19 January 2012

Give us the nice, bright colours..

Businesses file for bankruptcy everyday. Indeed, it's reported on everyday. In the 'Business and Finance' section of newspapers. You know, the bit no one ever tweets about. But the demise of Eastman Kodak (at least in its current form – the firm apparently plans to relaunch itself in 2013 with digital photography as its sole focus) has gone mainstream in, I think, quite an unexpected way.

The news that Kodak is filing for bankruptcy has prompted a wave of articles analysing the demise of Kodak's once thriving business - a decline that is largely blamed on the company's tardiness in 'going digital'. The first digital camera was developed by Eastman Kodak in 1975, but the company sat on the technology for fear of damaging their own film-making business and were overtaken, in the meantime, by Japanese companies such as Nikon. More interesting, however, has been the slew of overwhelmingly nostalgic articles looking back over the history of Kodak and its products. This is partly down to the appeal of George Eastman, founder of the company, as a figure in our collective cultural history. Eastman's own rags-to-riches biography – left school at 14, invented revolutionary technology (roll film), founded pioneering company, became legendary philanthropist – is interwoven with the history of photography and, therefore, the history of the last century, in an almost irresistible way. Eastman made it his aim to make photography portable and accessible, putting the first Kodak 'Brownie' camera on sale in 1900 and instantly creating a new market for a previously cumbersome, specialist technology. By the 1970s, the company was at it's peak, selling 90% of all photographic film in the US in 1976. It's an extraordinary legacy.

The brand has also always been extraordinarily visible - Kodak and advertising have historically gone together like Guinness and Pelicans - and even inspired a 'Mad Men' episode where Don Draper is tasked with marketing the companies 'new' slide carousel and comes up with... well, with this, drawing on the sentiment and nostalgia we all associate with domestic, personal photography. This is the point, isn't it? Photography is often described as inherently nostalgic, or a least backwards looking, especially in the context of personal or 'vernacular' photography. Kodak has become a focal point for this nostalgia, and I for one am not immune.

My own Kodak memory relates to a book I worked on at Aperture Foundation - William Christenberry: Kodachromes – which documents Christenberry's archive of work made using 35mm (Kodak) Kodachrome slide film. Christenberry (b. 1962) made this work over a period of 30 years, in his home of Hale County, Alabama, and it is beautiful, as is the book. We received hundreds of 35mm slides from the artist (which had previously been kept in his refrigerator) and these were edited by editor Denise Wolff and book designer Dave Chickey into a dreamy sequence of beautifully framed snapshots - usually devoid of people, often documenting structures, signs and places which had become iconic in Christenberry's oeuvre. I love the work, I love the book and it reminds me of a really happy time in my life!

Let me know your Kodachrome memories and I'll do a post if I get a few! Either way, there is more archival Kodachrome action to come on the blog, so watch this space!