Creative Disruption: The Changing Landscape of Technology

The Evolving World of Photography

On January 19, 2012, Eastman Kodak filed for bankruptcy protection under Chapter 11. As the firm that brought photographic ability to the masses, this blow represented a turning point in technology and the industry.

Kodak's story is not unfamiliar in the world of technology. Kodak's innovation started an industry, educated and developed a huge customer base, invented digital photography, and made the mistake of not staying ahead of the technological curve, eventually falling victim to the major management error that led to its bankruptcy. Its story is not dissimilar to Xerox's which also begat an industry and, by in large, because of its great success, did not make the leap into the area of computer technology even though its major research arm, Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC) gave us laser printing, object-oriented programming the graphical user interface and Ethernet. Kodak's story differs in that it spans a much longer period of success. Here we'll take a look at the history of photography and how technology has changed its course.

A Snapshot of Photographic History

Photography did not begin with Eastman Kodak. The idea of a pinhole camera dates to the fifth and sixth centuries. Even before that, Leonardo da Vinci wrote about a "camera obscura" during the period from 1478 to 1519. It was not until 1839, however, that the term "photography" entered the English language. During the 19th century, photographers had to understand the physics of light and have the skill to use heavy photographic equipment.

George Eastman (1884 - 1932), the founder of what became Eastman Kodak, is truly the father of modern photography. He invented roll film as a method of recording photographic images; in 1888, he introduced the Kodak Camera, the first camera for roll film. It was a camera for the masses that cost $25 and came preloaded with enough film for 100 exposures. When the customer had used all the exposures, he or she sent the camera containing the film to Kodak, which developed the film, printed pictures, reloaded the camera with film for another 100 photos, and mailed it all back to the customer - all for $10.

In 1892, the firm known as Eastman Kodak was born. In 1900, the company introduced the camera that would become its most famous model, the "Brownie." My first experiences with photography were with a Brownie Box camera, which would be used on trips to the Bronx Zoo with my male and female cohorts in their Easter finery. The Brownie had no zoom or wide angle features and the film and the pictures were black and white. Eastman Kodak dominated the film market for decades. In 1976, it had a 90% share) and, in spite of what now feels like Stone Age technology, the public was generally satisfied with the results.

Eastman Kodak was added to the Dow Jones Industrial Index in 1930 and was included there for 74 years until it wad finally removed in 2004.

Even after Eastman committed suicide in 1932, Kodak continued to innovate and prosper. It introduced Kodachrome, the first 35 mm color film in 1935, and faced its first major technology challenge in in 1948 when Polaroid introduced the first instant film camera. Kodak tried to compete with Polaroid by introducing its own instant camera but was not very successful and, after it lost a patent infringement suit to Polaroid, left the instant camera business in 1986.

The Advent of Digital Cameras

As we now know, the Polaroid was just a hint of the instant gratification we would come to expect from photography. But it wasn't until the invention of the digital camera by a Kodak engineer, Steven Sanson, in 1975, that Kodak really delivered a better answer to consumers' desire to see their photos right away. Unfortunately, Kodak decided not to actively move to this technology because they believed it would cannibalize their booming business in selling film. Initially, the judgment made some sense as digital cameras were very expensive and did not have the resolution that film cameras did. This, of course, would soon change, and it was Kodak's short-term thinking that would ultimately leave the company far behind its competitors.

Once the digital camera cat was out of the bag, digital cameras became smaller and cheaper, the resolution improved, and users moved rapidly to the new format. As photography became increasingly computerized, new competitors entered the market as computer and electronics firms such as Hewlett-Packard, Samsung, and Sony joined Nikon, Canon and, eventually, Kodak in producing digital cameras.

The shift to digital photography didn't exactly take Kodak by surprise. The company saw the writing on the wall; by 1979 it had determined that the market would shift permanently to digital by 2010 and it tried to do other things to broaden its base. This included a move into copy machines, threatening Xerox. What it did not do, however, was to thoroughly embrace digital photography and begin to wind down its investment in film research, processing and development.

From Cameras to Devices

But the changes in the photography market did not end with the advent of digital photography. In fact they'd only just begun. Few people carried a digital camera around with them everywhere they went, but by the late 1990s, many people were carrying another device: a cellphone. As these cellphones became smartphones, manufacturers began to add digital and video camera capabilities to the devices. While this hasn't killed the market for digital cameras, it has affected it and will likely continue to have an impact as the quality of the cameras built into smartphones improves.

More importantly, from a societal view, we now have a nation of photojournalists who increasingly provide the public with images of natural disasters, police brutality, sports events, criminal activity, accidents, weddings, unusual weather, graduations, etc., largely because they have the ability to do so at their fingertips. These pictures may be shared instantly via email or, increasingly Social media. This immediacy and ability to share has in some ways made photography an even more powerful medium.

Technological Innovation, Creative Disruption

We never again have to buy film, bring the exposed film to a store or send it away to be processed, or pay for additional prints. This has not only changed the photography industry, but it has also affected the way take, view and share photography. In their desire to continue to profit from film, the Kodak company overlooked a key factor of technological change: once consumers move toward a new way of doing things, there's no turning back.


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Written by John F. McMullen
John F. McMullen lives with his wife, Barbara, in Jefferson Valley, New York, in a converted barn full of pets (dog, cats, and turtles) and books. He has been involved in technology for more than 40 years and has written more than 1,500 articles, columns and reviews about it for major publications. He is a professor at Purchase College and has previously taught at Monroe College, Marist College and the New School for Social Research. He is also a member of the American Academy of Poets, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Freelancer's Union, the Association for Computing Machinery, the American Academy for the Advancement of Science and the World Futurist Society.

His current non-technical writing includes a novel, "The Inwood Book" and "New & Collected Poems by johnmac the bard." Both are available on Amazon.com.