It’s hard to remember a time when digital photographs weren’t a central part of our lives, but the shift from film and paper to electronic images has actually happened almost overnight.
In June of 1999, my friends Kamran Mohsenin and Lisa Gansky decided that digital photography had an opportunity to remake the way people gathered, shared, and printed pictures and launched a service for the fast-growing community of digital image makers called Ofoto.
For those of us who were already shooting digital pictures with reckless abandon, Ofoto was like a gift from the sky. It provided an elegant, easy, digitally native way to shift photography from a handful of framed images and a shoebox of fading prints into a digital timeline of our lives and memories.
It was awesome. And it grew at a speed that I suspect stunned even the founders.
I was an early investor in Ofoto, and I remember wearing the company-branded swag with pride. Almost overnight, digital photography had become something real, and different. Even though I’d grown up with the acidic smell of a darkroom’s dank chemicals and the tactile joy of printing images, to me, digital was better by any measure. It offered a community and a transition to what appeared to be the future of photography.
As early as Kodak–which today filed for Chapter 11 bankrupty protection–was on the purchase, it seems that the digital DNA of Ofoto was more of a virus than a cure to what ailed the once-dominant photo giant. Some years later, as I traveled from the airport to Kodak HQ, where I worked briefly on a pilot project for a Kodak-branded TV series, we passed the massive train yard. I asked the driver what that was, and he reminded me that Kodak’s powerful past was as a chemical company. And the film they produced was created from the bones of animals. Those trains led to the boneyard. Ah, of course. Most of the thickness in film comes from gelatin, which is used to hold the silver halide crystals in an emulsion. Gelatin is made from animal hides and bones, mainly cows and pigs.
While Ofoto’s life as an independent startup was relatively short–it was founded in 1999 and sold to Kodak by 2001–founder Lisa Gansky joined Kodak and was for five years the president of the renamed Kodak Gallery and GM of digital for Kodak.
Yet all the time, Kodak seemed to want to drive digital behavior back to businesses it knew and could control. Rather than embrace digital, it wanted digital to fuel printing. First with the creation of cameras for the Kodak Easy Share line, then for printers and ink, Kodak wanted the warm glow of the bright yellow box and the family memories of a “Kodak Moment” to shift from digital sharing back to physical objects.
Is it possible for a company with legacy business holdings, and a history of owning a narrow sales channel, to evolve into a thriving digital enterprise? Kodak isn’t alone in trying to sort out this analog to digital transition. Companies like Sony and Comcast have been using acquisition to remain relevant or even dominant in the new world. But Kodak didn’t do that. Rather than use the head start they had with Ofoto, they let companies like Flickr take the lead in the fully digital photo world.
Kodak made an attempt to break from the past in 1994, when it spun off the chemical business into Eastman Chemicals. But even without the legacy chemical business to hold it back, the company’s passion for image making seems inexorably rooted in the physical creation of images, rather than the passion for sharing visual storytelling that could have been its future.
Even today, digital photography is shifting; Facebook is where users store and share a staggering 140 billion photographs, dwarfing all other photo sharing offerings.
Kodak was, for a generation, the brand that meant capturing stories with pictures. It may be in a digital world that no legacy brand can keep this fast-growing space hemmed in. For even as Kodak files for bankruptcy, the practice of making and sharing images is alive and well.
[Image: Flickr user Kelly Hofer]