Photographer looks to resurrect vintage Phogenix film processors

When a friend of photographer Ben Carufel showed him 30 old-school inkjet digital labs unearthed in a San Diego, Calif., salvage yard, he wasn’t sure what he was seeing. After doing a little Googling, he discovered the colorful purple units were film processors from the early 2000s-era Phogenix joint venture between Eastman Kodak Co. and HP. (The entire salvage story was chronicled here at PetaPixel.)

Photographer Ben Carufel
Photographer Ben Carufel

Carufel, a commercial photographer based in San Diego, did a stint working in a pro lab, so the basics of film processing were familiar to him. We asked him for an update on the process getting the machines working again, and it looks like the prognosis is good:

“The good news is that the machines work. Or at least the one we concentrated our efforts did. We were able to fill it with chemistry, bleed the air from the lines, and verify that all functions work. However, me not knowing exactly what I was doing, I didn’t have starter chemistry on-hand and the machines don’t have a way to use the replenishment chemistry to come up to full-power solutions, so although we were able to get a roll through, it came out undeveloped as the tanks all had extremely weak solutions.

“I’m working on getting some starter chemistry this week, whether it’s ordering bottles of starter chemistry from Pakor or getting a local lab to sell me some of theirs, enough to get up and running. Interestingly, Kodak has discontinued the Kodak SM starter developer bottles, but in talking to a local longtime minilab operator this morning he indicates that I can just get one of the local labs to give me some of their developer effluent, which I can use as my starter.

“It’s worth noting, once we had the tanks filled (with what turned out to be a super diluted set of solutions due to the problem I mentioned a minute ago) and the lines purged of air, the machine lived up to its name — one touch (the big green button) after loading the leader card and closing the light-tight loading door…and just over six minutes later we had film coming out the dryer!”

Readers are encouraged to reach out to Ben at [email protected] with tips and advice.

Like a phoenix, Phogenix rises from the ashes?

Now all but forgotten, Phogenix laid the ground work for today’s digital labs. Priced at “just” $39,000, the Phogenix DFX modular film processing and inkjet printing system was considerably more affordable than Agfa, Fujifilm, Konica or Noritsu minilabs of the time. The system was well-received by the retailers who field tested it, including Future Shop, then Canada’s largest CE retailer, as well as independent photofinishers who made up the majority of testers.

The Phogenix DFX could only print 250 prints an hour – about one-fourth the production of a comparative Noritsu, Agfa or Fujifilm machine – but had a much smaller footprint and lower consumables costs. For some interesting insight into the design specs of the Phogenix DFX, check out this brief from the contract manufacturer, NOVO Engineering.

So, how did the Phogenix system come about, anyway? How did EK and HP who, at the time were mortal enemies, come to work together? The story began in the late 1990s, when HP was looking to acquire Kodak, and the subject of marrying Kodak’s impressive imaging IP with HP’s burgeoning inkjet prowess. At the time, HP was pushing strongly for home photo printers, and had no production printing equipment. Kodak had a presence in the photofinishing equipment market through a worldwide minilab partnership with Noritsu, but was losing business to Fujifilm, who could bundle equipment and consumables into attractive packages, especially for large chains and buying groups.

The alliance was one of convenience and of necessity. The opportunity in the early days of digital photography wasn’t clear and neither HP nor Kodak were in a great position. HP was hawking everything from digital cameras and home printers to rebadged iPods and desktop PCs. Kodak was struggling to shed the perception of a lumbering film-based dinosaur. When the Phogenix joint-venture was announced in 2000, both stock prices jumped, as investors applauded the idea of two U.S. multinationals working together to grow a nascent category.

Over the next three years, the Phogenix team in San Diego grew to about 100, featuring a hybrid team of HP and Kodak executives. HP was delegated with placing the Phogenix units in consumer electronics and non-traditional markets, while Kodak was tasked with reaching the traditional photo channels. The trade reception was strong; sales of equipment and consumables were projected to reach up to $1 billion worldwide by 2005. Unlike the Advanced Photo System, with its expensive photofinishing equipment and incomprehensible hybrid camera features, the Phogenix DFX was a new innovation welcomed by dealers. In particular, the Phogenix DFX introduced paper-based digital photo printing to retailers, as well as the concept that consumer choice would be the driving force in photographic output, rather than compulsory film-based printing. That prediction came true in spades.

For a briefing on the Phogenix launch, check out this stylish marketing video, complete with soundtrack by 1990-era dance group, SNAP!

In spring 2003, however, the news dropped Eastman Kodak had hired Antonio Perez as president and COO. Just over a month later, both parents pulled the plug on their offspring, just as those first units – now on Carufel’s possession – were landing in San Diego. In July of that year, Kodak took a $17 million write-down on the Phogenix closure.

As our own Dan Havlik wrote in PTN, retailers were shocked but not surprised at Phogenix demise: “The announcement caught photo retailers, and even apparently many Phogenix employees, off guard.

Joel Paymer of Camera Land in New York City, whose store also had been beta testing a DFX, said his Phogenix sales rep was as stunned as he was when the news broke. ‘He had just told me he had sold a bunch of these in the city. We had ordered one and were trying to figure out if we wanted a three-year or a four-year lease. It came as a total shock.’ “

Perez, in turn, soon brought over top HP execs – both with Phogenix pedigrees – Phil Faraci and Bill Lloyd – to the EK executive suite. (Vyomesh “VJ” Joshi, who was chairman of Phogenix, ended up staying at HP and rose up the ranks there before leaving in 2012.) For many at Kodak, this was the beginning of the end of Rochester company’s photography industry dominance. Perez pivoted the company to launch an advanced inkjet printer, just as the home printer market was drying up in favor of retail and online options.

When EK and HP announced the dissolution of the joint venture , it sent shockwaves through the industry. Speculation was rampant as to the reason. Some people pointed to Perez’ defection from HP to the top spot at Eastman Kodak Co. Others mentioned HP was looking into higher-production opportunities, which lead to the purchase of the Indigo system, whereas EK purchased the dry photofinishing technology from Applied Science Fiction. To the world, this sent the signal HP was looking to a digital future, while Kodak was looking to preserve its film heritage. Today, the idea of a dry film process that produced high-res digital files seems quaint, but in the early aughts, the concept had merit. Digital cameras were gaining steam, true, but there was no guarantee at the time they would be successful. And cameraphones weren’t even a glint in Philippe Kahn’s eye at that time.

Interested to read your comments; would have Phogenix changed the game or did it address a market that didn’t exist yet?