I worked in digital product development for the Eastman Kodak Company for 16 years, from 1981 to 1998. I left because the company just couldn’t seem to make good use of people who had demonstrated an understanding of the emerging digital world. If you weren’t from film, you were suspect, but since you were an insider, you couldn’t be a change agent.
Fifteen years and 4 companies later however, I think Kodak was the best place I ever worked. It is hard to match their commitment to customers, employees and invention. I’ve yet to see a place where everyone in the company, from the janitor to the CEO, was as committed to each other’s — and the company’s — success. It was a unique situation, where it was not uncommon for an employee’s father and grandfather to have worked their entire life at the company. The company had one of the first profit-sharing plans, called the “Wage Dividend” around which the Rochester economy centered. “Buy Now, Pay in March!” screamed the car dealers, March being the month in which the Wage Dividend was paid. If an employee was goofing off, he would soon be set straight by a fellow employee: “that’s my Wage Dividend you’re screwing with!”
And of course, as a photographer, I loved Kodak’s products since I was a child: the beauty, the quality, the shear variety and the constant improvement. What new would they create to help me create? The smell of a freshly opened can of film always brought forth a pleasant sensation.
So it was with bittersweet nostalgia that I read The Disappearance of Darkness, Robert Burley’s photo essay documenting the collapse of the chemical-based photography industry. Through pictures and words Burley chronicles the transition in which he must “play the dual role of participant and observer”.
The sequence of photographs of the implosion of Buildings 65 and 69 at Kodak Park in Rochester, NY were personal. I knew people who worked in those buildings. I attended meetings in those buildings. Burley recalls “when I looked into the crowd in front of my view camera, I saw an array of digital devices — cell phones and cameras — capturing a final ‘Kodak Moment'”.
But the most poignant to me were the images of the graffiti-covered employee darkrooms at Kodak Canada, emblematic of a technology that had been abandoned, even by its own makers.