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Kodak’s story: Front row to a sea change Photography, Students, University Magazine

RIT hosted 'Kodak Day' in fall 2003 to celebrate the university's historic partnership with the company. The event included a visit from Kodak's NASCAR show car. (photo by A. Sue Weisler)

Eleven years have passed, but I remember the moment with remarkable clarity. Seated across from Bill DuBois, then RIT’s chair of photographic arts, I listened as he requested support from University News to publicize a new initiative. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was witnessing the introduction of a sea change.

“Paul,” he said, “I need your help to announce that the School of Photographic Arts and Sciences will begin teaching photography digitally.”

I was confused, and Bill knew that I would be. By the fall of 2000, RIT had been offering classes in digital photography for a number of years. But he went on to explain that ‘digital’ would now infiltrate all aspects of photographic education. Film, he explained, wasn’t going away—at least not any time soon. Instead, digital technology and traditional imaging would be fused together to improve educational efficiency.

Across town, Eastman Kodak Co. was already struggling to find its way across this changing landscape. Around the start of the new millennium, it was generally accepted that film and digital technology each had its place in photography. Speed made digital attractive, particularly to those working in photojournalism, but film still offered an overall image-quality advantage.

Of course, we all know what happened next. Digital quality improved, and consumers began clamoring for easy-to-use digital cameras. Kodak quickly became a smaller fish in a less profitable pond. But at least people still needed their photos processed in order to share them with friends and family. Kodak technology allowed them to plug their cameras into a computer and make prints right from home.

Then came camera phones and Facebook. Game over.

News last week that Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy made me realize I had watched all this play out from the front row. Overtime, I saw RIT darkrooms replaced by digital laboratories. Student exhibitions were less likely featured in the university’s galleries and more likely appreciated online. And Kodak consistently played a diminishing role in all of it.

In 2003, I wrote “Focused on Success,” an article for RIT: The University Magazine that celebrated the legacy of the Kodak-RIT relationship. I pointed out that company founder George Eastman’s first official act of philanthropy came in support of RIT—a $50 contribution to what was then known as Mechanics Institute. That gift led to an ongoing partnership that, over the years to follow, generated great opportunities for both organizations and the Rochester community.

At the time of that article, there was a sense of optimism that Kodak would successfully redefine itself, and its ties to RIT would remain significant. As the most recognizable brand in the imaging field, it seemed reasonable to assume the company would stay a relevant force heading into this new era.

Like so many who grew up in the Rochester area, I too have family ties to the company. Both of my older brothers and my brother-in-law worked at Kodak. And, as I suspect was true at other family gathers across the region this past holiday season, Kodak’s struggles were a topic of extensive conversation.

“Every business experiences a natural life cycle,” I recall saying. “Kodak has had an amazing run.”

“Yeah, I suppose,” replied my brother Bob, who retired from Kodak after 33 years with the company. “But it’s hard watching a place I spent so much of my livelihood disintegrate.” He reminded me of the toll that the company’s decline has been taking on our community’s psyche.

This past weekend, I watched a CBS News story about the reemergence of the American auto industry. Two years after teetering on the verge of extinction, the ‘Big 3’ automakers have slimmed down and are now profitable and operating with renewed vigor. Is Kodak capable of a similar turnaround? It’s hard to say, but we’d all enjoy a front row seat to witness its rebirth.


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