Selective Focus: A Score of Years Ago

Selective Focus: A Score of Years Ago

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Back in ‘93 we were just getting ourselves out of a severe recession. It was Bush then and it’s Obama now, but the banks remain the culprit. In 1993 no camera was being manufactured in the U.S., and no mass-market camera is being manufactured here today. Twenty years back there was no Internet, and certainly no Internet commerce. But there was one little thing that was bubbling below the surface called digital—and digital has changed all that came before.

I remember sitting high above Rochester in the executive offices of Kodak (remember them?) doing an interview with George Fisher. Part sage, part visionary and all business, Fisher scanned the horizon and said in no uncertain terms, “When electronics hits the photo industry it will never be the same.” Kodak became both instigator and subsequent victim of that change. Some say it was the war between the film old guard and the new guard digital folks that did them in, but I have my suspicions that other forces were at play. Fisher, I now see, wasn’t just talking about digital photography as a medium, but as a pattern of product cycle, distribution and technological disruption that was more endemic to the consumer electronics industry than the then-staid photo industry.

The movie Jurassic Park opened in 1993, with all its creatures created digitally. Just as in the movie, the digital raptor was being born in the photo industry. Back in ’93 the photo industry was regarded as “mature.” Film and film processing were cash cows, and autofocus was just being recognized by pros. The single-use camera had begun to pick up steam. Fast film with any quality was of the ISO 400 breed, and point-and-shoot cameras were all the rage. Nowadays, it’s rare that anyone under 21 has ever shot a roll.

APS premiered in ’96 and was the cuckoo in the industry’s nest. Some blame the subsequent decline and fall of companies like Agfa and Konica, and even some camera companies, on that ill-fated format and its development costs. It was silver halide’s last stand, a Custer-like one at that.

Distributors who had served the photo industry well for many years were beginning to drop by the wayside, replaced by the CE crowd. Manufacturers upped the buy-in ante on dealers, and quantity-ordering levels were raised to the point where many simply could not compete. It was the beginning of the end of the independent photo store.

The lab business changed, too. Consumers didn’t bring film to food or drugstores because there were so many independent labs and finishers and that’s where they always had their processing done. Many of the chains hadn’t yet seen the gold in them thar hills. And you couldn’t walk two blocks in lower midtown NYC without walking by three E-6 labs. Today all those minilabs are landfill.

But there were clear signals, at least in hindsight, that a massive change in how people would capture, store, manipulate and enhance their photo experience was taking place. Computers were becoming bigger and faster, and cheaper every day. In fact, Photoshop for Windows was launched in that fateful year of ’93. And then there were those first consumer digital cameras, sad things by today’s standards with low resolution, poor quality and high prices. Surely, we thought, film would always be king. Digital was a curiosity at best.

Then the computer folks started looking at photography as an untapped potential for growth. I’ll never forget a T-shirt I saw on a booth guy hawking high-end pro digital camera backs at a trade show. It said, quite boldly in red: “Film Is Dead.” As usual, the company that made those shirts is now out of business and film was, in the words of Eric Idle of Monty Python, “not quite dead yet.” But Fisher’s words rang true: everything was about to change.

Companies like Sony and Samsung and Panasonic came into the photo industry with all guns blazing, and tonnage, speedy product cycles and low-profit margins became the watchwords of the day. Distribution became a matter of sub-distribution, with niche phone banks handling different levels of buying. Channel marketers began working all aspects of the trade, with the traditional specialty photo channel getting only a few lines. Digital cameras, which began life as computer peripherals, eventually became the mainstream. Specialty dealers started becoming a rare breed.

But the CE folks didn’t look at cameras and such as an end in themselves. Pictures became “content” to help sell “content delivery” items, like TV sets, computers and even to populate websites whose sole purpose is to market ads and create data banks of its users. When your images go public you become a demographic.

That’s what really drove the change, the shift in perception of the digicam from a cute peripheral to a leader that took us down an entirely different road. Yes, it remained the medium with which people looked to record their lives, and it was certainly a way of making pictures more economical than the film days, but it also fed into the CE infrastructure quite nicely. Digital cameras quickly became mass-market items.

We began to live in a world where everything on the shelf was labeled digital, laughably at times, including tripods, bags and anything else you might sell a photo consumer. It wasn’t that the three-legged support had become binary. It was that those selling these products realized that calling a tripod or a camera bag digital would get them into the “right” stores. Witness who now runs the biggest photo show in the world. Camera stores might have given up selling enlargers, but you’ll never see a mass-market store that doesn’t have computers, digital imaging software, ink, paper, etc., right near their digital camera display.

Over the years the buying public, and notably pro photographers, had embraced and been burned by their digital experience. In the beginning the category was oversold on what it could do. Imagine trying to get good prints out of what essentially were VGA-resolution chips. I have kept a sampler of images made from digital cameras over the years, and the early ones look like TV reception in a cheap motel. Pros spent countless thousands on gear that quickly grew obsolete. Early adopters who some dubbed the leading edge became cynically characterized as the “bleeding edge.” But as things progressed, people fell in love with the convenience and economy of digital. Things still went awry, and buyers still felt they were paying to be part of a product improvement focus group, but despite it all digital began to prevail.

But the conversion of our industry to digital does not change the core business of the photo industry—something, I might add, that should not change. That core is being the industry that gives people products and services that help them record their lives. We provide the ways and means for people to remember their loved ones and to examine their social standing and perceptions of the world around them. We feed their imagination, their creativity and desire to share. We bring them fun and excitement, and often a reason to be in a certain place at a certain time.  

So, with all the goings-on of the past 20 years, we should maintain focus on just what it is we do and why we enjoy doing it. Photography, be it digital or film, is a vital part of our lives and is often an important thread in the cloth of our existence. That hasn’t changed, and will never change. That’s why this industry is so vital, so challenging and, at times, just plain fun. It’s a family with squabbles and mad uncles in the attic, but through it all we can be proud of what we do and how we bring joy and, dare I say, a measure of fulfillment to so many lives.

The products and services we sell today weren’t even glimmers in the minds of researchers back in ’93. New entrepreneurs and companies have arisen, and technology rules the roost. It’s digital everything, all the time. But I can predict that one thing will remain true 20 years from now: photography—be it via digital cameras or eyeglasses that record with a wink or tablets and phones that send images into a cloud—will still be the medium for creative expression and keeping close and dear the precious people and moments in our lives. As long as we keep our eye on that ball, we’ll continue to provide a vital service and remain a viable and meaningful business to our customers.

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