Daneman: Kodak’s woes spawn growing library of books
Whether the subject is abandoned homes in once-busy Chernobyl or vacant foreclosed-upon subdivisions in former Sun Belt boom towns, there’s something unspeakably eerie about photographs of abandonment and vacancy.
Which is why no one would mistake Kodak City for a product of tourism and convention promotion group VisitRochester.
The book, by Swiss photographer Catherine Leutenegger, is a collection of essays and photos of the Rochester area taken in 2007 and 2012. But don’t look for colorful shots of blooming lilac bushes or sunsets over Lake Ontario. Instead, Leutenegger’s deadpan work has a sort of gray, queasy, hungover effect as it focuses on such images as Ridge Road strip malls, the empty dining hall in Eastman Business Park Building 28, and the vast expanse of asphalt that used to be a busy Lake Avenue parking lot outside Kodak’s R&D labs. “The digital revolution seemed to have dealt a blow to the financial health of the entire metropolitan area, which had a front-row seat to the dismantling of its core industry,” Leutenegger wrote in one of the essays.
According to the Swiss publisher, the book’s aim was an exploration of “the face of a city once central to photography but now irrelevant and adrift.” Ouch.
The book, to be released in September, paints a different picture of Rochester than photographer Alex Webb and photographer/poet Rebecca Norris Webb do in Memory City, available next week.
The Webbs’ book, along with a photo show on exhibit through July 3 at the Visual Studies Workshop, is the result of five visits to Rochester after Kodak declared bankruptcy. The couple include many more people in their photos, and Norris Webb played with images of special occasion dresses as a metaphor for photographic film.
Alex Webb, meanwhile, shot his last rolls of Kodachrome for this project. He wrote in an email: “I began to understand how Kodachrome — the vibrant color film that I used almost solely for some 30 years —that these days can only be processed as distressed-feeling black and white, suggested something about the streets of Rochester in the fading days of film.”
Aware of the city’s photographic legacy, the Webbs learned through the project of its pivotal role in social justice movements of the 19th century and its rich cultural and social history.
“As we worked more and more on the project, we came to realize that Rochester is a deeply soulful city,” Alex Webb wrote.
The new books are just the latest in an array of publications about all things Kodak that were seemingly spawned by the company’s 2012 bankruptcy and recent struggles.
K. Bradley Paxton spent 32 years at Kodak, retiring in 1992 as head of its Electronic Imaging Research Laboratories. And his Pictures, Pop Bottles and Pills: Kodak Electronics Technology That Made a Better World But Didn’t Save the Day, is a mashup of catalog and recent company history, starting in 1960 and focusing on all the various products Kodak developed, with entries on everything from the Instamatic camera to the Bayer Color Filter Array.
Most Rochesterians know Kodak invented the digital camera in 1975. But it apparently developed the first videocassette recorder, beating Betamax. The product never went to market, though, because of so-so image quality and an executive’s assertion no one would be interested.
Paxton said he’d kept thick files of technology brochures and newspaper article clippings from his time at Kodak, and people had urged him to write a book about the company. “When the bankruptcy happened, I was out of excuses,” said Paxton, now chairman and co-founder of ADI LLC, a Brighton firm specializing in testing and evaluating IT classification system performance. And one goal, he said, was to try to lift the spirits of former Kodak colleagues.
“They worked hard and diligently on this stuff for their careers and it didn’t work and maybe their efforts were wasted,” Paxton said. “I began to describe some of the things I was digging up in my research, ‘Oh, yeah, I forgot we did that.’ We did a lot of stuff that helped the world at large, (though) it didn’t help the boys on State Street.”
Not all the recent Kodak literature is business-centric. For example, Kodak Elegy is a memoir by William Merrill Decker, an English professor at Oklahoma State University who grew up in the Rochester area as a son of a Kodak engineer, with a focus on American society and culture in the 1960s and ’70s.
But the “former Kodaker trying to trace the roots of the company’s decline and fall” could almost be its own library shelf.
John J. Larish’s cursory rough history and overview of Kodak’s history and problems — Out of Focus: The Story of How Kodak Lost its Direction — is laden with anecdotes, though often repetitive, and argues the case that Kodak’s failure was largely due to a long line of CEO missteps.
Frank Vetare’s Kodak: You Should’a Been There is a first-person account that points to everything from a changing corporate culture to the failure to capitalize on its early lead in digital photography.
And Paul Snyder’s heavily footnoted Is This Something George Eastman Would have Done?: The Decline and Fall of Eastman Kodak Company also recaps modern Kodak history and argues that Kodak made too many missteps, like its venture into pharmaceuticals, while its meat-and-potatoes film business fell apart (though it never really does say what steps Kodak founder Eastman might in fact have taken).
Snyder ends the book with Percy Bysshe Shelley’s sonnet “Ozymandias,” with its contrast of the hubris of a once-great king (“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”) and of the decay of time.
Kodak still has some successes, like its digital printing plate business and growing popularity of its commercial inkjet printing line. But considering the numerous empty lots where massive buildings once stood at Eastman Business Park, and the tens of thousands of jobs gone over the past 30-plus years, Shelley’s words still resonate: “Where nothing beside remains, round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare.”
Paxton’s book concludes that Kodak’s chief problem might have been a failure to clearly define what business it was in and to stick to it. However, he said, the definitive Kodak has yet to be written.
“The whole story on Kodak’s not yet been told,” Paxton said. “I don’t pretend my book is a business case, nor was it intended to be. I focused on the technology and what can this tell me that’s not a slam dunk obvious thing to say. It’s not a simple one silver-bullet answer to what happened. You could write a whole book on just Kodak culture.”
Includes reporting by staff writer Diana Louise Carter.
• Kodak City, by Catherine Leutenegger, to be released in September, $50, Kehrerverlag. artbooksheidelberg.com
• Memory City, by Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb, to be released June 30, $60, Radius Books. radiusbooks.org
• Pictures, Pop Bottles and Pills: Kodak Electronics Technology That Made a Better World But Didn’t Save the Day, by K. Bradley Paxton, 2013, $14.95, self-published.bradpaxton.com
• Kodak Elegy, by William Merrill Decker, 2012, $29.95, Syracuse University Press.syracuseuniversitypress.syr.edu
• Out of Focus: The Story of How Kodak Lost its Direction, by John J. Larish, 2012, $14.95, self-published.
• Kodak: You Should’a Been There, by Frank Vetare, 2013, $37.95, America Star Books. publishamerica.com
• Is This Something George Eastman Would have Done?: The Decline and Fall of Eastman Kodak Company, by Paul Snyder, 2013, $9.99, self-published.