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In 1975 an engineer by the name of Steve Sasson demonstrated a new technology to his employees. The size of a toaster, the invention took photographs, not onto film but onto an electronic sensor.
The image was recorded to cassette tape, was black and white and had a resolution of 0.01 megapixels yet it would eventually revolutionize the world we live in. Steve Sasson had invented the digital camera. His employers were Kodak.
The Rising Sun
On the other side of the world, the biggest rivals to Kodak in the film world were Fuji. By the 1970’s Fuji, like Kodak was a highly diverse photographic company, producing not only film but a wide range of photographic-based hardware both for consumers and industry. While Kodak held a virtual monopoly on film sales in the US, Fuji had the same hold over the passionate Japanese photographers. They struggled however to break the US market.
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A Tale Of Two Decisions.
Steve Sasson’s technology demonstration was a hit. The technical people loved it, the management thought it was “cute” It was cute, but it was not film and of course Kodak was predominately a film company. The management’s reaction was to tell Steve Sasson to keep quiet about it. A film-less camera, after all, could damage their film sales. Kodak had, classically, failed to see the power of a disruptive technology.
By the early 80’s Fuji had still failed to make any great inroads into Kodak's dominant position in the US film market. Their decision was to spot an opportunity and capitalize on it. That opportunity was the sponsorship of the 1984 Olympic Games. The green colors of Fuji were plastered not only all over the host city of Los Angeles but on every television screen in the world. Fuji had broken the US market.
The Last Decade Of Film
Walk into any camera store in the 1990s, anywhere in the world, and the film fridges would be dominated by two colors. The Yellow of Kodak and Green of Fuji. Head to head were the two iconic Kodak films, Ektachrome and Kodachrome, pitched against them was Fuji’s new kid on the block Velvia.
In the background, however, both companies had been working on digital imaging. In 1988 Fuji revealed the DS-P, the worlds first viable digital camera, but never marketed it. In 1991 Kodak unveiled the Kodak DCS, in partnership with Nikon.
While Fuji had realized that digital was going to become a mainstream consumer technology, Kodak clung to the idea that it would merely be an alternative or supporting technology to film. There is no better example of this than the Kodak Advantix Preview system. Launched in 1996 it was a camera based on Advantix film but with an LCD screen that allowed you to review the image you had just shot. By this time, however, both Minolta and Casio had launched consumer level full digital cameras and in 1997 Fuji launched the Fujix DS-300.
New Millennium, Old Strategies.
By the early 2000s, Fuji had gained a hold on the digital consumer market with its Finepix range of compacts. They were relatively affordable, easy to use and attracted not just photographers but general consumers too.
Meanwhile, Kodak still saw a future in film despite the obvious trend in the market. They were so tied up in producing film and the paraphernalia of chemical-based imaging that they could not foresee it’s demise. While they did produce some consumer-level digital cameras, they were half-hearted affairs that did not bring anything innovative to the table.
Fuji, however, had spotted that the Digital SLR market was not going to remain a professional only arena. In 2000, they released the FinePix S1 Pro. Cleverly, it was based on the Nikon F60 body and mount and so gave access to Nikon’s huge range of optics. Inside the technology and sensors were Fuji’s own. The S Pro series was not a massive success but it did allow Fuji to advance its digital technologies, a strategy that put it in good stead for the future.
The End Game
Through the early years of the new Millennium, Kodak remained innovative in the digital arena but also stubbornly fixated on celluloid imaging. By 2003, digital cameras started to outsell film but for Kodak it was too late. Already losing money they resorted to filing frivolous lawsuits for patent infringements rather than launching a comeback product.
In 2007, Apple launched the iPhone and in doing so created the new trend of smartphone photography. Smartphones began to kill the compact digital camera market, the only area where Kodak marketed digital cameras.
Fuji in the meantime seemed to have spotted the compact’s demise. While maintaining a diverse range of compact cameras, Fuji went back to their photographic roots and started to develop a true “photographer’s” compact camera. Released in 2011, the X100 was expensive, limited yet exquisitely made and designed. It set Fuji on the road to its highly acclaimed X series of cameras and returned them to the forefront of the photographic industry.
Just 11 months after the release of Fuji’s X100, Kodak filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Today the once ubiquitous name of Kodak lives on as a much smaller technology company focussing on imaging for business.
In September 2018, Kodak released a new product for photographers. Its called Ektachrome and its a revival of its iconic 35mm transparency film. It remains to be seen if Kodak’s faith in celluloid will eventually pay off. I am sure the irony is lost on few.
If you have a view on these film titans' fight or any other interesting points about the history of photography and film, tell us in the comments below.