SHOW AND TELL
MY FIRST PHOTOKINA was in 1986 so this year I chalked up a 16th visit to the world’s largest exhibition of imaging products. Things have changed a bit over that time. For starters, in 1986 – and well on into the 1990s – we weren’t using the word “imaging”… Photokina was then subtitled ‘The World’s Fair Of Photography’. It not only comprised hall after hall of new hardware, but a huge programme of photography exhibitions staged all over the city of Cologne. The catalogue for the equipment side was a weighty tome, but the one covering all the exhibitions wasn’t very much slimmer either.
Over the years, though, everything has got smaller. There are still a number of photography displays happening within the Köln Messe complex (Leica, in particular, upholds the tradition), but there’s no longer the smorgasbord of shows around the city. One year, an exhibition by Uwe Ommer – from his 1000 Families project – stretched right across the bridge over the Rhine that links the city with the Messe exhibition halls.
The main halls were forbidding brick caverns with not only multiple sections, but two levels so Photokina was a serious physical challenge. As a journalist you needed stamina and a very good pair of shoes because there was a lot of walking involved… progressively weighed down by a growing collection of paper press kits. Some of these were close to being works of art… beautifully thick folders stuffed with brochures, press releases and product photographs, either B&W or colour prints. It didn’t take long for the kilos to mount up and, by the end of the day, you’d have at least half a dozen carry bags – emblazoned with various camera brand logos – stuffed solid with paper. Then, in the evening, it was a case of wading through them all and extracting the essential info, discarding the rest because it would simply translate into excess baggage.
In those days hotel rooms anywhere within striking distance of the exhibition complex were highly-prized and jealously guarded with show-to-show forward bookings. Consequently, for my first few Photokinas I stayed on a hotel ship moored on the Rhine, but this was well before the luxury cruisers that tour the river today, and so the cabin was about the size of a small wardrobe. Once I’d finished stripping down all those press kits, there was so much waste paper I could hardly move… so none of us complained when paper gave way to CDs or DVDs and then to USB sticks. Now all you get is a small card printed with the URL for a downloadable press kit. Bliss!
Those old halls are gone too, replaced by bright modern versions which are easier to navigate and arranged closer to each other (Köln Messe used to be bisected by a huge railway shunting yard) so you no longer have to wear out so much shoe leather. And Photokina has undoubtedly also shrunk over the last 16 shows – this being the smallest I’ve experienced – although back in the 1980s now dearly-departed companies like Agfa, Konica, Kodak and Polaroid (the original) each had whole halls. That said, Photokina 2016 still occupied six halls – seven if you count the one that Leica filled entirely with photography exhibitions – so it remains the biggest dedicated imaging-related show in the world. But the major consumer electronics shows are getting bigger, with the European EFA – now an annual event – held just two weeks earlier in Berlin which means companies like Panasonic and Sony, for example, had a very busy (and expensive) month. As the digital stills-video convergence continues, there’s likely to be more of the rationalisation that’s seen the demise of imaging shows around the world.
Of course, one of the biggest changes over the last three decades is that manufacturers no longer wait to launch a new product at Photokina. Today’s marketplace is far too competitive, but sometimes the timing is right and there’s A Really Big Announcement like Fujifilm’s GFX system. Actually, Fujifilm has been clever here as GFX is still a little way off, but Photokina was the perfect launchpad as it had the attention of the world’s photo press. It did the same thing with the original X100 back in 2010 and, in fact, has a long history of unveiling significant new products at Photokina, including the world’s first fully digital camera (the DS-1P) at the 1988 show. I remember that press conference well, but doubt very many of us understood the historical significance at the time. However, it is those milestone press events that make Photokinas memorable… the X100 was definitely one and, I suspect, we’ll look back on the GFX announcement in the same way. It’s not often journalists applaud a new product, but we did it a few times as Fujifilm revealed the details of its exciting new digital medium format camera system. It’s yet to arrive, but it’s already made history.