm ƒ/2.8 (which you can still buy new! I did not know that), a lens John Loengard of LIFE magazine fame also favors.
I hope this won't be TOP's last visit to the treasure vaults. There's a lot down there, really.
[Note: This article has been revised several times since first published. —Mike the Ed.]
Todd Gustavson, whose latest book is Curious Cameras: 183 Cool Cameras from the Strange to the Spectacular (a serious book, despite its flip and kid-friendly cover and title—I admit I thought it was a book for children when I first saw it online) was extremely gracious to take so much time out of his day to give us all a peek into the underground grotto of cameraphile delights. It was a wonderful tour—and the vast store of knowledge in Todd's head is an appropriate counterpart to the physical collection. Many thanks to Robyn, to all the kind, friendly people at George Eastman Museum, and especially Todd. Indirect thanks as well to Jim McGarvey for his PDF "The DCS Story."
*Probably. Todd thinks so, but the provenance isn't ironclad from a strict scholarly point of view.
**Could have been sold as government surplus, even...to some scrounger who didn't know what it was. Ew. Let's not go there either.
***Of course he exaggerates. At least 29 guys bought Dƒ's. And don't think I haven't been tempted.
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Featured Comments from:
Hugh Smith: "What a wonderful article, Mike. When I started in photography, working in a camera shop, we genuflected 3X daily to Rochester. When the Kodak sales rep visited the store, we all dropped our collective jaws just to be near the guy. It was the best of times and the worst of times as we all know now. I never made the 'pilgrimage' to Rochester and George Eastman House and this article is just awesome. Thank you."
Ctein: "Curiously, I just acquired Camera: A History of Photography from Daguerreotype to Digital in December when I encountered it on the bargain table at Barnes & Noble. I picked it up expecting a cheapo reference book, at an appropriately cheapo price, flipped through it, and daaaayum, it was really good! Well worth acquiring at any price.
"Overall, Todd and I are in agreement about Kodak's relationship to and history with digital. This, of course, means we're both right. The point about Kodak being too far ahead of the curve is a valuable lesson. There are multiple examples of that. PhotoCD is one. It would have been a much bigger success if it had been released 2–3 years later. Nobody had anything remotely close to it coming down the pike, and when it was released it was simply too immature and the cost/performance ratio was too unfavorable. The home players needed about three times the performance to be acceptable, which was impossible at the time without the price being unacceptable. And Kodak's representatives flat-out lied to photography labs about what it would cost them (and what they'd have to charge) to run PhotoCD services, by about a factor of three.
"In addition, some of the standards around PhotoCD and its color management were still in flux, so early discs had real compatibility problems with later software.
"But the concept and the overall technical execution? Excellent! Just too early.
"I bet hardly anyone reading this remembers the Kodak Premier System. It was a dedicated digital darkroom for photography labs that came out in the early '90s. It was brilliant, and it was a joy to use. Imagine if Photoshop actually worked the way a darkroom photographer would expect it to work! A custom printer (I mean the human kind) could use Premier with half an hour's training and become proficient on it in a day. It was that much like working in a dark room…except you worked in the light, seated at a console, with a big screen in front of you. The results looked like the way you would expect a photograph to look if you were manipulating it in the darkroom—color correction, dodging and burning-in, and more sophisticated controls produced results that looked 'photographic' not 'Photoshopped.'
"There was just one problem. It was 2–3 years too early. To make the system run well and fast, it needed custom hardware and code needed to be written to intimately mate with the computer. Unfortunately, it all made the system so expensive that it was impossible for a lab to ever amortize the purchase cost.
"For several years after Premier stopped shipping, I bugged the techies at Kodak to release the software as a standalone package, because it would have eaten Photoshop's lunch. That's how I found out about the code. They couldn't, not without rewriting it from the ground up. It was very customized. A shame.
"Kodak really did understand all this stuff before almost anybody else. Probably too far before anybody else.
"And, yeah, the very sudden collapse of the film business in less than two years in the mid-'Naughties' caught everyone by surprise, and it totally clobbered Kodak's long-term plans."
gary bliss: "I think that you have the economics of Kodak about right: Fuji's arrival in the '70sand '80s cut their margins close to half but they were still un-gawdly high; easily 40+% of sales, net. But these are margins that, short of pharma or cosmetics, are simply not generally available in the economy. So yes, how would any Kodak manager succeed by facilitating users, broadly speaking, to get off that horse?
"But there is another, and somewhat more subtle, institutional implication that the margins had. It is something that you may recognize from back-in-the-day. The culmulative effect of decades of sky high margins was the creation of a remarkably ossified and remote Kodak middle-management infrastructure, some of it 'R&D' (that did little for the bottom line) and some 'marketing' that was tone deaf to consumers' needs (witness APS). Kodak's remoteness was a open secret in the industry, to be highlighted every five years or so with yet-another Kodak 'openness' initiative.
"I am in the defense sector and we were, frankly, free riders on Kodak's research. We got, for example, adaptive optics decades early due to that and, frankly, didn't pay much for it; gosh darn it was useful for reading license plates on the tundra...."
Frank P: "I did some of the ads and collateral for Kodak's digital and film products through the '90s, also lots of ancillary involvement with other brands. One of Kodak's most important contributions was to envision and develop our current workflow using raw files and conversion software, along with reliable color profiling. As well as the basis for inkjet printing. Imagine digital photography left in the hands of Canikon and Sony...nothing but JPEGs and Microsoft Power Point hyper-saturated colors."
Peter: "I don't know anything about this place, but why the hell is all that stuff not on display for the public, rather than be locked in a cellar?"
Mike replies: It's often on display. Large collections like this are resources that are drawn on for exhibits, as needed. Same as with collections of art. Most art museums have only a small fraction of their holdings on display at any given time. The rest is in storage. When a curator gets an idea for a show, they might draw from their museum's own collection, and they might pull in other pieces on loan from other museums' collections.
Todd has curated 10 museum shows from the GEM camera collection; plus, selected items are on rotating permanent display; plus, selected items are brought out to augment specific shows. Plus, his four books are ongoing "virtual displays" with pictures and writeups of many of the items.
When we visited, there were a number of "Pre-Kodak" items (i.e., before 1888) out on a table, being gathered together for a new permanent exhibit, one that will give people an idea of what photography was all about before George Eastman came along. Todd mentioned that his next task was to take all the stuff he'd gathered together up to the room where it would be shown to see how it all fits in the cases, to figure out what there's room to show.
kevin willoughby: "Re '...the camera payload from the Lunar Orbiter that first mapped the moon...' Can you double-check this? Perhaps it was a prototype or a spare...to the best of my knowledge, every Lunar Orbiter that actually orbited the Moon was deliberately crashed into the Moon. The only man-made lunar artifact recovered from the moon was the camera of Surveyor 3."
Todd Gustavson replies: I wrote about this in all three books as it’s such a special piece. The pictures/descriptions vary: the first Camera book has a two-page spread showing Lunar Orbiter payload, a couple detail images of it, a LO image of Kepler crater on the moon taken by LO Feb. 1967, an image of the complete satellite as it would have looked in Lunar orbit, and an image of the Kodak technicians working on it; 500 Cameras has an additional piece written by Pete Schultz, a physicist from Brown University who also does some work for NASA; and Curious Cameras has an image of the Lunar Orbiter payload and the Earth from the near moon orbit.
[Note: Profits from the linked books go to the George Eastman Museum. —Mike the Ed.]
Tom Kwas (partial comment): "I ran across a few sites on-line where people were saying that they knew somebody with both the Ektar 80mm for Hasselblad, and the Zeiss 80mm, and the Ektar blew the Zeiss out of the water...."
Michael Perini: "Mike, thanks for this, all of it, but especially the Kodak story. Few companies ever get as good at what they do as Kodak was, and fewer still for as long. They certainly made some critical mistakes, but I'm not sure anyone could have turned that battleship fast enough. Film was just too profitable. I still have a collection of Commercial, and Wide Field Ektars, and Deardorffs on which to mount them. They were just wonderful. Thank you again. +1 for Todd's first book; I haven't seen the second one."
Mark Sampson: "Thanks for the intelligent analysis about Kodak's being just too far ahead of the curve. We were indeed; I was there, and using a software suite called 'KIEWS' in the early '90s that pre-dated Photoshop...it ran on a Sun SparcStation II computer since no PC/Mac at that time was powerful enough to handle it. I took the original documentary photos of Mr. McGarvey's 'Tactical Camera' and the other DSLR prototypes; they can be seen on his site. And yes, I shot them on 4x5 color negative film, using a Kodak Commercial Ektar lens."