Note: This page was redesigned in 12/07 to cover more fully Kodak's experience and success in both product and marketing design. The links below to individual camera profiles do not replace the original pages for those cameras, but rather focus on the current topic.

Kodak started its business when amateur photography was in its infancy. Some might say that it was responsible for the delivery. In its history, Kodak has developed large industrial and commercial markets, but to a now vanishing multitude of readers of a certain age, Kodak's place in our minds are recollections of the omni-present Brownie and the yellow and red boxes of film that we loaded to create some graphic evidence of the events in our lives. That Kodak's most public face is represented by equipment and materials for a market largely uninterested in the technology of photography has been the company's perennial focus. The design goals of George Eastman's first camera were aimed at making a cumbersome and complex process much simpler. The first Kodak cameras were not cheap--$25 in 1888 dollars--nor were they attempts to greatly improve on established hardware designs. Their greatest achievement was that they used Eastman's new dry film, rather than heavy wet plates. Eastman's marketing strategy did not emphasize the hardware, but rather the process--the photographer clicked the shutter and Eastman did the rest. That opened up photography to a large market that would never have considered wet plate equipment and one that guided Kodak's consumer offerings throughout its history.

Tracing Eastman Kodak's rising and falling interest in camera hardware over more than a century is something that Brian Coe has done in Kodak Cameras: The First Hundred Years, though Coe's perspective is largely descriptive and not intended as an analysis of Kodak marketing. Such an analysis would involve defining markets by some variety of criteria--aesthetic and technical interest, income, end or commercial use--and some consideration of the huge advances in photographic technology. The evolution of the competition that Kodak faced across its product lines and international production and markets, and even the wages and fortunes of war, would make this more challenging. For the health of its business, Kodak often adopted proven technologies that reliably provided the means for its vast consumer market to make good pictures of things important to the people who bought Kodak products. But Kodak also invested heavily in opening new markets and exiting gracefully from old markets; importantly, it had routinely invested in basic research. In one particular era, the research in materials, optical and mechanical design and in an emerging field that concentrated on ergonomics, physical styling and how products appealed to potential buyers and eventual users, went beyond Kodak's traditional efforts and is the underlying framework for this site. This site makes no attempt to describe Kodak's industrial markets, which may be sometimes distinguished from consumer and pro markets by the end users of products, marketing channels or volumes purchased.

The "Pro" Market. Distinguishing between the advanced amateur and pro markets has always been a slippery slope, but that this combined market does exist is significant. While Eastman's first commercially available camera was a fixed focus, fixed aperture design, it was quickly followed by a folding bellows camera with a premium lens. In 1905, Eastman bought the Folmer & Schwing Company--an early developer of large format "hand" cameras--giving Kodak access to the market for portable professional equipment. After being forced to divest itself of the Folmer & Schwing operation in the early 1920s, Kodak "pro" offerings were generally limited to studio cameras, leaving a distinct hole in the Kodak product lines.

By the 1930s, the majority of American professional photographers on the street used 4 x 5 Graphic press cameras and Graflex reflex cameras or cameras of a similar design from a handful of small manufacturers; portrait photographers in studios typically used 5 x 7, 8 x 10 or larger view cameras by Kodak and others. The design of press cameras had changed little for decades and the technology in them was improving incrementally, but was largely static. Studio cameras were generally based on even older cameras types that had been created in the 19th cy. What wasn't static was the hunger of photographers, whatever their category, for new equipment that could support their creative ideas. In the 1920s, European innovation, primarily from Germany, was starting to nibble around the edges of the American advanced amateur/professional market. Several German models in the 1920s, including those from Makina and Ernemann, might be attractive to professionals and amateurs with means, but they were less widely imported and distributed in the U. S. Both Zeiss and Voigtländer began producing precision rollfilm cameras in the early 1930s and there were very interesting designs from smaller producers. The Leica, introduced in 1924, used 35mm film to form 24 x 36mm images and the 1932 Zeiss bid with the Contax added momentum. Franke and Heideke developed the Rollei twin-lens reflex that used quality optics and 120 roll film. Faster lenses for these cameras and their lightweight designs made them attractive to advanced amateurs and to professionals who were developing a new aesthetic for news and creative photography. Capturing public moments could effectively be done on grainy film, in natural light without the formality of posed settings.

Stale Designs. From the beginning of the century through the 1930s, "family" photography was dominated by a never-ending flow of box and folder designs from Kodak. By the early 1930s. large scale American camera design and manufacturing had become static. For those interested in more detail of Kodak's product profile, I recommend downloading the 1931 Kodak catalog from Mike Butkus' site. Almost certainly, there was a parallel publication that described Kodak's studio and very large format professional cameras. Dealer catalogs from this period show the increasing competition from imports that Kodak faced in the consumer market. By the late 1920s, Kodak was seriously considering its options for its camera designs and the markets it wanted to participate in. Accounts of the exact design and marketing strategy at Kodak in this period have not come to my attention, if they exist. Kodak has generously contributed many of its corporate archives to the University of Rochester where they are housed in the Rare Books and Special Collections library , and these archives likely contain revealing information about Kodak's internal discusssions. In the absence of such information, it is possible to make some conclusions from product development and model introductions.

Kodak's move away from using optics and shutters branded by other companies was growing in the 1920s and was probably driven by a desire for increased brand identity, better quality control and predicted profitability. Kodak had always had its own optical designers and manufacturing, but higher end consumer and most professional cameras were traditionally offered with lenses manufactured by or at least licensed from German companies. Throughout the 1930s there were efforts to build on the reputation of the Kodak brand and to improve the quality of high end consumer and commercial lenses.

"New" Design. Camera design was becoming increasingly a collaboration among optical designers, who concerned themselves with photographic image, "external" designers worried about another kind of image--"product" image--and mechanical designers who had to assemble the nuts and bolts in ways that insured long-term reliable operation. "Modern" "management methods" and "marketing analysis" began articulating business truths that successful industrialists had long understood intuitively, but institutional memory is often short and so descriptions of corporate "visions," organizational responsibilities, product functions and market needs have to be revisited regularly to be effective. Enterprises need talented people with energy, ideas and patience who can work together to complete projects. Evidence suggests that Kodak seemed to understand this well in the 1930s and assembled groups that were able to combine its traditional product strategies for everyman, with its aspirations to reach for the highend market. The best project development teams are not omniscient, however, and can't predict whether all design and manufacturing problems can be solved, how markets will receive new products or the course of world affairs.

35mm: The New Format. A cynical view of Kodak's entry into the 35mm market might be that it was late to the party. Another view is that it didn't want to come in the same dress that the others were wearing. The first Kodak 35mm offering was a sleek little folding "miniature" Retina designed and manufactured by Dr August Nagel, the proprietor of the Nagel Kamera-Werke in Stuttgart, which became Kodak AG in 1932. The Retina Type 117 was introduced in 1934 at roughly one third to one half of Leica and Contax prices, albeit in a simpler design. Its continental design was a combination of German precision manufacturing and Kodak's traditional goals of portability and affordability.

...or Not. Kodak's miniature offerings were enriched in 1936 with a new line of Bantam cameras that used a new version of 35mm-wide film stock reformatted to significantly increase image area. The Bantam line demonstrated Kodak's facility with materials. Entry level models had bodies made of a structural plastic called or similar to Bakelite. More expensive Bantams had cast alloy bodies and lens boards. The top end model reflected Kodak's attention to an emerging issue in product development--that external beauty and ergonomic design was something that consumers were willing to pay for. The Bantam Special was domestically produced but functionally it was the 828 equivalent of the Stuttgart Retina II. While there were mechanical similarities between the Bantam Special and the Retina II, buyers were not likely to confuse them and those with means and an avid interest were likely to want both. The introduction of the Bantam line was a major initiative by Kodak, who thought that, as a major film manufacturer, it could influence a miniature format choice that was not yet firmly established. While cassette and frame standards are still not entirely standard&, they were much less so in the early 1930s, as Kodak's success with the disposable cassette in 1934 shows. It is likely that product and market research was equivocal about the likely success of these competing formats, as judged from the Kodak product line. Kodak's domestic entry into the 35mm market did not occur until 1938, after they had assessed the success of the Bantam introduction, and the first Kodak 35 was a klunky design with little of the elegance of even the entry level Bantams. So, while the 35mm format with sprocket holes eventually earned its keep with rapid lever and motor advances, the holes were a waste of valuable image area at the time that 828 film challenged 35mm film supremacy. One of Kodak's film initiatives established a standard, the other only a footnote.

ne plus ultra? If Kodak's domestic entry into the 35mm market with the Kodak 35 was less than auspicious, Kodak redeemed itself with designers and photographers in 1941 with the introduction of the Ektra which seemed to have in its design every then-conceivable feature . While rumors seem to be unfounded that the Kodak Ektra was an explicit appeal by the U. S. government to replace then scarce German 35mm Leica and Contax models, the domestic market vacuum couldn't have been lost on Kodak. Kodak designers had been at work improving on product features offered by the German makers and while the Ektra looked kinda lika Leica, the Ektra designers, with a pride and confidence in their own ideas, offered a featureset that would not be equaled in Leitz equipment for 15 years.

Size Matters. As Kodak evaluated the advanced consumer and professional markets, they were in an excellent position to appreciate the effects on camera design that improvements in emulsions would bring. Bellows designs were lightweight, but fragile for professional work. Rigid bodied designs, even using light materials like aluminum were impractical for 4 x 5 and larger designs and the improved grain structure of film didn't require these formats for some emerging types of professional work. Kodak introduced the Medalist in 1941 as a medium format alternative to both the 4 x 5 format and to the Rollei waist-level design. While the Medalist was as heavy as a mini-Graphic, it was sturdier, sleeker and--most prescient--anticipated the two-handed, eye-level ergonomic design for composing/focusing still dominant today.

Kodak Roots. In looking at Kodak's efforts in design and marketing the "serious" photographer may miss how Kodak was faithful in serving its core non-technical market. Some of the same Deco design effort that made the Bantam Special a classic was evident in the Baby Brownie, one of Kodak's first plastic-bodied cameras, a design that was hugely successful for decades. The Baby Brownie was sleeker, used smaller film, was as easy to use and cost the same as the boxy aging Brownie that the Baby was eventually able to replace. Kodak had been sensitive to demographics and gender-specific marketing from its earliest days. George Eastman's vision statement statement in The Kodak Primer: "We furnish anybody, man, woman or child, who has sufficient intelligence to point a box straight and press a button...with an instrument (for) photography" was the very model of demographic correctness, and in large part the philosophy on which his fortune was based. In design, this understanding of product differentiation was very apparent in the vest pocket product line. The same basic camera was made to appeal to women, where VPs in assorted colors were packaged in elegant clamshell cases with mirrors and lipsticks. A Boy Scout could wheedle from his parents a VP with the BSA logo embossed boldly on the dropdown bed. Girls had a greater choice between VPs with either the Girl Scout or Campfire Girls logo.

Ergonomics. Good product designers always have been concerned with product efficiency and effectiveness in actual use, but modern psychology and engineering have given these factors a special name. While Kodak didn't call this design exercise, "ergonomics," it appears that their designers and publicists in the 1930s were quite conscious of these issues. Kodak documents of this period repeatedly describe the care they are taking to insure that different groups involved in camera design are bringing their best efforts to collaborative work on projects. They ramped up their research and manufacturing efforts and hired talented designers to develop new products. From the Kodak Ektra prospectus, an unusual document that identifies Ektra design goals, I infer that this general program had several goals.

  • Cameras and their controls should be designed as extensions of the photographer's eyes, hands and perception--what later became human factors or ergonomics.
  • Lenses must be state of the art in design.
  • Both lenses and mechanisms must be designed and manufactured to high levels of consistency and reliability
  • Camera design, in addition to being functional, must be attractive.

World War II. The War had a dramatic effect on photography and Kodak. The work force was changed. Consumer markets were different, though amateur photography was seen as an effective way to maintain links between local communities and troops serving overseas. German competition in Kodak's domestic market virtually disappeared. Kodak was a major defense supplier. Kodak promotional efforts during this period focused on their effective contribution to military efforts, but were planning for postwar consumer products. Some promotional advertising during the War gives a clear picture of corporate planning at Kodak . A cynical view might hold that Kodak's competition was still Zeiss and Leica, but the market had been more segmented and each had its own large customer--the respective military.

The research and manufacturing program that Kodak undertook in the 1930s was a calculated risk and by some criteria, it could be considered successful. By 1940, Kodak had developed a 35mm system camera more advanced than anything from Germany or Japan. It had moved medium format design into a modern rangefinder format, and several of its entry level products benefited from new technology and styling investments. It had brought precision 35mm cameras into the consumer market with its Retina line, though domestic markets did not benefit from this during WW II, and it established a standard for 35mm cartridge film stock. It did research on rangefinder and viewfinder design and introduced the results into upscale products. Its research pushed the frontier in optics, particularly in manufacturing efficiency and quality control, and its industrial design set standards in camera aesthetics. It expanded its research in chemicals and developed and released greatly improved film products. Some Kodak cameras designed during this period are still attractive and functional and medium and large format Ektar lenses still fetch high prices as working gear. Some models introduced had reliability problems, like the Ektra shutter and the Super 620, problems that probably would have been fixed in subsequent versions had WW II not intervened. Some projects produced cameras that were too expensive to manufacture at a profit, though they set high standards for design excellence. Finally, some projects that seemed potentially right for the photographic market--like the Bantam-- simply didn't catch the fancy of the consumer market.

Kodak, like many U. S. manufacturers benefitted from research and production during WW II and unlike the German and Japanese manufacturers, were not disrupted by battle damage. By the early 1950s, however, reconstruction of industry in Germany and Japan had provided an impetus to rethink product design and retool production, something that Kodak seemed less inclined to do in the prosumer market. By the mid 1950s, precision 35mm models were available only from Kodak's Stuttgart division and did not directly compete with Germany's and Japan's best. Except for the Kodak Chevron, arguably a mediocre successor to the Medalist, and the dwindling market for large format studio equipment, Kodak gave up the prosumer and commercial camera markets.


& A standards official was heard to sardonically remark that the beauty of standards are that there are so many to choose from.

Some interesting titles describing Kodak's management and marketing history include:

  • Changing focus: Kodak and the battle to save a great American company, Alecia Swasy, New York, 1997
  • Building strong brands, David A. Aaker, New York, 1996
  • Company in war: from the annual report of the Eastman Kodak Company, EKC, 1942.
  • The death of the organization man, Amanda Bennett, New York, c. 1990
  • Kodak and the lens of nostalgia, Nancy Martha West, Charlottesville, 2000
Kodak Designers


09/26/2010 23:28