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Monday, 19 October 2015


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Kudos to the residents of Rochester for maintaining a positive attitude about their neighborhood and community. The demise of Kodak boggles my mind whenever the topic arises. All I can think of is that upper level management, these would be the Executives that are making obscene salaries (conjecture) for their decision making abilities. In my Industry I deal with people much more affluent than I and an observation that I have made over the years is that often people with a lot more money than me think they are smarter than me at everything. Maybe those suits should have consulted with the 20 year old geeks who were interning or making a small salaries about the future of digital. Your critique of these photos was spot on BTW.

I live near Rochester, worked for Kodak as have multiple generations of my family and friends. Both of these books are smug gestures by elites who breezed into town and shot to their expectations with closed minds already made up. I wouldn't support either book with a purchase. I hold extra contempt for the Magnum crew that passed through here a few years ago... posers all of them.

"the book presents such a relentlessly dour view of it that it’s scarcely recognizable to me."

Geoff's conclusion about the Webbs' book reflects a problem I often see in this kind of reportage, which is the reporters shoot what they think, rather than what they see. And you can always shoot what you think; you can make the happiest playground look like a horror show. Probably the biggest lesson I ever learned as a pretty good reporter was to write what you see, and not what you think. If you do that, even when you're working with words, which of course are endlessly malleable, the authenticity rings out. But it's really, really hard to get past what you think.

Nice side-by-side, Geoff. It's usually very interesting when you come across such closely parallel bodies of work by three photographers with such different backgrounds. I've never visited Rochester so your deep personal familiarity with the actual city makes your notes infinitely more valuable than those of a casual many-moons-ago visitor.

I've never seen Catherine Leutenegger’s "Kodak City" (gee, it just oozes Stephen Shore-intoxicated art school training, doesn't it!) but I have perused Alex Webb's/Rebecca Norris Webb's "Memory City". The main problem I had with it was similar to the problem I had with their Aperture book on street photography: their work doesn't blend smoothly. They're each fine photographers but they're different photographers with different eyes. The forced blend is distracting.

Alex's images here seem similar to Alex's images in general. He an abstractionist. It almost doesn't matter where he is; he'll produce much the same eye-level colorful composition anywhere.

Several years ago Alex did a piece here in Chicago for Magnum and Leica on many streets that I know intimately and photograph almost weekly. (It's my 'hood.) So your comments of how distant his images seemed from the reality you observed resonated with me. Not that that's a bad attribute at all! Quite the contrary, it's a wonderful talent. But documentary it ain't, eh? It's more like Alex is writing a visual poem about Rochester rather than a factual newspaper essay.

Thanks for this review, Geoff. I'm going to try to get a look through "Kodak City" at the first chance.

I was born and raised less than a mile from the shopping plaza shown on the cover of "Kodak City". And I worked for Kodak as an industrial photographer for 20 years, and every day went to work through the door at the lower right of the other photo shown (it's the Hawk-Eye plant, likely empty by now). So I can claim a real connection. I'll take a good look at Catherine Leutnegger's book; it's a subject worthy of attention. Now that I've moved away I can imagine it as a project; I was too close to it when it was my life (for example, my own illustrations of Hawk-Eye, and there were quite a few, were assignment-driven, and any real personal vision was subordinated to the needs of the assignment.)
And I remember when the Magnum folks came to town a few years back; there was a group show at the George Eastman House afterwards. Seeing the show, It was fairly obvious that they parachuted in, did their thing, and parachuted out. Any real understanding of the city, and its situation, would take more time and effort than any of them had to give, and the results showed in the generally mediocre pictures.

John Camp - you know the industry well.

I only wish the news reporters of today's newspapers, television and radio news and could ingest the wisdom in your comment above.

Then again, maybe those same "reporters" can't report what they see and hear because their corporate media executives are busy dictating what should be reported to maximize advertising revenue and media views or 'hits'.

I don't care to be the judge of the skill of Webb and/or Leutenegger, but the subject of Rochester, NY within the context of Kodak's influence would probably be much better served by a photographer that knows the history of the city and the company.

Kodak management gets plenty of blame, much of it deserved... but what most people overlook is that unlike other large corporate failures Kodak's management worked very hard to ensure that the retirees kept their benefits and laid off workers could make the best of their situation. Of course there are disgruntled ex-employees but nothing like what would have happened if the management and board cut and ran.

While Kodak's marketing mistakes are business school legends, the way Kodak humanely handled its downsizing should be a model of best practices for the worst situations.

The stereotypical evil corporation Kodak was not. We may complain about some niche discontinued products that we never bought enough of but the bottom line is Kodak mostly did the right thing for over 100 years.

As for the city of Rochester's issues, I don't see Kodak to blame for afflictions ruining every older American city: rampant drug abuse and crime, uneducated, irresponsible youth, single parent households, multi-generational welfare dependency, and a shrunken tax base. For all that you can thank the progressive intentions and policies of our federal government.

As for the books, I admire Rebecca Norris quite a lot and wish she published her work as an individual piece.... Her husband and the Swiss lady seem a bit self-indulgent.

Another great book following the decline of Kodak and other film manufacturers is Robert Hurley's Disappearance of Darkness. Hurley takes a global view, visiting Kodak's former French factory along with Agfa and Polaroid. The book's only drawback is its compact size – Hurley's exacting photography deserves much larger.

There must be something about Rochester and inventions that turn on their inventors when their inventors ignore them in favor of their old business.

Kodak invented the digital camera and was subsequently done in by it.

Xerox invented the mouse and the graphical interface for computers with windows and icons. Xerox also invented ethernet, computer networking laser printers and desktop publishing. Xerox came out of that with what little bit of the photocopier business that isn't owned by Minolta Konica and Canon plus an amusing walk on role in the story of Steve Jobs.

They were titans of industry but suffered pretty much the same fate as the original titans.

Lindsay- Thanks for that historical corrective, it offers considerable insight rarely mentioned in the usual narrative.

As for those disappointed with the presentations depicted- what can one possibly expect from someone who has photographed the subject at hand for a couple of days, weeks, months... Even long term residents don't always get it exactly right (if at all) due to their own personal prejudice, agenda, short sightedness as Lindsay amply demonstrated.

Photographs provides no truth, no historical nuance, no motive or explanation. The camera records light off the reflected surfaces where it's pointed- and we fill in the gaps, rightly or wrongly. Photography is a limited medium, it's amazing what it can do within those limitations, but even the most thorough photo essay must be supplemented with in depth historical and sociological research that will lend any kind of depth, understanding or substance to the subject matter at hand. Without it we are left with the individual's photographer's "vision," hopefully great to look at, but offering little else.

PS- Compare and contrast the two (three) presentations above with Matt Black's ongoing and vastly more comprehensive Geography of Poverty- his photography is just one leg of a project that aims not only to document, but to... understand.


Thank you for that wonderful account of Rochester. I spent some time visiting in 1981, and Kodak and Xerox were the pillars of their economy and looked like they would continue to be for generations. But those middle class blue-collar towns of old were the economic wonder of the world.

How industrial towns in America have suffered, since then.

A small quibble. With the greatest possible respect for the folks at Genessee Brewery, a Genee light or Genessee Cream Ale was a perk, but surely not a standout perk?

Though, come to think of it, it probably was, since usually Pabst Blue Ribbon was the alternative - the Genesee beers were the local area go-to choice and were easily superior to that.

Alex Webb is a great photographer, though his images are always more about Alex Webb than about his subject. Among his books that I owe there is one about Istanbul, a city that I know quite well. I do not recognize any location, nor the atmosphere of the beautiful metropole. But I do recognize Alex Webb from a long distance. It does not matter if he shoots in Kampala, Mumbai or Rochester.

I await the definitive non-photographic book that outlines year for year the demise of Kodak. Someone needs to be interviewing people that are still alive that worked in places like the coating plant for 40 years, to get their take. Someone better hurry up!

It's easy to forget, in the wake of digital, that Kodak was not brought low by the introduction and wide-spread adoption of digital; it was brought low by poor management who had been wasting money and making bad decisions since the 1970's if not earlier. Kodak held many patents on digital, and people there certainly understood the future and what was going to happen. Not capitalizing on it was a gross management error, as well as not setting themselves up to make a profit still covering those who like film and printing with a concise and focused offering of premium films.

I still am struggling in corporations trying to make it to 66, and I see it every day: senior management that makes decisions neither understanding their market, planning for the future, or even looking at the research.

Geoff, thanks for your review of both books as well as your insights about Kodak and Rochester. It was also nice to read Mark and Lindsay's perspective as well as others. This made for an enjoyable and educational morning read. I now have a more complete picture about Kodak's demise and how Rochester has coped with the changes.

Regarding the business failures associated with the demise of Kodak, here is an excellent article published by the Wharton School several years ago: http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/whats-wrong-with-this-picture-kodaks-30-year-slide-into-bankruptcy/. As a family friend who served for many years as Kodak's chief purchaser noted, beginning in the 1990s,the company began selling off the wrong assets. For example, Kodak management spun off Eastman Chemical in 1994 and it is now one of the largest chemical companies in the world, posting a revenue of more than $9 billion last year. Similarly, Kodak management spun off CareStream, its huge medical imaging business in 2007 -- a year that the division brought in $2.5 billion in revenue. Currently Canadian-owned and with many operations still based in Rochester, CareStream racked up a boat-load of patents during the year that Kodak declared bankruptcy. The sorry truth is that Kodak management could never stop believing in their cash-cow film monopoly, even as the core photographic business migrated from the chemical to the electronics industry -- a migration that ironically marched on a path blazed by Kodak research.

Given that this post about Kodak, photography and Rochester, for my money only the photo of the dress( I assume Webb's) had any response from my photo Gieger counter.
Several posts seem to be conflating the narrative with who the narrator can be. Can only persons of color write about Civil Rights? I suspect most good writers could tell the Rochester story properly,locally based or distant. Just need the time and funding to do it. That is the crux. It's hard to make a best selling book about urban blight and or business mis-management. It's great material but a weak market. Now add a pension sacking evil billionaire w a comb-over and you're starting to get somewhere!

I think people need to be careful not to lump Kodak and Xerox into the same category. Xerox sure isn't what it used to be, but unlike Kodak, it avoided the catastrophic collapse of its core business, and is not bankrupt.

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