The third age of photography

The fall of Kodak reveals the dangers for companies who think they've already made the changes they need for the digital age. The post digital one may be less forgiving.

The fall of Kodak, the powerhouse of the US photographic industry is a sobering tale. This is a company that helped invent the earliest digital cameras and which successfully pivoted its business into the digital era. Both its printing services and its digital compact cameras – the Easyshare range – were successful as digital photography took off.

But it was a second transition that broke the company, one it was ill-prepared for.

It’s inherent in the idea of Post Digital that the digital era is a transitional one. It’s the stage where digital is new and shiny. But there’s something else in there – it’s also the period where we recreate the analogue world in digital form. That’s what Kodak did; it made cameras that looked very much like the cameras of old, and it assumed people would want to print their images just as they did in the days of chemical photography.

But the photography industry has reinvented itself. Online sharing rapidly became more important than printing – Facebook is the largest photo hosting site in the world and I wonder how many of those images have ever been printed? And the industry looped back quite quickly into an analogue form as the opportunities of creating books, wall prints, t-shirts and any number of other physical objects became the rock numerous new businesses were built on.

It’s five years since I first took photos at a party, and the children rushed up to see the results immediately. They just assumed that they could – it never occurred to them that they couldn’t see them. Indeed the idea of waiting for the prints would be utterly alien to them. They’re post digital. Digital photography is their baseline. They don’t need the qualifying “digital”.

Some people of earlier generations are still stuck in a transitional era. I have friends who still print out their digital photos and put them into an album by hand. But, increasingly, they are the exceptions. One of them proudly made her first online-ordered calendar this Christmas.

But maybe some of the companies aren’t quite post-digital either. The Digital SLR market – largely regarded as the high end market that Kodak failed to grab – and the one where the money is – is still producing products that are locked in an analogue era design. Digital SLRs are not substantially different in form factor from the film SLRs of a decade ago. Just as compact cameras are being eroded by the ubiquity and power of cameras in smartphones, DSLRs find themselves under threat from the new breed of Compact System Cameras or mirrorless interchangeable lens cameras, that are designed around new, smaller form factors that don’t derive their design from the need to transfer a strip of film from one reel to another across a shutter.

Trey Radcliff describes this transition beautifully:

Some people have called this evolution “mirrorless” cameras. In my judgment, that is a ridiculous name. You don’t name a category of technology by what it is not. I suppose we did use to call an “automobile” a “horseless buggy,”but now we look back on that quaint term and laugh. So, of course we will not call these cameras “mirrorless” for long.

Perhaps this abandonment of the trappings of an analogue past in exchange for something truly digital facilitates the construction of new analogue ideas on top of these new digital tools.