I first began buying lab products directly from Eastman Kodak in 1980. Between then and 2008, when they ceased direct distribution, I probably purchased close to 2 million dollars' worth of paper, chemistry and film.
When we started Color Services in 1988, Eastman Kodak had been the dominant supplier in the industry for nearly 90 years. It’s omnipotence was unquestioned and its technical superiority a matter of fact. Now, as 2011 winds down it seems increasingly likely that their days may be numbered. They are burning through cash reserves at a rate that is not sustainable; their stock has been downgraded to junk status, there are reports of abandoning employee pension health insurance, and increasingly the financial media mention bankruptcy as a real possibility. Suffice it to say that wherever the financial truth may lay they have lost their inimitable swagger – the kind of swagger that they historically used as a tool to keep professional customers as well as competitors in line.
We still make analog prints and process film. It remains a good business and it remains our industry heritage. To do these things we continue to use Kodak’s products. I still use their films in the course of making my own work, as do many of our clients. We all have a stake in their survival and ongoing viability. Over the past 31 years the quality and reliability of their products has been remarkable, even when one takes into consideration the c-print stability issues that we have and continue to face. Their products have always worked reliably and understandably. At the height of their TSR field representative network days there was always an answer to any technical question one phone call away.
I have to admit to some mixed feelings about all this. Great products aside, Kodak treated us as if we were pretty inconsequential at the tail-end of their TSR days in the mid 90’s. Their reps repeatedly made it clear that they would do their best to put up with us (our standards were much higher than most commercial labs) and I often was left with the impression that we were regarded as more of an annoyance than an asset.
I also remember the last order that I placed directly with them. I had always ordered by telephone, rhythmically reciting one catalog number after another to the same fellow that that I had been ordering from for several years. He had over 30 years with the company and was approaching retirement and hoped he would make it there. Eventually I came to the last cat # (C41 Final Rinse) and after making awkward small talk about the upcoming Rochester winter we both knew that it was the beginning of some sort of an end.