Photojournalism's Debt to Kodak
Thursday, January 19, 2012 - 12:24 PM
Having failed to adequately adapt to the digital age, Eastman Kodak Co. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection this week. Kodak had long been struggling: First, with the advent of digital cameras and then, with the emergence of smartphones that threatened to make even those devices obsolete. Most recently, drawn out intellectual property litigation added another drain on the company coffers. One-time rival Fujifilm began diversifying decades ago, branching out into manufacturing optical films for LCD screens and producing cosmetics. Yes, cosmetics. Apparently anti-oxidants developed to preserve collagen-containing photos also do wonders for the skin. Kodak, however, preferred to keep all of its prints in one stop bath, so to speak.
News of the potential loss of what was once the paragon of a successful American business during these trying economic times has been met with heavy hearts and a whole lot of nostalgia. After all, Kodak is the company that once promised to capture our memories forever. But all this reminiscing over the good ol' days of Kodachrome holiday snapshots tends to overlook many of Kodak's other important contributions. While Kodak is known primarily for sparking a century-plus long amateur photography craze by making the process easy and affordable to the average hobbyist consumer, it was also instrumental to the development of photojournalism.
A second-hand Kodak box "detective" camera was the first to belong to legendary photographer Edward Steichen who produced some of the finest examples of military photography during World Wars I and II, as well as the first images to be classified as examples of modern fashion photography for Vogue and Vanity Fair. From 1935 until 1945, Weegee's stark, iconic black and white tabloid photos of New York City streets and crime scenes were shot nearly exclusively with Kodak. These "wet off the press" prints were famously developed out of the trunk of his car and can now be found on view in a new exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York. This 1954 Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by Virginia Schau is perhaps the best simultaneous model of Kodak's photography for the everyman ethos and its landmark contributions to photojournalism. It depicts the rescue of two men left dangling from a bridge after a horrific tractor-trailer accident. Schau took the photo with a Kodak Brownie when she, along with her husband and father, happened upon the scene by chance while on a fishing trip in Redding, California. She was the first woman and second amateur to receive the honor.