Lucien Samaha: Kodak and the Birth of the Digital Camera

05.11.13

We recently had a gob smacking conversation with New York photographer Lucien Samaha about his unique position at Kodak; introducing the first digital camera to the world at Sydney Photo 91.
Imagine being the first bloke to shoot a Kangaroo with the worlds first digital camera. Samaha was on the front lines of the democratisation of photography; the shift from film to digital.
Working for Kodak, the brand synonymous with cameras, Samaha witnessed the spectacular trajectory of photography; from the high water mark of film, to the birth of the usurping digital camera and the fall of giants. Samaha waxes lyrical about the arc of photography and its contemporary positioning with a passion that deserves to be heard.

We hope you enjoy his words as much as we did, it’s a truly unique and incredible story. For something so omnipresent as the world of digital Samaha’s part as torch bearer is somewhat untold.

Flight Attendant, DJ, Kodak rep, you seem to have enjoyed the life of a renaissance man. In all of your incarnations, how big a part has photography played?

My father and four of his brothers had worked for the airlines when I was growing up, and I wanted to be a steward as early as I knew what that meant. My parents tried to discourage me as they saw me as a future doctor, architect, or engineer. During the years between my early teens and the age when I finally did become a Flight Attendant at 20, I had already been “incurably hijacked” by photography. It was foremost in my mind in any future plans I had. I even envisioned then having a book published with the photographs I was making in the mid 1970‘s. I am finally about to start that book now. When the time came, I decided that becoming a Flight Attendant would provide the best opportunities for travel and photography. I could keep my childhood dream and supplant it with my growing-up dream of photographing the world.

From 1978 to 1986, I did just that, fly and shoot, although not as much as I now think I should have; but my Canon EF was added weight, because as a Flight Service Manager I already had to carry two suitcases, and that was before Wheelies. My salvation came in 1979 in the form of an Olympus XA (and soon thereafter, wheelies), and that’s when one can see an uptick in my archive. In 1986, corporate raider Carl Icahn took over TWA and our Flight Attendant union went on strike. As the labor dispute promised to last a significantly long time, I went after another one of my teenage dreams to attend the Rochester Institute of Technology’s School of Photographic Arts and Sciences. In my second year there, Eastman Kodak Company’s Professional Photography Division announced that they would offer for the first time a full tuition scholarship to a photography student. I applied and won. After the compulsory summer internship, which I absolutely loved, I was offered to remain working for Kodak part time until I graduated one year later, at which time I was guaranteed full time employment in the same department, Worldwide Instructional Operations, as an instructor, mainly to the new hires in the sales force, and to special groups of users of Kodak products. My duties included teaching sensitometry and photography, as most of the new hires were not photographers but rather from the business community or people with business aspirations. So the job was not photography per se, but I was in photography heaven. We had the latest in Nikon gear and all the lenses, Leica M6s, the most comprehensively equipped labs for black-and-white and color, processors and printers, not to mention unlimited film and paper, and that was when there were dozens and dozens of different film emulsions and paper types. As far as I know I was the only one who used this one enlarger that was the size of small tractor. It was on wheels with a remote command box that moved it back and forth on tracks for enlargement, as it projected on a vacuum wall where I would attach enormous sheets of photo paper and make giant prints. I couldn’t wait til five o’clock to come around, not to go home, but to stay in the labs and make prints until the wee hours of the morning, all alone in these giant facilities. I had a fantastic manager who believed that in order to sell stuff you have to know it. I just don’t know if he was aware HOW WELL I was getting to know it. Furthermore, since it was an International department and I spoke five languages, I started getting some amazing assignments to travel and I would take a lot of great equipment with me. This was all happening as work was progressing on the development of the first prototype digital camera. At RIT, I had already taken two or three courses on Still Video, the precursor to digital photography, and knew my pixels, my photoshop pre-version 1, and a variety of other then ground breaking technologies rather well. Consequently, I was assigned to the launch team of the first digital camera due out in a year or so, so that I could really learn it, learn how to market it, and to develop curricula to teach it to both a specialized sales force and to targeted end users, namely in the photojournalism sphere, for which the camera was designed. At that time, photojournalists would travel to the world’s hotspots with a large suitcase containing color film processing kits, and a built-in Associated Press scanner/ transmitter. I have seen photos of illustrious news photographers in the field, having gathered twigs and lighting them to warm water for chemistry in order to process the film right then and there, and to then scan and transmit images back to the photo editor’s desk, all within an hour of having taken the photos. The thought at Kodak was to develop a camera that would eliminate all the chemical fuss. The camera, a Nikon F3 with a Kodak digital back, was tethered to a DSU (Digital Storage Unit) with (by 1990 standards), an astounding 200 Mb Winchester drive, a keyboard and a small monochrome monitor. The camera system and all the accessories did require a suitcase as big as that of the AP scanner and chemistry, but it seemed more elegant and the way of the future. There were engineers at Kodak that had conceived this type of technology perhaps as early as the 70’s from what I was told, but of course, the powers-that-be decreed that this technology was to be put away in the darkest of closets, the door was to be locked tight, and the key thrown away as far as possible. The cash cow was consumable film; you finished one, you had to buy another. How does one make money from a device with no consumables? Also at this time, I had been preparing a course to help newspaper photo departments convert from black and white to color, as newspapers were realizing the increasing popularity of USA Today, the first major paper with color photography. Kodak wanted to insure a strong foothold in that industry in light of Fuji’s aggressive strategies to take over that market with more color saturated emulsions. The manager of Kodak’s Professional Photography Division in Australia at the time, Peter Rattray, had commissioned my department to send me to Adelaide and give the course to the photographers of the Adelaide Advertiser, a stubborn and reluctant lot. Many photographers thought of color as detrimental to photojournalism. They thought it distracting from a pure documentary content. Furthermore, in the early days of newspaper color presses, it was commonplace to have psychedelic photo reproductions with green skies and blue grass and all other colors off. There was no such thing as color management. The resistance was strong. As a manager, Peter Rattray had also heard that the prototype digital camera was coming together nicely and requested that I bring it along. I think there was a lot of resistance at headquarters in Rochester, but it was eventually decided that it would be a good way to test it in remote Australia, were the people were keen to embrace the latest in modernity, but far away enough that if it didn’t quite work out, the rest of the world may not hear about it. My trip coincided with Photo Sydney 91 and with the 150th Anniversary of Photography in Australia, with celebrations in Macquarie Square, with Max Dupain as a guest of honor, and Daguerreotypist Sandy Barrie making mad hatter daguerreotypes in the public square. I was there with the digital camera for a photo opportunity with the two of them. As for my DJ days, I had already been photographing in nightclubs since the early 80’s and of course continued doing so from each and every DJ booth I worked at. During my tenure at the top of the World Trade Center which lasted four and a half years until that fateful day in September of 2001, I had insisted that they install me on a small stage right where the dance floor was so that I could be part of the action, rather than in the dark booth in the back of the room. Not only was I among the people but also in the corner of the building with magnificent views of Manhattan and Brooklyn 107 floors above Earth.

When you came out to Australia for Sydney Photo 91 with the first ever digital camera, did you know then that you really had something revolutionary in your hands. How was this new fangled interloper received among the photographic establishment at the time?

I knew digital photography in its infancy and saw it through its growing pains as an established analog photographer. I had to explain, defend, and help sell its inherent moire patterns, its super saturated wild colors, and relatively low resolution. It was also my job. Indeed I was ecstatically drowning in work, and at the same time flying high in the world of my dreams. I knew it was special, but I also knew the new emulsions of Ektachrome Lumiere or Panther, and Ektapress and the established Technical Pan or Recording films, (the first with an Exposure Index of 12 and no grain, and the latter with nominal speeds of 1000 and gorgeous grain), were special. I didn’t take myself too seriously; every new assignment meant an adventure, meeting new people in various places doing all sorts of things in photography from documenting auto parts in Detroit, to industrial photography in Pittsburgh, to sports photographers on the slopes of Lillehammer, to name a few, and all this time equipped with a Kodak “badge of honor”, a passport to the world with some sort of camera, if not the digital, but another with an unlimited supply of film. It’s not until recently that I started realizing and relishing the fact that I was part of a revolution, one that has had a significant effect on the essentially ocular world we live in. The progress has been exponential and nary a day goes by where there isn’t a spinoff technology that doesn’t boggle the mind or make you roll your eyes. The photographic establishment, as any other “establishment,” was suspicious and reticent. First, the quality left a lot to be desired when compared to film emulsions which at the time were at their zenith of quality and ease of use, and second, and perhaps more importantly, the price tag of USD 20,000 in the US, and more in the rest of the world was prohibitive. As this technology was primarily being marketed to the photojournalism industry (for a variety of reasons), a newspaper couldn’t just simply buy one of these cameras, they would have had to buy at least two or three, for when you started incorporating it in your workflow, you needed to use them at various assignments, and have back ups in case of malfunction. And then you also had to have computers, storage devices, transmission equipment; you had to train not only photographers, but editors, and myriad support staff, and incorporate the lot into existing workflows, and this was at a time where there was still manual typesetting and separation negatives, etc. It was a prohibitively expensive prospect. Kodak’s new invention was actually way ahead of its time. Furthermore, Kodak itself was not a maker of professional cameras and had to ally itself to established camera manufacturers, initially Nikon, and then Canon, and to license and adapt these cameras to accept Kodak’s Digital backs. Even though the technical challenges could be met, they paled by comparison to the rivalries that existed between Nikon and Canon, who themselves had designs on making their own models, and who didn’t make life too easy for Kodak. At Kodak, the technology had other target markets in science, in law enforcement, and in government, but photojournalism was the sexiest. Take for example when auto-focus was invented just a few years prior. Nikon decided to design lenses with auto-focus mechanisms built-in so that Nikon photographers could continue using their older camera bodies with the new lenses, in effect compromising the effectiveness of fast auto-focus. Canon made a strategic decision to scrap the old, and come up with totally new camera/lens systems designed for maximum auto-focus reliability and speed. Furthermore Canon made their professional lenses in a light gray color. Sure enough, the very visible football and baseball trenches started seeing a shift from black Nikon lenses to gray Canon lenses. And if a lead photographer in the field was seen in gray, by the following week you were sure to see a few more in gray, and so on. Such is the nature of having packs of photographers working so closely together, and of course the camera manufacturers knew full well how to seed their products to the most important of the lot. That was part of Kodak’s thinking, to put the product out there and create envy and desire among the others.

Eastman Kodak, they’ve played such a huge role in how we have viewed and recorded our world. It’s hard to think of cameras without Kodak, how was it working for such a giant of the industry? Do you think it can survive?

As I mentioned in my answer to the previous question, it was an amazing honor and a great joy working at Kodak, the Pinnacle of Photography. They weren’t simply the Giant of the Industry, for decades they WERE the industry. There was no other game in town, at least not in the United States, and much of the world. There were several times I would be on vacation without my Kodak ID, and my Kodak business card with my photo on it got me out of trouble when I found myself in pursuit of a photographic subject on the wrong side of a fence, or gave me access to places otherwise restricted. But as I was seeing digital photography rise and prosper, I was also simultaneously witnessing a major corporation, an institution of a century and a half being brought to its knees by both interior and exterior factors. The emperor had been resting on his laurels. As Kodak was taking the lead, if not the only significant herculean effort in developing a variety of digital technologies, it was still mired in a provincial corporate culture in the 90th largest city in the US, Rochester. There was a running joke that George Eastman established Kodak in Rochester because it was the world’s largest darkroom. Others would say because its sky was 18% gray (most young digital photographers might not even know the significance). Rochester had been originally known as the Flour City and later as the Flower City. In my time there from 1987 to 1993 it was known as the Imaging Capital of the World, due to Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch and Lomb being headquartered there. The 1980’s and 90’s were the age of “corporate diversification” and of “globalization”. Both were a drain on Kodak’s coffers built on core technologies in photography, later renamed imaging. Furthermore, during the 1984 Olympics, Fuji snuck in the back door and snatched away official sponsorship from Kodak and distributed to photojournalists and sports photographers spectacular new saturated color films that took hold. The competition was on and Fuji made huge inroads into a market previously totally held by the “Big Yellow Box,” as Kodak was often referred to. Add to all of this a wasteful system that never cared about spending; a management lacking true leadership, in denial and in damage control mode; inside ‘divisional’ competition and acrimony as well as fierce competition from outside; new technologies that threatened the cash cow and all of a sudden you have a culture of fear and paranoia, layoffs and downsizing. As the saying goes, the bigger they are the harder they fall. As soon as I started witnessing desperate and humiliating tactics, I felt I had to get out. You ask if Kodak can survive. In effect, it has not. Kodak is now almost only a name and a nostalgia. Recently the corporation announced that it would be selling its business to its largest creditor: the UK Kodak Pension Plan. It will however, continue manufacturing a skeleton line of color negative and b&w films in Rochester. But I would like it to be remembered that despite its unfortunate and sad demise, Kodak was a phenomenal major force in not only allowing but propelling photography as a medium to prosper, starting a half a century after Nicéphore Niepce’s invention in 1826, and insuring for over a hundred and twenty years the development and introductions of ground breaking technologies, not least of which Digital Photography.

Ironically, how do you feel about working for the very company who introduced the tool that overthrew film and Kodak itself?

I specifically remember an early marketing meeting to discuss the emerging digital technologies, which paled by comparison to the quality derived from analog film products of the time, when someone proudly said, that if Digital had been there first, and then a hundred years later Film was invented, that everyone would be ‘wow-ed’ and would marvel at this great new invention. To this day, I continue to meet young and established photographers who still swear by film. I simply warn them to stock up as I really don’t believe it’s going to be here much longer. I had thousands of rolls I had been keeping in freezers for over twenty years knowing full well that some day it would disappear, particularly certain emulsions that had already been discontinued decades ago and that no one even remembers their names. I finally caved and sold much of the lot on eBay as I didn’t think I really had the time to shoot it all. I have kept a precious selection though of some of my absolute favorites and hope to hit the road for some specific projects. People always have the tendencies to compare the new with what they have become accustomed to, and with that kind of thinking, one is most often apt to be disappointed, as the new always requires improvement and a learning curve. I have over 50 cameras, and have used dozens and dozens of various emulsions, and I have loved every single combination or synergy. Each camera has a unique personality both in its functions and in the way it renders an image; and so is the case with films. I have always celebrated this variety as I never had to “work” as a photographer. I never had to worry that a certain color of a product had to match exactly in all rolls of film, or from year to year, a standard for which the original Kodak Ektachrome 100 Pro was designed and manufactured to incredibly tight specifications. I was and still am a huge experimenter, I like to push all of a camera’s buttons and see what I get. The disappointments of yesteryear may be the delights of today, and that’s another reason why I have never deleted a photo or thrown away a badly exposed or processed film. Having worked at Kodak at that significant intersection of both technologies was simply awesome. I am so happy that was part of my life, but I am also most happy that I was able to tear away at the right time and to pursue new lives radically different from the ones I had already lived.

Having been so linked to it’s inception, how do you feel about the digital worlds all conquering reach, Do you lament the days of film or ultimately are the tools of the trade not important to you?

In university, I wrote a paper about the future of digital technologies. It presaged much of what we see today, but not the scope. The internet was still the domain of a handful of people, but as it began to expand and be more accessible, and as soon as it was able to accommodate images and as link speeds increased, the growth and the possibilities became exponential, and they continue to grow every day. I am constantly reading up on photography, looking daily at the numerous photography blogs, and find myself inundated with commentary about how we are inundated with images. It is dizzying, particularly for those who love images so much, and it seems like an awful lot of people do. However, it is also becoming evident, that the majority of people are very much into cliché imagery. There are a few power brokers on sites like Tumblr who once they reblog something, they guarantee thousands of views of that image. So be it, they have earned that power. But the internet, combined with the proliferation of smart phones and inexpensive good quality cameras has further spread a kind of “democratization” of photography, a trend that started when a foresighted French Parliament released photography into the public domain, in the middle of the 19th Century. I am not certain where this is all going. The latest trends include Vines, two or three- frame animated gifs, screen captures with subtitles, and an incessant pathological tendency to “curate” or rather reblog dozens upon dozens of media into one’s own personal ‘galleries’ and seeing them disappear at the bottom of the page, or on another page one or dozens of clicks away. I sincerely believe that very very few if any are looking back at their own appropriated archives, much less anyone else’s. I personally seek out good work, which is rare, and I do investigate the archives, and lately, I’ve made it a habit to send an email when available to those whose work touches or impresses me. If I may get on my soap box for a moment, I am extremely sensitive and protective of what I cling to as a classic concept of photography. I consider myself quite liberal and by no means opposed to progress, experimentation, advances, and creativity, but so much of what is referred to as photography today, is not. I have a romantic notion of what photography is: an intersection of a person, a camera and the natural world, not one conjured up for making an image, selling a product, or politicizing an idea. There are many types of photography, and most of them are referred to by inserting a term in front of the word photography, i.e. commercial, fashion, medical, scientific, documentary, and so on and so on. Fine. Yet there is in my mind something very unique about a practice called simply “Photography.” One that exists only for its own sake, and perhaps for the pleasure of both its capable practitioner and those who may see the resulting magic. I am most frustrated with the Contemporary Art World and Conceptual Art. Even though I am a contemporary artist by the simple definition of the term, and I do also make conceptual art work, I would prefer that conceptual artists who utilize photography as a tool not refer to it as photography; just stick to calling it conceptual art. Recently a blogger posted a brief comment about the latest photography acquisitions exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Upon looking at the images on MOMA’s site, I was very angry and posted back that most of this work is not photography. Someone else retorted that since it was printed on photographic paper, (despite the fact that there were wooden frames pasted backwards on the non-descript imagery), that it couldn’t be anything else but photography. I so beg to differ. On the other hand, I do not at all lament the ultimate demise of film. It had its reign and it was indeed beautiful. I always look ahead at new ways to make images and embrace many of them. As I mentioned, every camera has a different personality, and I love getting acquainted with each one when I first get it, and then becoming friends with it, as it’s going to be my faithful companion for months if not years to come. My latest love affair is with the Sony Alpha NEX7 which I have been abusing since the day it became available about a year and a half ago. I recently attended a lecture with Duane Michals. At the end of the very campy, martini infused talk by Michals, he entertained questions from the audience. A man asked him about his camera. Michals extremely rudely scoffed at the man and actually literally put down photography and dismissed the notion of a camera as an important element in his act of making art; and here is a man that has become a celebrated ‘photographer’ by the establishment and has made a significant amount of money from his art, and I am really insulted by all those who are apologetic about photography only to consider themselves “artists” who are above the medium they use. Back to film. An image on a film is not a photograph, but rather a departure point for a multitude of interpretations. Even in a conventional darkroom, a master printer could derive various moods from a single negative image through exposure and dodging and burning among other various chemical tools, and filtration. These possibilities are vastly expanded by scanning and digital retouching technologies, in essence extending the life of film for as long as the substrate survives. However, in conservative art circles, there is a fetichisation of the original object, the print, and therefore the image itself, as being the interpretation of the author, and therefore the only interpretation to honor and consider (in my opinion a philosophy fraught with often unsubstantiated assumption and unnecessary speculation, while disregarding the fact that despite great conservation efforts, the print inevitably ages and metamorphosizes). Some artists have totally disregarded these standards and other conventions of respect, and have appropriated the work of others and through controversy have established themselves in a world that beatifies the rebellious ‘bad boy’ who may be so for no other reason than to provoke, dare or shock. I may not fully agree with either position, but again, I have to pick my battles and would rather spend my energy on my own work.

For those of us growing up and living in Sydney we were immediately drawn to your photos of Australia. You really captured a true slice of Australiana, was this a considered effort? Because for us It crystalised a lot of our collective experiences growing up here in the Nineties.

For me Australia and Australiana are one in the same, just as America and Americana are the same. They are inseparable. As long as there are nations and countries, and as long as there is a sense of pride in being from a certain place and celebrating its ‘stereotypeness’ even if subconsciously or unintentionally, noticeable differences will exist that will set them apart. Of course, the environment, the topography, the climate, the civil laws, urban planning, and popular trends, to name a few, all have an effect as to how a place looks and feels at a particular time. Before I had been to Australia in 1991, I had traveled extensively and became very comfortable exploring and in fact getting lost in all major cities I would visit, invariably with a camera as companion, or rather led by the camera itself. After our initial contact and my promise to send you some of my photos of Australia, I rushed to my archive to look at the photographs which I had probably not looked at in years. I selected 44 from the 1,612 I had taken in the course of three weeks and posted them to my website for your perusal. I was quite nervous about what you would think of them. The series starts out with a business man seated in an Airport Lounge at Sydney Airport. This of course could have been anywhere in the world, as it is a pretty generic setting from that period. But the fact that it was indeed Australia, makes it uniquely Australian, as much as a photo of Darling Harbour in bustling Sydney, or one of your unique Parliament in sober and stoic Canberra, or of a distinct winery in McLaren Vale, or a sunset in Glenelg, not to mention what I sensed as a more bohemian Melbourne. That is why I intentionally selected it and began the slide show with it. I also sought to set the stage where this Australia is also a place of ordinary and mundane experiences, but one which is now in the field of vision of an eager photographer, one who celebrates the everyday as much as, if not more than the extraordinary. As Susan Sontag wrote: “To photograph is to confer importance.” I believe she was talking about the subject, and if I may add, to photograph also confers importance to the photographer. I was nervous as to how an Australian might see my images of Australia, not any Australian, but also one very much into photography. Yes, they may be clichés, simply by the fact that they are already slices of nostalgia of a time somehow both near and far at the same time. Undoubtedly, the 22 years since have seen a steady, constant, and great change. They are nevertheless the same photographs I would have taken anywhere, or rather my approach would have been the same. I don’t intentionally skirt the iconic or the monumental, nor do I seek it. If it’s in front of me, it’s fair game and I challenge myself to capture it as it is, as well as in ways that it doesn’t dare to be except in a photograph.It was not a considered effort, but in fact no effort at all. First, with camera in hand, there is no effort, no fatigue, no insufficient light, just pure wonder and joy at a visual feast; an excitement I experience even on the streets of my own neighborhood where I sometimes walk wide eyed several times a day. So you can imagine how I felt about Australia, the exotic upside down place down under, the land of Kangaroos and Koalas, of Vegemite and Aussie Rules.

 What is something that has stayed with you from your time photographing and visiting Australia?

It would be difficult to isolate one single something that stayed with me, but I rather relish the whole experience. I was generously treated as both a friend and a bit of a celebrity within the close knit circle of Kodak people and a select photographic community. I was wined and dined at the best restaurants, and stayed at magnificent hotels; I flew to and back from OZ on Qantas First Class. (As I mentioned before, this was at a time of great prosperity at Kodak). I got to go to the horse races and to the Dragon Boat races; I got to photograph Aussie Rules in suburban Sydney and Rainbow Lorikeets at Manly Beach, and I was photographed with Max Dupain on Macquarie Street; I took the first ever digital photographs of kangaroos in the Outback and had a sausage stolen from my hand by an emu. Those are just a few of so many incredible moments, how can I choose one? I asked for and got permission to stay three extra days to visit Cairns and Kuranda where I got to toss a Boomerang. I would have loved to see Darwin, Alice, Brisbane and Perth, and of course Tasmania.

Lucien Samaha – Images taken from series Australia 1991.