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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.

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