The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Snapshot of Kodak Park

Main entrance to Kodak Park
Main entrance to the publicly inaccessible Kodak Park. CLUI photo

KODAK PARK IS THE KODAK Corporation’s principal research and manufacturing site. It is located in Rochester New York, which is the historic imaging capital of America, where Kodak, Bausch and Lomb, Xerox, and other companies developed their headquarters. Though the Kodak company is in the trailing end of its implosion tied to the obsolescence of chemical-based photography, Kodak Park is still a formidable presence, and because of its central relationship in the evolution of imaging, the site is one with many conceptual and physical qualities worth considering.

No other place has as much title to the claim of being the American ground zero of photography, with all that represents. Kodak dominated and defined photographic imaging for nearly a century, popularizing and enabling the depiction of all people, places, and things, positioning us on the trajectory of a duplicated world. The company changed time by branding notions of instant nostalgia, and changed travel and tourism from experiences into forensic photograph safaris.

Kodak Park is the epicenter of this global reformulation of one of the most formative elements of the information age. This is where mass imaginganalogue, chemicalwas birthed. Within its 22 mile perimeter, and over its 1,100 acres lies the physical history of physical imaging.

acetate film roll coating wheel at Kodak Park
Acetate film roll coating wheel, a displaced relic at Kodak Park. CLUI photo

Kodak Park is said to be the largest industrial complex in the northeast. Though it is surrounded by the city of Rochester, Kodak Park is self-contained, with 30 miles of roads, its own power plant, rail system, and water treatment facility. It is also, as would be expected, one of the most contaminated places in the nation. Taking pictures was a dirty business. In 1920, George Eastman, Kodak’s founder, established the Eastman Chemical Company to supply chemicals for film-based photography. The company’s principal plant, in Kingsport, Tennessee, became one of the largest chemical plants in the world (and still is, though it is no longer part of Kodak). With over a thousand storage tanks on site, and millions of square feet devoted to chemical-based manufacturing, Kodak Park was often ranked as the worst polluter in New York state. Though a decrease in production and emissions have dramatically improved the situation, the legacy of over a century of liquid intensive R&D and manufacturing is left in the ground of the Park.

A hydraulic containment system under the plant provides suction, pulling contaminated groundwater towards it instead of away from it, (a technique used in other places where pollutants migrate from the ground into the groundwater.) The 33 continuously pumping wells pull 55 million gallons a year out from under the plant, water which is then treated at Kodak’s liquid waste plant on the Genesee River. Hydrofractured wells use explosives detonated below ground to break open the rock structure, making the wells more effective over a wider area. Still, contaminated groundwater has been known to migrate off-site.

Change has come rapidly, and recently, to Kodak Park, reflecting the transition of imaging from analog to digital. Over the past ten years, thousands of workers have been laid off and fifty buildings have been removed, several in dramatic implosions. The company operates out of 80% of the remaining buildings on site, with around 8,000 employees continuing its R&D and manufacturing. This is still the only place where Kodak makes coated photographic film, though it is mostly for the dwindling motion picture market. The demolition of buildings has stopped, for now, and the company is marketing the empty spaces to potential tenants. The industrial campus is being retooled as “Eastman Business Park,” though the company acknowledges that for its employees, the community, and history, it will always be known as Kodak Park. 

Kodak Park treatment plant on the Genesee River
The chemical effluents of Kodak Park drain into the treatment plant on the Genesee River. CLUI photo