By the time I see the first signs for Rochester, New York, I’ve already been driving for seven hours. On the seat next to me sits a Nikon Z7, the newest and most advanced Nikon digital camera in the world, and a Kodak Ektra, an ancient and notoriously temperamental 35mm film rangefinder camera from the 1940s. These are the two cameras I’ll shoot during a tour of the Kodak Factory. If I ever get there.
At one o’clock in the morning I’ve been driving for exactly eight hours, two hours longer than anticipated. I’m exhausted and hungry despite the evidentiary to the contrary detritus that litters every flat surface of my car’s interior – torn Clif Bar wrappers, crumpled packets of Sour Patch Kids, a Cheez-Its box splayed open like the gaping carcass of some Great Plains prey animal, its innards devoured. This is the unhealthiest I’ve felt in years.
The sweet singing voice of my cell phone’s navigation app tells me I’ve arrived, and after navigating a labyrinthine network of parking lots, I turn off the ignition. Surrounding me is a hellscape of unremarkable taupe buildings, all approximately four or five stories tall. Competing signage blinds me with dazzling light in the otherwise pitch dark night. Comfort Suites, Holiday Stay, Something About Paris Hilton? I should recognize the names of these hotel chains, but my mind is simply fried. I gather my bags and step out of the car for the first time in what seems an age, just as rain begins to patter the windshield. I’d worry over whether or not the Nikon Z7 is weatherproof if I wasn’t too tired to give a damn.
After standing silently at the bell-less check-in desk for nearly eight minutes, a half-conscious man blearily stumbles through a door behind the desk. He asks what he can do for me as he tucks in the front of the wrinkled tablecloth that he wears for a shirt. With bags in my hands and raindrops dripping down my face, I state the obvious. “I’m checking in.” After another ten minutes of keyboard tapping and a mutually confused problem-solving session that takes us both seven times as long as it should, we discover that I’ve stupidly wandered into the wrong hotel. Thirty minutes later I’m in a bed in a room in the correct hotel, trying to fall asleep.
I blink and it’s morning. I’m scheduled to meet Matt Stoffel in one hour. He’s the Kodak Brand Manager, Camera Club director, and general gatekeeper to all things Kodak. Along with my Casual Photophile colleague Chris Cushing and a handful of other film loving friends, Matt will lead me through the sprawling Kodak campus on a tour that includes unprecedented access to at least three separate factories, each producing raw materials or refining these materials into the finished products that we all love – Kodak film. During our tour we’ll meet the actual people who’ve been making Kodak film for decades, see the machines in action, and enjoy an intimate look at the figurative and literal nuts and bolts of what could rightly be described as the oldest and most important photographic products company in the world. This should be good.
Things start at the Kodak Center, where we pass through a rotating exhibit of Kodak history. During my trip, the exhibit is all about the Moon and space and Kodak’s contributions to NASA’s missions during the golden age of space exploration. The walls are covered in incredible photographs of the Moon and Mars, of the people who made and make space exploration possible, and new projects to image space in novel ways, all possible through Kodak products. Particularly mesmerizing is a collection of film strips laid out on a light table, the massive final composite image of the Moon made from the strips is displayed on the wall above. It’s impressive and beautiful.
A walk through the lobby reveals a timeline of Kodak’s countless accomplishments displayed through physical tokens. George Eastman’s star from the Holywood Walk of Fame, surrounded by velvet ropes. Poster-sized images of Quentin Tarantino and J.J. Abrams suggest that the best movies are shot on film. A glass cube contains the first ever digital camera, a Kodak product, reminding us that Kodak laid the foundations of digital photography way back in 1975. Disneyland commemorative products gleam, the ancestral result of George Eastman’s genius (he dreamed up corporate synergy and a global economy even as the primary mode of transportation was the horse). Classic Kodak film cameras from the heyday of the company are displayed everywhere. It’s a camera nerd’s paradise, but we’ve got to move. There is, after all, a schedule.
Our first stop is the factory where raw materials, such as silver and gelatin, are turned into emulsions, the gelatinous suspensions of light-sensitive particles that are laid in ultra-fine bands across a substrate to make photo-sensitive film. We meet a giant of a man, who tells us his nickname is Peachy, and after a brief primer on what we’re about to see, we’re told to don the proper attire. Tyvek clean suits and hairnets accent our disposable booties. We look like extremely out-of-shape Stormtroopers, excited and confused.
The areas we’re about to see, where the emulsions are made, where the coating of substrate occurs, and the light-free environments where sensitized film is converted to 120 and 35mm format products, are typically off-limits. The number of non-Kodak-employees who have seen these machines is few indeed. We’re informed that no digital cameras are allowed – both to minimize the chance of light spoiling the product and to help keep Kodak’s secrets a secret. In fact, as I lean closer to a particularly fascinating proprietary coating machine intent on taking a macro photo of the beautiful stainless steel and brass mechanisms I’m politely asked to refrain. “You can take a picture of it, but not that close.”
Up to this point, the Nikon Z7 has handled everything I’ve thrown at it. The highway shots of sunset made at speed, the snapshots of Rochester, the quick record of the Kodak Center exhibits and the hallways of the first factory. It’s a phenomenal camera. The kind of camera that will do anything any photographer could ever ask of it. It’s a professional’s device, even with just the one card slot (oh, the things digital photographers find to complain about…). But it’s not allowed where we’re going. It’s time to shoot the Ektra.
In contrast to the Z7, the Kodak Ektra is as advanced as an oaken club. It’s clumsy and massive, heavy and difficult to hold. The top plate is a vast assemblage of unmarked buttons, dials, and levers, each clutching its secret purpose tight to its chest. Nothing on this camera makes sense. There are five dials on the top, and none of them do what they at first glance appear to do. The film advance lever is on the back lefthand side. The shutter release, too, is on the left. Selecting the shutter speed is a guess – lift a metal dial and twist, but don’t do it before cocking the shutter because this will destroy the camera. There’s a darkslide on the bottom that allows the back to be removed, but you can’t do this without cocking the shutter either. There’s a vague feeling with the Kodak Ektra that doing anything out of order will break some critical mechanism.
The viewfinder is small and claustrophobic, and it gets smaller as we spin the admittedly ingenious dial that changes the viewfinder’s focal length. The separate rangefinder window shows a rather massive display of a split-level rangefinder. Adjust the focus via the knob on the front lefthand side of the camera until the vertical lines match, and focus is achieved. Ratchet the advance lever twice and we’re ready to set the shutter speed, aperture, and shoot.
The Kodak Ektra is possibly the slowest and clumsiest camera I’ve ever used. But it’s also one of the rarest and most interesting, and in its own day it was a marvel. Kodak’s Ektra is something of a flawed masterpiece. It signifies the last real push from any American company to produce a full-featured, high quality, system 35mm film camera. Special features not found in most other cameras of the time include a zoom-capable viewfinder, magazine film backs, a fast top shutter speed of 1/1000th of a second, and a range of Ektra lenses featuring coated glass, something even Leica and Zeiss couldn’t claim at the time. These lenses, including the Ektar 50mm F/1.9 that’s snugly screwed onto the front of my camera, were quite excellent for their era (and the gorgeous aluminum cases in which they’re stored are stunning).
By the measures of build quality and engineering, it’s a phenomenal machine, an industrial wonder. But its high price and complicated design (coupled with bad economic timing) hindered sales, and the camera failed in the market. Since only approximately 2,500 of these cameras were ever made (and how many have been lost since the 1940s?) the Kodak Ektra is a truly collectible and historically important camera.
But standing in the film sensitizing factory of Kodak Park, breathing through a Tyvek face mask and peering through safety glasses, I’m not thinking about any of that. I’m wondering, instead, what the hell my settings should be. I’ve loaded the camera with ISO 800 Cinestill film, but I’ve no light meter and the Ektra isn’t a camera to lend a helping hand. It’s dark in the factory, intentionally, so I’ll be shooting wide open or close to it. This presents another problem; focusing the Ektra is slow and difficult, made even more difficult in less than ideal light. I spend the next hour or so squinting through a tiny viewfinder, rotating a truly sluggish focusing wheel across a massive focus range, and trying my best to make a decent photo.
When next we emerge into the sunlight of the outdoors, I’m happy to swing the Ektra off of my shoulder and away into a camera bag. I’m ready to get back to making hundreds of easy photos with Nikon’s latest marvel. And even happier when Matt tells the group that it’s time for lunch.
We pile into a bus (yes, Kodak’s campus is so large that we require a bus – there’s also a fully functional railroad and a dedicated fire department), and drive to a new building. On the way, Matt tells us that we’re about to have lunch in George Eastman’s former office on the top floor of a squat brick building, three stories tall. As we sit in the office eating our meals and chatting about film, development processes, the camera industry, and George Eastman’s legacy (and his suicide), a portrait of the founder looms massively overhead. In the corner of the room there’s a statue of an owl propped next to an escape door. We’re told the secret compartment was once fitted with a fireman’s pole leading to an outside access door. In the days of nitrate film, fire escapes were very important. The lunch is delicious. Hunger, as they’ve said, is the best spice.
In the room with me are a number of true photo geeks. We chat endlessly about the cameras in our hands, about projects, focal lengths, preferences, and Instagram accounts. I know a few of the visitors by sight, though we’ve never met. The internet is a wild place.
Lunch consumed and it’s back to the tour. The Nikon Z7 continues to impress. The zoom Nikkor and the Z7’s sensor combine to create effortlessly excellent images. Incredibly sharp, perfect color rendition, amazing low-light performance, a burst mode that might as well be video. There’s no other way to say it; if you can’t get the shot with the Z7 then it’s not the camera’s fault. The thing is perfect (though its raw files are stupidly large).
We take a drive to where Kodak film is cut, converted, and fed into the golden canisters we all know and love. We’re told not to photograph certain operations, but others which had been complete trade secrets mere years before are now open technology. Machines are slitting enormous six-foot-wide rolls of pure film into widths for 120 and 135 format film. The beating heart of another machine, called so because it looks just like a heart, perforates the film strips, creating the sprocket holes for 35mm film. At one point, they hit the lights to show just how dark the factory is when in full operational mode. It’s in this darkness that Kodak workers make our film. Tiny green LEDs illuminate virtually nothing. It’s like working a coal mine with a firefly strapped to your hardhat.
Later, Matt shows us the byproducts of production; the tiny punchouts of the perforating process, ends of rolls, film that didn’t meet inspection standards. It’s great fun to plunge hands into a massive pile of cut film, even more fun to watch a giant thousand foot roll of waste material unwind in a cascading avalanche of acetate or polyester base.
Kodak manufactures their own film canisters, and we see the raw materials for this process as well. Stacks and stacks of metal sheets, labeled with film stock that we all know and love. One of my friends mentions that he’d like to wallpaper his kitchen in the stuff. Matt laughs and says he’s petitioning the higher-ups to allow him to push more branded products. My mind flashes back to my shop, where an old Kodak coffee maker decorates the office. Yeah, more Kodak branded stuff would be fun.
We’re next taken to a factory that contains the machine that’s used to make the film base, the material that the emulsion is laid on. It’s nearly impossible to convey the sheer size of the machine that’s required to do this. Over three stories tall, it’s necessary to travel three flights of stairs simply to travel from the bottom of the machine to the top. It runs the entire length of the building, so distant from one end to the other that it’s literally impossible to see where the machine ends when standing at the beginning. At one end of the machine, pure superheated liquid polyester (they were making a polyester base this day) is poured atop a massive metal wheel to cool and harden. It’s then stretched in length and width over the span of tens of miles of rollers and webbing.
The noise is outstanding. The sheer size of the operation is stunning. I watch this material stretch and pull and flow through a building-sized machine as if I’m a mouse standing inside a newspaper printing press. The workers pick up a phone and request that the machine be slowed so that we can see the process more clearly. At that moment, a massive section of machine the size of my living room begins to slowly inch down on enormous chains, increasing the span that the polyester material must travel, thus slowing the entire operation by degrees. This machine is a machine like no other. It’s unfathomable.
It also makes me wonder; how can Kodak be making any money? They’re constantly running a machine the size of a building to produce film base. And then another building makes the chemistry. And another building coats the stuff while another makes the packaging. It’s a staggeringly large operation, and after nearly eight hours of walking, staring, blinking, and wondering, I’m more tired than ever.
But even after seeing the overwhelmingly vast operation that’s required to make film, my real takeaway after touring the Kodak facility isn’t awe at the size of the operation, though I am in awe. It’s not an appreciation for the politeness of the men and women who keep Kodak working in 2019, though they have been exceptionally polite. It’s not even a renewed respect for the most important company in photography, though Kodak is that important.
What impresses me most about Kodak, having seen it from the inside, is the unwavering dedication to producing extremely high quality products and a total refusal to compromise on that quality. From the first person I met to the very last, every single voice repeated the importance of perfection. That every frame of every roll of film must be perfect, or else they’ve not done their job. And throughout downsizing and reorganization, consolidating their once-global factories into a concise (though still massive) park in New York, it seems the people in Rochester are still committed to doing their jobs as perfectly as ever.
As the tour winds down, we all shake hands, chat, take some selfies. I’ve got an eight hour drive ahead of me. Plenty of time to think and decompress after what has been a whirlwind twenty-four hours. As I leave Rochester behind me, I look to the passenger seat, to the cameras sitting there. The Nikon Z7 is unbeatable. It’s the camera that makes effortlessly great photos, and one that I’d use in any situation. It’s a digital marvel. The future.
The Kodak Ektra is something entirely different. A gorgeous machine, though difficult; a relic of a time when the largest and most successful photographic company in the world had limitless resources and never-ending dedication to pure quality. In the seventy-odd years since that camera rolled off an assembly line, a lot has changed in Rochester. But not everything’s changed. And there’s something special about that, something good.
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