The Ghost of Kodak (Recent) Past

I took this picture in July 2019. The building has been empty for years. It’s sad to see its promise of one-hour development alongside trash and graffiti. Film photography declined quickly with the rise of “good enough” digital cameras. As to when that occurred precisely, I don’t really know. I have an 8MP Olympus e300 from 2004 that certainly looks good enough, as does my 6.1MP Maxxum 5D. While 6.1MP may not be great for significant enlargements, it’s certainly sufficient for pictures in front of the Washington monument.  The iPhone arrived in 2007, and with it, the need for the average person to have a dedicated camera lessened yet again. The trend was so rapid that by 2012 Kodak filed for bankruptcy, ending more than a century of photographic success. 

Film is impractical. I haven’t carried a camera on vacation in years. These days, having a roll of film developed and scanned costs 15.00 or more, not including the cost of the film. And to make matters worse, it often takes up to a week to get the results. So, why do I and others bother? It’s simply a question of beauty. 

Closed Kodak processing lab, 400si, Ilford XP2, July 2019

When I look at film prints or scans, they are aesthetically more pleasing. Why? I have no idea. Perhaps it is just the fact that I’ve seen film images all my life and accept them as the norm. Maybe it’s the fact that film captures colors differently. Portra 160 looks like Renoir or Monet had a hand in creating it. Lomography 400 could have had Matisse as a consultant. The grain in film also helps, as it seems to add some depth or weight to an image. As I said, I cannot explain my preference, only that it exists. 

Perhaps it is deeply ingrained and fixed, akin to what Agent Smith related to Neo in The Matrix. Smith said that the first versions of the Matrix were designed as idyllic utopias, but humans rejected them. The machines then redesigned it with the usual problems humans faced, and that version was successful. For me and others, it could be that crystal clear 25MP images further perfected in Photoshop are too perfect. No matter, Kodak and other film producers were going the way of the horse and buggy until those who had grown up with digital discovered film and those of us twinged with nostalgia returned. 

It seems the tipping point began around 2015/2016. Those appear to be the years in which new film-focused blogs began to appear and gear prices started to increase.  Looking at posts on blogs and in forums, I noticed people describing the cost of gear being much cheaper before those years. For example, a Maxxum/Dynax 7 today easily goes for 150.00. However, in a forum post from 2013, a guy said he bought one for 30 GBP (about 46.00) and urged others to try such a great camera because the prices were so low.  Obviously, things have changed. 

I am late to the party, having rejoined last year after a 40-year absence, and it’s good to be back. Kodak and Fuji say their film sales, though far less than in the glory days, are rising. Ilford and others are releasing new emulsions, and film cameras are selling well on eBay and ShopGoodwill.  

Film is unlikely ever to be what it once was, and there is no reason it should. But beauty, in any form, is always appreciated by someone, somewhere.  Film is more than a documentary mechanism or recording device; it is a way to capture and share beauty in a way that is unique, offering hints of Monet’s “Waterlilies,” Renoir’s “Bathing Party,” or Matisse’s “Still Life with Oranges.”  

I passed this building again just a few weeks ago. It has been painted, and the last vestiges of Kodak have been removed. It sits there, blank and unassuming, its past painted over.  Having gone by this Kodak building many times, I never considered it as other than another shop. Now, I realize that the years it sat fallow were a warning of what might be lost. For now, that warning seems to be more admonition than premonition. The Ghost of Kodak (Near) Future has a more cheerful countenance compared to that of his older sibling of the recent past. I will certainly do what I can to add to the merriment. 

2 Comments

  1. I came back to film cameras in 2006 after a hiatus of about 20 years. It really was a great time to be buying. I set a soft limit of $50 per camera and bought a ton of great, interesting gear.

    The prices did start rising as interest returned in about 2015. That, by the way, was my blog’s best year in terms of stats — and the year my camera reviews started losing their top-5 rankings on Google as so many other budding film photographers started to blog reviews of the same cameras.

    But there are still bargains to be found. For example, SLRs from late in the film era are still mighty inexpensive. You can buy the brilliant Nikon N90/N90s for about $50 on eBay every day!

    1. Author

      Jim, thanks for confirming my observations on the return of film. It was fascinating to see the trend show up in blog posts. I’m sure 2006 was a great time to buy!

      Like you, I consider the 90s cameras to be great bargains, and increasingly, they are my favorites. As far as prices are concerned, I have noticed an increase in prices just in the 14 months I’ve been actively buying Minolta gear. Also, more cameras are finding their way out of basements and closets. As you said, there are still plenty of bargains to be had!

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