Another low-end, high-margin business model has been embraced by the Lomography Society. The organization specializes in cheap plastic cameras produced in Russia and China — toys, really, many of which have light leaks and other flaws. Yet they’re selling at high markups in striking numbers, embraced by those hipsters who are warming to analog film. They’re fun to use, and their irregular performance adds a bit of chance to the results — which, for a certain kind of person, one who’s deliberately rejecting the clean digital image, is almost the point of shooting film.
Lomography has opened several stores in high-rent districts of New York, Berlin, San Francisco and other cities that incubate sociocultural trends. At the Lomography store, nearly all the cameras take conventional film, processing is quick and not horribly expensive, and the business appears to be doing pretty well. Implausibly, Lomography is reportedly in the running for some of Kodak’s analog-film lines. The minnow could conceivably swallow the whale (which is a lot smaller than it used to be).
Similar fates of two photo giants
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3 “Don’t do anything that someone else can do.”
Edwin Land, the founder of Polaroid and inventor of instant photography, was a singular figure, a Steve Jobs before there was a Steve Jobs. In fact, Jobs idolized Land, and said he modeled Apple on Polaroid, locating the company at the intersection of the liberal arts and high technology, and deploying obsession in the service of the perfect product. One of Land’s many aphorisms was “Don’t do anything that someone else can do.” (Another was “Marketing is what you do when your product is no good.”)
So what does Kodak do in the analog world that nobody else can do? Kodak’s Portra professional film is widely held to be the world’s best at reproducing skin tones. Its black-and-white workhorse Tri-X is one of the last monochrome films in production that’s based on older crystal technologies, and the only one that looks like it does. (“We’ve looked at [reformulating] Tri-X,” Kodak press officer Audrey Jonkheer said. “People tell us not to tinker with it. Your Tri-X users got religion — oh boy.”) Other Kodak products often come out on top in comparisons with Fuji’s.
The point, though, is that if you’re going to sell film in the 21st century, you need to think of your product as a fine-arts material. Kodak has, understandably, been cutting films from its lineup for several years. Classics like Ektachrome, Kodachrome and Plus-X are all gone. They all had their small die-hard audiences, which would, again, probably have paid serious premiums to keep them available. Going back to the price argument: If the buyer of Kodak’s film business said, “Okay, you can have Ektachrome back, but it’ll cost you $13 per roll instead of $6. Do we have any takers?” I would not be surprised to see a small but enthusiastic set of professional photographers lining up, the way Polaroid enthusiasts have for Impossible. It won’t work in the fields where Kodak, or its successor, competes head-to-head with Fuji — but it will certainly work on products that stand alone, as Polaroid’s did.