A few weeks ago the last roll of Kodachrome film was processed. The final roll of the iconic film was used to shoot New York City [The Wichita Eagle].
The Life & Death of the Photo Industry
I don’t consider myself a photographer, but photography is near and dear to my heart. My father was a photo industry guy for most of his career. Film, paper, chemicals, and mini-lab equipment put a roof over my head, and food in my belly.
I was an inquisitive kid, and at eight years of age, I pretty much wanted to be my father when I grew up, so I was constantly asking him about his job. He taught me a lot about business, sales, marketing, photography, the equipment, and anything else that I asked him about. He didn’t know it immediately, but he gave me a front row seat for the death of the photo industry, and it sucked.
One year he gave me a digital camera for my birthday (I think it was 1998). The moment he gave it to me was the first time I had ever seen one. It was a good digital camera at the time, but that wasn’t saying much. It was a toy. A novelty. It sure as hell wasn’t the harbinger of doom, or so we thought. He kept bringing home newer, better digital cameras over the follow two years.
The photo industry grew through technology; each new innovation brought more money. The big photo companies thought that digital would be no different than the advances in chemistry, cameras, and printing. They believed that they were entitled to their marketshare.
Make no mistake about it. Regardless of your industry, no company is entitled to marketshare or profit. It needs to be earned every year.
They also made a false assumption. They assumed that people would always print their pictures. They couldn’t imagine a world where photos would be shot, and spend their entire existence in digital form. They falsely assumed that they didn’t need to be industry leaders in camera technology, and could stick to printing. As we know now, it didn’t work out that way.
The photo industry was blindsided by the booming tech companies, and in a flash, their marketshare was divided up between companies like HP, Epson, and online photo storage sites.
In no time my father and all of his coworkers were scattering around trying to find work in the digital photo industry.
Another year or two went by and the only people using film were either on Social Security, or “purist” art-school assholes. The silver in photographic paper became more valuable than the paper itself.
The bottom-line was and is, a DSLR has the capacity to take high quality images, you don’t need film, you don’t really run out of film, you can instantly see your images, images don’t need processing, lab technicians can’t ruin your film while processing it, and digital manipulation photos opens up new opportunities to photographers that just weren’t possible with film. Similarly, sharing photos online puts them in front of more eyes. Digital is more user-friendly.
So, in less than a decade a pillar of international business crumbled into nothing.
The tech companies and online printers would hire the photo industry folks, use their connections, and then send them packing in a steady cycle of hire & layoff until the smart ones decided to seek a completely new industry.
When Agfa (my father’s employer), Kodak, and Fuji’s photo divisions began to fail a lot of talented, intelligent, and good people lost their entire industry. Like I said earlier, it sucked. It still sucks.
But there wasn’t a bailout like the American auto and banking industries received.
There wasn’t a national debate with Federal agencies stepping in to try and protect the industry like the print and traditional media companies are receiving.
There was unemployment, and the cold realization that if you sold film and paper based photographic equipment you were out of luck. And as much as it sucked to be on the receiving end, that’s how it should be. If Agfa, Fuji, and Kodak had the foresight to stake their claim in digital they might have survived, but they chose to cling to their business models, and they bled to death.
We are living in a time of rapid and powerful change, the likes of which have never been experienced in the history of Earth. Businesses are going to fail… Entire business models will crumble, and new ones are going to emerge.
Financial forecasting more than a year or two into the future is total BS, and planning 10 years into the future is laughable. If you asked top photo industry executives in 1995 how business would be in 2005, their answer would not have been, “dead.”
Don’t take marketshare for granted. Keep up on technology, be adaptable, and always expect that your industry will go through rapid change in the near future.
If you think the last decade shook things up, you ain’t seen nothing yet.