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Monday, 25 January 2016


B&H sells quite a few of the manual-focus Nikon AIS lenses, which are still manufactured by Nikon. They're solid, unlike a lot of the AF offerings.

I would have bought a Nikon Df immediately, if they had cared enough to make it with an actually focusing screen. Just another case of "almost done right".

You know, I knew a guy with an old focal plane shutter Hasselblad and Kodak Ektar lenses, and he said the lenses were actually great. Funny that making lenses wouldn't have been something Kodak could have developed similar to the way Zeiss does today. A lot of those Kodak Commerical Ektars for view cameras were never really surpassed for sharpness, just contrast due to multi-coating and more accurate shutters.

Well that was fun, eh?! Yes I know of Todd Gustavson well, having two of his books on my ready-reference shelf.

If you want to explore the GEH further from the comfort of your computer (or net-connected tv) you should subscribe to The George Eastman House channel on YouTube. Lots and lots of wonderful videos of technical/historic topics as well as coverage of some of their lectures. If you're into the history of photography it's one of the go-to spots. (Warning: don't click that link unless you really have time to spare.)

Having started my career at Bell Labs, I know exactly how the Kodak folks must have felt. When I joined, after it was spun off from AT&T, it had 100,000 employees and $30B in sales. It's research labs collected Nobel prizes, its products, from DSPs, Cables, Class 5 switches to voice messaging systems where pretty much the best in the business... It is now a shadow of its former self. To survive it had to merge with it's rival Alcatel (another fallen giant) and later with Nokia Systems. Nortel, the rival from Canada, could not make it and went through liquidation.

But the Nokia Mobile Phones story is probably sadder. My impression is that Nokia's success was a big part of Finland's self image. They were taking the world by storm, it seemed the sky was the limit but within a few short years it all came crashing down. The company is owned by Microsoft. Which must doubly hurt because Nokia's leadership had the right vision. They saw people using PCs less and personal devices more, which could only that their triumph was assured and the Redmond firm doomed...

An interesting article. Since I also bought a Nikon Df there at least 3.
My Hasselblad 1600F works as does the 1000F and my Kodak DCSProC
Really does give Kodachrome colours

Really good stuff Mike, Makes me wish I still had some of my ancient stuff with the air packard shutter etc., not to mention the Petzval and the Dagor lenses

We bought our son a Kodak DC215 when he was in middle school. It was a battery eating .7MP (NOT 7mp, .7mp) marvel.
It is on the shelf at home so I guess we finally have a museum quality piece in the family.
It must have been an OK camera though. Our son will be getting his MFA in photography this May. However the DC215 has been replaced by a D7100.

I don't know if they are still trading on eBay, but it can be interesting to dive into their virtual dumpster--usually containing items donated to the museum of which they have one or more better copies. I bought a defunct Kodak Medalist II from the Museum formerly known as George Eastman House several years ago and adapted the legendary 100mm f:3.5 Ektar (a Heliar type) to Canon FD mount, and more recently to Canon EF mount using the Medalist's focusing helical.

I believe the Minolta SB-70s and SB90s backs for the Minolta 7000 and 9000 SLRs predate the Kodak DSLRs. The Minolta backs were shown at Photokina in 1986, and were supposedly released in 1987. They recorded 640x480 pixel images on 2 inch floppy discs.

[Those were still video cameras, which did predate digital cameras. The first one of those I used was the Canon Xapshot in 1988. --Mike]

That was a fun post, thanks Mike.

Thank you for that trip through (part of) the GEM. Great stuff, especially the "digital film" adapter. The only thing missing was a box of Tech Pan in the photo of the old film.

Thanks also to Kenneth Tanaka for the reminder of the GEH channel on YouTube.

Thanks for the trip into the sanctom sanctorum. I find it endlessly fascinating how big, industry-dominating companies like Kodak innovate themselves straight out of existence. As I'm sure you and most of your readers are aware, the first digital camera was developed at Kodak in 1975 (the year I graduated high school) by an engineer named Steven Sasson. Here it is:

(If you look closely you can see a cassette tape attached - this was the best means they had at the time for recording the data.)

Despite having developed the technology, Kodak's research labs were mostly siloed off from its money making business - which, as you point out, was centered around film - and so they had no idea how to "monetize" the developments of their own research. (I recall reading an interview with the CEO of Kodak, whose name I forget, given in about 2002, wherein he said that the company projected a fifteen to twenty year viability for the film business on account of the "Third World", where the minilab trade was just starting to boom. This CEO, whoever he was, reasoned that developing countries would have to go through several years of film usage before adopting digital. As it turned out, however, the developing counties largely skipped film and went straight to digital - just as they skipped landline telecoms infrastructure and went straight to cellular.)

Recently I discovered this.

It's the first digital photograph, a 1-bit image recorded in January or February of 1957 (one or two months after my birth - the little bugger in the image could have been me) by Russell A. Kirsch for the U.S. National Bureau of Standards during his development of the first digital scanner. (This whole digital thing, it turns out, is of and by the generation preceding mine, and yours, and, I'm guessing, that of most of TOP's readers.)

For a few years I worked for AT&T. During that time I learned that the first municipal cellular telephone system was built in Washington, DC, for use by Franklin Roosevelt during World War II. The mobile phone in his presidential limousine was approximately the size of a loaf of bread. AT&T owned the patents to cellular phone towers (and basically all cellular technology) but because they couldn't figure out how to monetize the technology they sold it off - only to be laid low by it a short time later - just like Kodak.

Lots of interesting stuff in this post, but what caught my eye was, "John Travolta has a house on my lake and I couldn't care less..."

So, doing some exploring on the omniscient Web, I found this, for your edification and amusement:

Slightly off-topic...

Thorstein Veblen, better known to TOP readers for his work on conspicuous consumption ("Veblen goods"), was also an early scholar on disruptive innovation. For a geeky but accessible retrospective on Veblen's thoughts regarding what leads to the demise of technology giants (like Kodak, IBM, Nokia), read Thorstein Veblen: Economics for an Age of Crisis (Anthem Other Canon Economics) available at amazon. There's no e-book version but it's also accessible as a google book.

The Norwegian-American scholar and author wrote when economics was a social science ("political economy/philosophy") before physics envy transformed the discipline into its highly-mathematized form today. Marxists consider Veblen as one of them but he was more than that.

I wish I had know how to operate the shutter on an original Kodak when a friend brought me an odd old box camera. They are completely unmarked and unless you suspect, you will have no idea what the darn thing is.

I looked it over, measured it (the only way you can figure out why the darn thing is) looked it in my collector's guide (McKeown I guess) and then just called up McKeown, very nice gentleman. He guided me me as to how my friend could sell it for a reasonable price (something like $2,000 twenty five years ago) and get it into the hands of a real collector (this was very important to McKeown, preservation) He sounded excited that another one had been found.

But I never clicked the shutter, I didn't know how. Nothing is very obvious on those cameras. Very simple to operate I guess. The operator's manual must have been only a few lines on a single page.

But the shutter is such an interesting thing, a rolling cylinder isn't it? Very nicely machined, nothing like the stamped out parts of the later cheap snap-shot cameras, this was obviously simple and expensive at the same time, the iPhone of it's time.

I first noticed that there was no obvious way to open it. It took round images a little over two inches, and the magazine was very large, so it took a whole lot of them, hmmmmm........ What is this?

This is a wonderful article, Mike. Definitely in the TOP top 10.Thank you very much for sharing.

B&H has eleven distinct manual focus Nikon AIS lenses listed. They are a bargain in 2016 dollars, and will last two lifetimes. We don't need no steenkin' VR and AFS with a good focusing screen :)

I apologize, I don't know how to make the below a TOP sponsored B&H link.


A great article. Thanks.

Dear Doug,

"...they had no idea how to "monetize" the developments of their own research..."

That is simply not true. Sometimes they did not succeed, but they were a product-oriented company and that applied as much to the digital research as much as the film. Like all very large companies, though, they had far more interesting ideas and inventions than the wherewithal to develop them.

Perhaps that's why this untruth gets perpetuated. People don't realize how many good ideas a big company can come up with. Only a fraction can be turned into products.

Or maybe it's just that people hate the idea that you can be smart and knowledgeable and still fail. 'Cause that would mean the universe wasn't a fair place, y'know, and we'd all be shocked.

As for failing to monetize... until the ill-advised DCS14n, Kodak OWNED the high end digital camera market. Just one of many examples I could cite.

Kodak made mistakes. Ultimately, Kodak failed. But this variant of the "they didn't have a clue" trope is deeply wrong.


Dear Peter,

Pretty much every museum in the world has a far, far bigger collection than they have room to display. GEH is not different. Believe me, the stuff on exhibit is pretty damn cool.

pax / Ctein

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 JPGs and Microsoft Power Point hyper saturated colors.

Mike, your posts never fail to be worth the read. Many are stimulating, a few are frustrating, now and then head scratching - but yours is a blog I always look forward to clicking on (and supporting). This post was truly fun to read, to view the photos, and to imagine myself wandering that amazing collection with you! Also, just a touch of melancholia thinking back on the decades of film use I was lucky enough to experience before The Change. Thank you and I look forward to Part II of this.

...as an "add-on" to my Ektar post above, 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...might have something to do with the Ektar having more elements than the Zeiss...

Kodak's management would have done well to consult a risk management expert versed in catastrophe theory.

Revolutions seldom lead to a 'gradual decline', especially in technology.

Great lunchtime read at work, thanks Mike. I'd love to visit that treasure trove if I ever had the opportunity. Interesting to hear that I'm one of the 29 people with a Nikon df, a recent acquisition. But then I'm one of about 20 still using the Olympus E-1 too.....which is partly wonderful because it came complete with that lovely Kodak sensor and a look and colour palette that I've never seen the like of from any other digital camera.

Your fascination, and obvious delight in getting "the inside story" from a learned and devoted curator come through very clearly in this post. Thanks for sharing your safari with us.

Visited GEH in 1974 while in film grad school. The history of movie cameras, motion picture film, the standards in processing & printing it were a revelation then. Everything you'd ever read about or heard about was right there, in the collection!

Many thanks Mike for a very interesting article. In the credits of the new Star Wars film at the very end is the Kodak logo, in their famous yellow. All other credits were in a uniform blue color. Made me feel good to see that!

[Begging forgiveness for the solipsistic comment:] In the years when I wrote feature stories for Rob Galbraith's web site, one of my favorite pieces to report and write was a story I did on the NC2000 and some of the photojournalists who began using it in 1994. I've done a few pieces on news photographers, and I always enjoy their salty take on the world and their work. As a bonus, this story also pleased my inner historian.

I've probably mentioned it in earlier comments, but for anyone interested, it's still available here:


Early 70's, we all shot Tri-X, I used Diafine and of course Nikor tanks. (were there any other SS tanks and reels?) Could walk into Altman's on Wabash in Chicago and get 100ft. of Tri-X, a box of 10 'snap caps' film cartridges and change back from a $10 bill. My how times have changed. Ilford is the new king of the hill (at least in B&W film and darkroom support, and for the time being). Even they had to buy a metal film cartridge supplier to ensure a reliable supply of that necessary item.

I remember being fascinated by the lunar orbiter camera at the museum. It was a self-contained camera, wet processor, and scanner package that transmitted a low-bit image back to Earth. Those photo boys from the '50's were pretty creative!

For another look at this collection, Chris Marquardt also recently visited the camera collection at the George Eastman Museum. His "Tips from the Top Floor" podcast episode 704 includes an audio discussion of his visit. The page for that episode also has links to a one hour video tour he put up on YouTube. His other videos from that day highlight the Lunar Orbiter camera, the first Kodak slide carousel, and exhibits at the museum.

"Most art museums have only a small fraction of their holdings on display at any given time. The rest is in storage."

There's a relatively recent change/spin on this. In the American collection at the Brooklyn Museum, one may go through a pair of tall, glass doors into a cool, dimly lit area where the much more of the collection is visible in dim light, cool air and behind glass.

This is called Visible Storage, and has, I discovered, been being added at various museums for several years.

really a nice read, great comments. Thanks Mike

A lovely post, Mike. I usually grizzle about companies being run by bean counters. But what happened to Kodak is what happens if a company is run by engineers. A pity.

Thank you, Mike. Thank you

I moved to Rochester in the Fall of 1993, just before things were starting to implode. My mother-in-law and her husband (my wife's step-father) were Kodakers. My step-father-in-law remembers one of the first retail camera shops in Saranac Lake, where he was born, that timed film development with a pendulum marked by differing marks on the wall behind.

My girl friend when I moved here (that was WHY I made the move) worked on contract for Kodak, helping to develop the UI for Photo CD.

The company I now work for has a location in Building 9 at what was known as "Elmgrove". It's not infrequent that I walk into the facility and think about the history, the people who worked there yet I do not know all their stories. I regularly drive through Kodak Park on my way to work. The decline haunts me, even though I have far less attachment than those who, like my wife, were born, raised and have lived their entire lives here.

The recurring theme among ex-Kodakers is that, along with missing the timeline of the decline of film, the core issue was Kodak's corporate/management culture. To advance you needed to agree and emulate. Outside thinking got you nowhere except maybe gone.

The 100/3.5 Ektar on the Kodak Medalist cameras is a real gem. Gosh I miss film!

Dennis..."I remember being fascinated by the lunar orbiter camera at the museum. It was a self-contained camera, wet processor, and scanner package that transmitted a low-bit image back to Earth..."

I found that bit equally interesting and did a bit of noodling around. The developing process wasn't wet, though, and the transmission system was entirely analogue:

[67] The basic system which Eastman Kodak would provide Boeing had been in existence since mid-1960,when Kodak had developed it for military applications. For Boeing's use it had been reduced in size and weight to fit within the Agena weight restrictions. The mechanics of the system were as follows: Film from a supply reel passed through a focal plane optical imaging system, and controlled exposures were made. Once past the shutter, the film underwent a semi-dry chemical developing process and then entered a storage chamber. From here it could be extracted upon command from the ground for scanning by a flying-spot scanner and then passed on to a take-up reel.
The line-scanning device consisted of a cathode-ray tube with a rotating anode having a high-intensity spot of light. The scanner optics of the moving lens system reduced by 22 times this point of light, focused it on the film transparencies and scanned them. A photomultiplier then converted the light passing from the scanner through [68] the film into an electrical signal whose strength would vary with the density of the emulsion layer of the film. This signal would then be transmitted to a receiving station on Earth and reconstructed. The Eastman Kodak Company would upgrade the system for the demands of the Boeing orbiter and its mission.

A significant part of the improvement in the system was the introduction of the Kodak Bimat process, which eliminated the necessity to use "wet" chemicals on the film. Instead, a film-like processing material was briefly laminated to the exposed film to develop and fix the negative image and, if the need existed, to produce a positive image. In the case of the Boeing orbiter this 3.8 second step was not used, and only negatives were made. Once the film had been developed and fixed, the Bimat material separated from the film and wound onto a storage spool....

Reminded me of this fascinating article about one of the lenses used on the earlier and rather less successful Ranger program (whose camera package was put together by RCA not Kodak):

I had the great pleasure of providing sound systems for the Kodak Center of Creative Imaging in Camden Maine in 1991. It was a joint Apple and Kodak facility with Adobe participation. I also provided systems for the opening events and got to shake hands with Douglas Kirkland, Herbert Keppler and others. A very impressive place ahead of its time and at the wrong time as Kodak was starting its financial woes and closed it a couple years later

It seems the latest 007 movie and Star Wars were shot on real film.

Did they use Kodak or Fuji film?

That photo, 'three old cameras,' just blows me away. Just sitting on a shelf. What a place!

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