In 1975, Kodak engineer Steve Sasson created the first digital camera. He spent the next several decades trying to convince his bosses that this was a device that people would one day want. David LaChapelle, one of the most acclaimed photographers and music video directors working today, wasn't initially sold on digital cameras when he encountered them in the '80s, but eventually he became one of the first directors to shoot only in digital video, often with Phase One, his camera of choice. It took a while for Kodak to see the point of digital photography, but once it took off with the public, it took off hard, and the company wasn't quite prepared; it filed for bankruptcy in 2012. For our Nowstalgia issue, on stands now, PAPER arranged for Sasson, who was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2009, to talk with LaChapelle about the rise of the digital image, the death of print photography and accidentally creating the selfie. It's a fascinating conversation between two photography pioneers about the unintended consequences of new ideas.

(This interview has been edited and condensed.)







Photography courtesy of Eastman Kodak Company





David LaChapelle:
First, let me say hello. It's an honor to talk to you. I worked six years in black and white in laboratories in the dark ages of my life. And I remember how toxic the chemistry was. I once spent 21 hours in the darkroom and the next morning after getting some sleep, I woke up and I could taste the fixer in my lungs. With digital, it changed all that. There are people that miss getting their hands in the fixer and stuff; well, you might miss cancer, too. It's also great for the environment. I'll let you talk, I just want to get this off my chest. I have pictures in museums around the world: Chile, Rome. I print really large-scale, I have murals that are 30 feet. And next to an analog print will be a digital print and people can't tell the difference at all.

Steve Sasson:
Yeah, we've reached that point now where there's no ability to tell between a fine-grain film and a high-resolution image capture. People argue when we reached that point, but let's let the other people argue about that.

LaChapelle:
Your invention, and your brain, and your lifetime of work have done so much for the environment, for the carbon footprint. You should really be proud of that. You invented the pencil. I always get this question, "Oh, there's so many people taking photos now on their cameras -- how does that change photography?" And I say, "Well, it makes photography accessible to everyone. Like the pencil." Does that mean there's gonna be more great writers? I don't know. I don't think there are more great writers because pencils are available to everyone, but it's definitely made it accessible to everyone to capture things and take pictures. It has changed news, like with the police right now and how people are filming the police.

PAPER:
Now, Steve, you didn't really see any of this happening when you first developed this camera, right?

Sasson:
No, remember in '75 and '76 when I was demonstrating my prototype system, I called it filmless photography in the sense that I was clearly suggesting a way to do it without consumables at all. No film, no processing, no paper. But we hadn't really experienced the world that we have today. We didn't have the Internet or even personal computers at everybody's desks. So this homogenization of the digital information age hadn't occurred yet. I was really proposing to eliminate the cost of film and paper. And when I demonstrated the system in '76 to Kodak executives, I took their pictures in a conference room and I displayed them right there: no chemicals, no processing. It took about a minute to do the whole process. And that's what our conversation revolved around: Could this ever be practical? Prints were very successful for over 100 years. No one was complaining about the photographic process in general and prints specifically.

LaChapelle:
And now you hear the opposite. People complain that no one's printing anything.

Sasson:
Right, because now the whole world has changed and you have ubiquitous desktop printing.

LaChapelle:
And Instagram. [laughs]

Sasson:
Right, social networking and things like that. So I think when you do something like this, as much as you think you can see a bunch of new things happening, you really don't see the entire picture. Nobody does until it happens much later.

LaChapelle:
'
So you didn't have some grand revelation. Like you woke up from a dream going, "Oh my god, I'm going to change the way that -- everyone can be a porn star now." You didn't have that moment. [laughs] Did Kodak have any concern about losing revenue because of their other products, if this thing is successful?




























Sasson:
In '76, when I demonstrated my system, there were lots of questions about the technical viability of this stuff. "How would you handle color? How could you ever get hi-res? Would the economics of this ever be possible?" Those were the technical questions. And I think it took us about 13, 14 years to answer those questions. But in 1989, we built a camera that looks a lot like a DSLR today. They were megapixel color imagers, memory cards, and we used compression. But then we ran into the problem where Kodak didn't want to sell them because it cannibalized a very profitable business line.

LaChapelle:
You're like the Napster of photography.

Sasson:
[laughs]

LaChapelle:
They didn't want to believe it was coming, and it changed the whole music industry. And the same thing happened, really. It's not that far off of an analogy. People did not want to see downloads happening and they were in denial, and then it happened anyway.

Sasson:
I mean the question I was always asked was, "Show me the money. Show me the business model. Show me the revenue." And I always couldn't really answer that question because I didn't have it.

LaChapelle:
Well, it wasn't your job. You were the inventor; they should've found ways to do that. The music industry should've taken... I can't remember the guy's name who started Napster, but instead of fighting him, they should've brought him onboard and said, "How do we make this work for us? Because this is the future." But they didn't have that vision.

Sasson:
Yeah, it was hard to have those discussions. Remember, photographic film was probably the most profitable consumer product ever dreamed up. It had a tremendous revenue stream, tremendous profitability.

LaChapelle:
And exactly, think about what you've done for journalism. If it wasn't for the digital camera, along with the Internet, there wouldn't have been instant pictures as they happen.

Sasson:
Well, yeah.

LaChapelle:
A lot to have on your shoulders. [laughs] How does that make you feel, to be one of the people who ushered in the age of information? That's like ushering in the Iron Age or the Industrial Revolution or something. Do you go to bed at night thinking, "I ushered in the age of information"?

Sasson:
I don't really think about it too much. I've worked almost my whole life in digital photography. I wasn't allowed to talk about it, of course. I took my first pictures in 1975 on my camera and I worked continuously in digital imaging. But I wasn't allowed to talk about it until 2001, when it became clear that it was an advantage to be in the digital photography business and Kodak was a big player in that business. Then one day you wake up and you see, "Hey, things are really out there in the consumer world." I started seeing it in my real life world in the early 2000s or so.

LaChapelle:
But in '75, it was your dream. Did it occur to you that you could take pictures of your girlfriend and not have to take it to the lab?

Sasson:
[laughs] Well, I tell you...

LaChapelle:
C'mon, that thought had to cross your mind at some point. When did it cross your mind that you could take pictures of your girlfriend naked and not have to bring it to a lab and no one else would know?

Sasson:
Well, I tell you, the resolution wasn't as good as experiencing things themselves. I think what's changed is our view of what photography is. It's changed it from recording events to a casual form of conversation. In other words, I want to express a thought or a feeling --

LaChapelle:
It's been made casual.

Sasson:
Yeah, it made it extremely casual, extremely easy.

LaChapelle:
It used to be an experience, getting your picture taken. Now it's casual. That's a great adjective.

Sasson:
Yeah, I mean it is. From my point of view, I worked in this field for well over 30 years. Almost every day was taking a step, or solving a problem, or learning something new, seeing what other people are doing. I like to say that you don't have to invent everything when you're doing something. The whole world is inventing along with you so thank goodness for people developing the Internet and higher-speed computers.

LaChapelle:
So now you're shying away from inventing the selfie, which really you did.

Sasson:
I like to say that's a result of the long unintended consequences. It's something I must admit that in all the years I've worked on this, I never considered that a possibility. It's annoying -- I was in Hawaii, standing there, it was beautiful scenery and people would come out with like lightsabers, they'd whip out these giant sticks and stand there and take pictures. It was weird, you know?

PAPER:
Do you both believe that print and actual film photography is dead?

Sasson:
Is it dead? Well, I get a lot of reactions from photographers. They love film. Harvey Wang did a documentary about how the development of digital affected film photographers and what I learned from that was that there's a certain set of people who love the physicality of film. And what I mean by that is that they can hold it in their hand, they can develop it, they can look at it. It's a very visceral, human thing. And although these photographers freely admit that ... you can't run a business without it being digital to a large extent. They still miss or long for the physicality of film. As long as those people are around, and I don't know how long they will be, film will certainly offer a place to do that.

PAPER:
Now, Steve, how did Kodak adjust as a business once film was on its way out and digital took over, because obviously they were making most of their money off of film for a while.

Sasson:
Well, not well. They knew film was an endangered species for several years. I think 2001 was the best year for film -- the most film was made. But then it crashed, it really went down very quickly. No one could anticipate when that would happen and we used to talk a lot about that, and all of a sudden it just happened. Once that happened, all they could do was cut their expenses. In 2012, they declared bankruptcy. They tried to maintain their many other businesses and they still have a business now with printing. The profitability of film was just enormous and to have that go down at 18-20% a year is what I think the decline rate was.

LaChapelle:
It really mirrors the music industry.

Sasson:
In many ways, that's right, in terms of digital and communication and sharing. The only difference is that these images are personal and so people have an emotional attachment to these images, so being able to save them and having to recall them many years later is the only file that gets more valuable the older it gets. That's just a little bit of a difference. But I think there's a lot of parallels there.







Sasson digital camera, 1975. Eastman Kodak Company, Rochester, New York. Photo courtesy of George Eastman House