The Eastman Kodak Company, better known as Kodak, was co-founded by George Eastman and Henry A. Strong way back in 1888. In the more than 130 years since, the company has been through a lot. It once was a dominant force in the photography industry, at times being almost as synonymous with photography as the Apple iPod once was with respect to music. For all but the youngest in society, we have all heard the phrase, ‘Kodak moment.’
However, with the advent of digital photography, Kodak began to lose its place at the forefront of photography. Interestingly, Kodak itself patented the first handheld digital camera in 1978, eventually shelving the product in order to better preserve its film business. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that Kodak created its own demise a few decades in advance.
Believing in the long-term viability of a predominantly analog photography industry, Kodak missed critical opportunities to diversify, a mistake Fujifilm didn’t make, as is evidenced by the Japanese company’s impressive lineup of digital photography cameras and lenses.
Kodak’s meteoric rise to near-total market dominance and the precipitous fall from grace is a fascinating story. The Wall Street Journal recently produced a short documentary covering the story of Kodak, which can be viewed below. The video begins with the origins of the company before ramping up to Kodak’s prime and its eventual decline.
In Kodak’s heyday, the company focused on creating simple and easy-to-use still and video cameras for everyday people. This goal, one the company had long met successfully, resulted in Kodak employing more than 145,000 people in 1988. It was Kodak’s best-ever year. At the time, Fujifilm was the biggest threat to Kodak’s business. In 1989, Fujifilm managed to capture an 11% share of the U.S. film market. The next few years saw Kodak’s position of power further eroded, and the company brought in a new CEO from outside in an attempt to right the slowly sinking ship.
|Kodak’s digital camera shipments in the United States from 2008 through 2011. Image credit: The Wall Street Journal. Data credit: IDC.|
Losses continued to pile up and jobs were cut as Kodak moved to a new CEO at the turn of the 21st century. Kodak continued to produce new digital photography product and jumped into new product sectors, such as printers, but Kodak was fighting a losing battle. The advent of smartphone photography added further difficulties for Kodak, as no longer were consumers as inclined to buy a dedicated camera to capture life’s most important moments. No longer was there a desire to create ‘Kodak moments.’
|Kodak’s stock prices have trended very downward since 2014. Image credit: Wall Street Journal. Data credit: Factset.|
Eventually, the financial challenges became too great and Kodak shuttered its camera business and filed for bankruptcy in 2012. However, the story of Kodak didn’t end there. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Kodak began licensing its very identity, resulting in the Kodak name being plastered on many different products. Kodak even made a cryptocurrency in 2018. However, its stock price kept falling.
With the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Kodak found a new opportunity to pivot. On July 28, President Trump announced Kodak would receive a $765M government loan under the Defense Production Act. Kodak, a company long known for producing products using its chemical expertise, is poised to move into pharmaceuticals. Trump’s announcement sent Kodak stock skyrocketing. However, the deal is currently being held up as the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) investigates the deal and Kodak itself for insider trading.
Kodak is far from the only company that has faltered in the digital age of photography. However, Kodak may be one of the most famous examples of how changing photographic technology can sink a company.