Kodak’s Digital Future

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Recently I read with great interest a New York Times business section interview with Antonio M. Perez, Eastman Kodak’s chief executive. (The interview appeared in the January 7, 2006 paper; you have to have an online NY Times membership to read it.)

Mr. Perez is basically right that the camera industry hasn’t really delivered yet on the promise of digital. As he puts it:

This industry thinks of digital capture devices as ‘filmless cameras,’ in the same way that the auto industry thought of the first motor cars as ‘horseless carriages,’ ” he said. “So far, all we’ve done is replace silver with silicon.

Good analogy. I do think we’re at the “horseless carriage” stage of digital photography. My Nikon D70 dSLR for the most part looks like, and works like, its film SLR siblings.

But then Mr. Perez proposes some “gee whiz” features that propel digital photography all the way to the era of the Jetsons:

Why shouldn’t a camera “infer” that you want to send your mom and your sister the picture you just took of your baby – and do it for you? Why shouldn’t it automatically eliminate red eye, unflattering shadows, even reopen eyes that were photographed in mid-blink? Why shouldn’t electronic archives respond to a command to display all pictures of your daughter – or, of your daughter with her dog, or wearing a blue dress?

At best, this stuff is basically trivial (well, all except the better ways to search archives). At worst, Mr. Perez falls into the fallacy of thinking he–or his camera’s automatic features–know better than I do. This has always been an irritating problem with cameras that possess sophisticated electronics, and it’s going from bad to worse in the digital era. (It’s also an issue with certain smug operating systems and software, such as Microsoft Windows and Word, but that’s a story for another, well, story.)

I don’t want my camera to “infer” on its own that my mom and sister (if I had one) should get a copy of the photo I just took. I don’t want my camera correcting red eye–or other “flaws”–without my initiation of the correction process. And I certainly don’t want an annoying pop-up that I have to make go away asking me if I want to do one of these things while I’m concentrating on something else.

Getting it means understanding that digital photography is an entirely new medium: one that combines capture and computer. I want my cameras to make available the power of their electronic “brains” in the field and to help facilitate post-production when connected to the computer in the studio. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

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Here’s another exchange showing Mr. Perez not quite getting it:

Q: Kodak has always made its money from consumable goods – film to capture images in the old days, paper and inks to make snapshots today. Won’t the growing use of electronics wreak havoc on your bottom line?

A: Consumables won’t go away for a long, long time. People like to thumb through albums and display photos. Home printing has gotten easier. And what could be more convenient than making prints at a retail kiosk when you’re in the store for other reasons anyway? People envisioned a paperless office after computers were invented, and that certainly didn’t happen.

The problem here is probably wishful thinking: Kodak has always made its money from disposables. While there will always be some need and desire for prints to put on walls, the vast bulk of digital photographs will remain digital. These photos will be sent as email attachments, yes posted to photo blogs, and end up on Flickr. And by the way, Mr. Perez, when we wanted to produce an album of photos of the kids for their grandparents, we found producing one-off books out of Flickr a far cheaper and more elegant way to go. Eat your heart out, Kodak!

Part of the problem with the whole situation is a disconnect. There are many great technicians in the world of Photoshop and digital photography, but no clearly great image makers or images have emerged yet. Across the great divide, photographers cling to their dying craft but don’t have the computer skills to master digital. Camera and film manufacturers who pay patronizing lip service to digital, and bookstore shelving categories (there is one category for photography and another within computer books for digital photography) mirror this damaging schism.

Considering Kodak’s vague–and vaguely cartoonish–conception of the future of digital, it’s too bad the company has been so quick to drop its distinguished silver halide black and white printing business. (See photographer John Sexton’s newsletter article A Sad Day for Photography.)

No doubt Kodak would also like to drop color film, but can’t so long as it is a profitable annuity business.

Putting theoretical profits ahead of the needs of the craft of photography will ultimately do Kodak (and photographers of both film and digital persuasions) a disservice because it does nothing to heal the chasm between photography and digital technology.

Related Photoblog 2.0 posts:

Would Ansel Like Digital?
Alas for Analog
Going with the Grain

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