Artistic Inspiration and the Fall of Kodak

A new exhibit in our nation’s capitol is as breathtaking in its quality as it is in its simplicity: seven world renowned artists offering up private photographs of their daily lives and sharing them with the world, alongside beautiful works of art. The uniqueness of the exhibit, however, lies in its inspiration. Kodak, the company loved around the world for its handheld cameras and impact on the lives of artists everywhere, serves as the inspiration for the exhibit, as all of the photographs taken are from simple Kodak handheld cameras. Given recent events, however, the inspiration is bittersweet: having recently declared for bankruptcy, and fear of liquidation rampant, artists everywhere face the reality of a world without the company that inspired so many of them to take their first photograph.

The exhibition, Snapshot: Painters and Photography, Bonnard to Vuillard, opened this past Sunday and continues until May 6th at The Phillips Collection Museum in Washington, D.C. Organized in conjunction with the Indianapolis Museum of Art and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, the exhibit features the work of seven dynamic artists: Pierre Bonnard, Maurice Denis, Edouard Vuillard, Felix Vallotton, George Hendrick Breitner, Henri Evenepoel and Henri Riviere.

The idea behind the exhibit is simple: taking their cue from the inspiration of the Kodak handheld camera, first introduced in 1888, all seven artists experimented with the simple device and provided images that captured their daily lives and the world around them. All seven artists captured images of beauty and resonance, and all together compiled over 200 photographs for the exhibit. The artists as a team took over 10,000 photographs with their trusty Kodak cameras, and the great thing about the exhibit is that most of the photos are unpublished and never seen before in public. Most of the images were meant to remain private, and instead of keeping them in their personal collections, the artists have decided to share them with the world.

One of the nice things about the exhibit is how some of the photographs in the collection served as inspirations for later paintings. You can see, side by side, the original photographs next to the paintings. The other parts of the exhibit feature over 70 paintings, drawings and prints from the artists.

The larger point here, at least for me, is how this relates to the recent news of Kodak’s bankruptcy. As reported by the New York Times and others, Eastman Kodak filed for bankruptcy last month, with many in the business world predicting that liquidation may be in its future. Founded over 131 years ago, Kodak has struggled to remain competitive in today’s technological environment, with more and more photographers going digital and leaving the company’s tried and true 35mm cameras behind.

Kodak is not the first company to struggle in the face of new technologies, and it certainly will not be the last. But as it relates to the arts and technology as a whole, this case takes on additional meaning. So many artists and photographers first fell in love with cameras and taking photographs because of Kodak and their simple 35mm cameras. In the age when film was king, Kodak had a near monopoly on the 35mm business, with competition from Fuji in recent decades. Kodak’s efforts were responsible for creating millions of artists and some of the images that have resonated with us for decades.

Kodak’s lessened stature may not have been noticed by many over the past ten years, as digital cameras have boomed and consumers have been more concerned with LCD screen size and optical zoom size instead of remembering what kind of film to buy. But for anyone who has ever bought a Kodak handheld and been introduced to the wonderful world of photography, it stings a little bit.

Even as Kodak sought to expand its portfolio over the past decade, knowing that this moment was going to come, it could still count on people seeking that old fashioned thrill of the disposable camera. But as more and more people turned to digital, and the company failed to do well enough in the other fields it has ventured into in recent years, including printers and digital cameras, it was only a matter of time until the company was in danger of folding.

I still remember taking pictures with a Kodak handheld when I was a kid, eagerly joining my mother as we went to the store to develop pictures of our family vacations. When I worked in retail in high school and college, I worked with Kodak vendors who introduced us to their latest 35mm and digital cameras. I had friends who worked for Kodak, both at their main offices in Rochester and as field representatives.

So as it relates to the exhibit in Washington, it’s refreshing to see a new exhibit that seeks to capture the joy of artists taking simple pictures with their trusty Kodak handhelds. Even as technology changes, ultimately for the better, a nod to the photograph’s past is especially appreciated.

The beauty of technology is that current and future generations will find inspiration from the arts in new and exciting ways. Digital cameras are becoming extremely affordable and are allowing more and more people to experience the joy of photography. Online editing tools are allowing people the tools to create beautiful, dynamic images at resolutions as large as their imaginations.

Twenty or thirty years from now, will museum exhibits look back on the era of our current technology, digital cameras, as society leaves them behind for something else? It’s too soon to tell, but we do know one thing: the beauty and joy of photography will continue to entertain and capture the imaginations of people of every age and background. As we move forward in an era of exciting technological breakthroughs and products, it’s a shame that a company like Kodak may not be around to enjoy it.

(Photo: courtesy of the Phillips Collection)