Laurence Von Thomas is the founder of Reflex. His Reflex I camera is a modern interpretation of the classic 35mm film SLR that was successfully Kickstarted late last year. Today he shares his thoughts on the past, present, and future of film photography after a recent trip to Kodak headquarters.
November 28th 2017, the Reflex Kickstarter is in full swing when I get an email from Andy asking whether we will be at CES, the Consumer Electronics Show this year. Andy works at Kodak, and it seems the campaign has raised some interest. December 7th, our Kickstarter is successful. We now have the dubious honour to become the only consumer 35mm SLR on the market.
Forward to February 2018; Flight VS43, London to Las Vegas. It’s the middle of winter in London, but here I am outside the CES registration booth, in my shirt, about to generate some well deserved vitamin D. There’s a pretty long queue and my eyes wander off into the distance. From afar on the face of a towering hotel block I see the name TRUMP staring at me. I’m in Vegas alright.
At the reception I’m greeted with a big smile. “Oh, all the way from London?” The lady hands me my visitor’s pass and off I go, transparent goody-bag in hand. I notice that I’m feeling a bit nervous. Here I am on my way to a meeting with Kodak, the company that pretty much invented photography as we know it.
Granted, they’ve had a pretty rough ride these past few years, and that’s an understatement. I think back to the moment when I mentioned my planned meeting to a friend back home, and the curious response. “Kodak… Eastman Kodak… are they still around?”
They are, albeit not as the iconic company of earlier days, which at its peak in the 1990s employed approximately 145,000 people world-wide, and churned out 850 million rolls of film in 2003. Little did anyone know then that nine years later the company would be forced to file for Chapter 11. The industry had switched standard (analog to digital) seemingly overnight, and the popular opinion is that Kodak seemed to have missed the boat completely. The truth (as usual) is not such a simple story, and this particular one has its fair share of wrinkles. Take, for example, the fact that in 1975, a young research engineer at the company named Stephen Sasson invented the digital camera and Kodak patented the technology in 1978.
Forty years later, I announce myself at the Kodak booth where I’m met by Andy. Anticipating a fairly corporate reception, I enter the meeting not really expecting much. I mean, together with a small group of people, I’m heading a start-up fraught with all the typical (and atypical) challenges that come with a new brand and first generation product, and they are, well, they are Kodak.
To my surprise, I’m greeted by four people who all seem genuinely curious and excited at the idea of a brand new SLR system. But why am I surprised? Though the popular perception is that film is dead, as someone with a background in cinema I should know better. Kodak has always been and remains persistent at driving innovation when it comes to delivering quality motion picture film. And then of course there are the many industrial applications of which the layperson sees little. But I think for most consumers as well as professional photographers the general feeling is that the music stopped back around 2004-2005, when the death knell of film as an industry standard seemed to echo with the bankruptcy of the company that essentially made the medium.
The meeting feels pretty informal, even chatty, and I slip in a few questions about Kodak’s plans for the future of film while shedding more light on our forthcoming camera. I mean, here’s a chance for some genuine insight, right? We agree on a follow-up later on in April and I manage to swing an invitation to the Kodak plant in Rochester, something that gets my inner geek rather excited.
Weeks go by. Meanwhile, I embark for Shenzhen to set up DFM and pre-production for the Reflex I. In the last week of April I head for New York to meet with potential investors. It’s a strenuous week with lots of over-coffee pitches and overly-air-conditioned meeting rooms. When I embark for upstate New York on the Rochester-bound Amtrak, I settle in for a refreshing change of pace from the frenetic days in New York City.
The word Rochester can be seen stamped and painted on the metal of a million cameras and rolls of film. It’s the famous town in which George Eastman founded The Eastman Kodak Company back in 1888, and both Rochester and Kodak expanded hand in hand following the brand’s many successes of the 20th century.
Once there, I quickly discover that Kodak has indelibly put it’s stamp on the town. There’s the George Eastman Museum (the family’s former townhouse) the Eastman School of Music and the imposing neo-gothic Kodak Tower (still the company’s HQ) looming over midtown. I guess the thing that strikes me the most is to hear everyone, from my Uber driver to the people sitting next to me at dinner that night, talk about Kodak and how the company in one way or another impacts some part of their life.
At the plant – in fact, a massive business park with it’s own railway, power plant and fire department – I meet Matt, director of web strategy and development and a 3rd Generation “Kodaké”. I immediately sense that Kodak is more then just a job for him, as he tells me his dad was a chemist and his grandfather a researcher with the company. Here is someone who also lives and breathes photography, so we hit it off immediately and dive into a mishmash of subjects passing from the early days of photography and camera design, over film, through the digital revolution, all the way up to artificial intelligence and blockchain technology.
We head off on a tour of the film factory with it’s impressive production process (for more, watch the short video series I made for @shotonreflex) and he introduces me to some of the people working there. It’s somewhat reassuring to see that behind those huge production lines, it is people like Steven and Nancy and Tom (to name a few) who are actually making our film, and it was incredible to see just how involved and passionate about the product they are. Meanwhile, my mind wanders, thinking about ways in which we could join forces as Reflex wants to bring more products to the market in a larger effort to update the 35mm ecosystem.
On the six hour train journey back to NYC, I stare out the window and collect my thoughts. What have I taken from this? Well, Kodak seems genuinely invested. Under CEO Jeff Clarke it has found a renewed interest in film (its resurgence fueled by the continued interest and effort of the analogue community and a handful of extremely dedicated platforms), and the fresh approach of the marketing and social media team seems to genuinely want to connect and collaborate with both emerging and established photographers and filmmakers. And as Fuji’s actions to strip down its film stock production continue, we really need to back a company that seems to still care. Kodak and Fuji are the only ones left that produce colour film. If they disappear, that’s it. Done.
Of course, it’s hard to look too far into the future, and decisions never solely depend on willingness, but it is my feeling that as long as we keep shooting film, Kodak will produce it.
Laurence Von Thomas
For more information on Reflex, follow their updates on Kickstarter.
Images in this article were provided as noted on individual images by Laurence Von Thomas and Matt Stoffel (who also provided the lead image), and are published here with permission.