Camera companies have come and gone for years; there is a Polaroid Swinger and a Flip on the shelf with my old camera collection, in this Instagram taken on my iPhone. But there is something special and noteworthy in the demise of Kodak, which filed for bankruptcy yesterday. Just a generation ago, Kodak was photography; then they invented the digital camera (but couldn't capitalize on it) and the company is now on the verge of being history.
Environmentally, the victory of digital photography is probably a good thing; every time I used my basement darkroom I was dumping silver and other toxic chemicals into the lake, and every time people took film into the labs they ended up with a lot of garbage prints. A few years ago people would complain that the waste generated by printers and cartridges was probably just as bad as the regular printing, but who prints out anything but a few special photos anymore? (the TreeHugger team had a long debate about the end of film exactly 4 years ago, at the End of an Era: Nikon Stops Making Film Cameras )As far as equipment goes, my Olympus OM1 and OM2 from my university days still work perfectly, as does my Carousel slide projector, but I have probably been through six digital cameras in a decade. All of the photographs I took of my children with film cameras are still safe in a box or on the walls, but the digital prints from a decade ago have faded and I can't find the CDs I saved the images on.
George Eastman didn't invent photography; professionals had been doing it for years. Eastman's Kodak Brownie camera made photography accessible to everyone, with roll film and a cheap camera that you mailed back to the company for developing. The pictures were round because the quality of the lens was too poor to fill in the corners properly. It was the camera phone, the Instagram of its day, a toy compared to the real thing, but enough to satisfy a huge market.
In 1932, in great pain from a spinal disorder, Eastman committed suicide, writing "To my friends, my work is done. Why wait?" 80 years later, the company he founded is doing pretty much the same thing. It's sad.