Saturday, January 1, 2011

Kodachrome, 1935-2010

An old, largely forgotten, friend is no longer with us. The end finally came for Kodachrome (1935-2010) on December 31. With a dwindling supply of processing chemicals left, the last lab that could develop the film called it quits.

For many of us of a certain age, Kodachrome was the color slide film of choice. Most of the pictures I shot in Kodachrome are long gone. Lacking any convenient means of converting my slides to digital, I won’t even try to dig through the ones that are left today.

For iconic Kodachrome images, Steve McCurry’s 1985 National Geographic cover photo of an Afghan girl, Sharbat Gula, is near the top of the list.

"Kodachrome was my mainstay film, this was the main film I used for 30 year," McCurry said. "I have about 800,000 Kodachrome transparencies in my archive, maybe more, and this was probably the greatest film ever made." Tributes to Kodachrome and other comments from McCurry himself are at:

Browsing online for Kodachrome memories, I found a review posted several years ago on the Daily Kos, The writer mentions some of the most memorable Kodachrome images I’ve ever seen and quite a few are included along with the review. Most of us think of the documentary photography of the Great Depression in shades of gray, as in this famous picture from Dorothea Lange:

But some of the Farm Security Administration photographers were experimenting with the new film called Kodachrome:

After a lifetime of seeing that era in black-and-white I still remember the first time I picked up the book that collected the Kodachromes, the subject of the Daily Kos review: Bound for Glory: America in Color 1939-43

Another tribute to the film is the Kodachrome Project:

Besides the inherent qualities of Kodachrome itself, the film is an emblem for other changes in our culture. As I look around at people living their lives through cell phones and other ubiquitous gadgets, I’m aware that many of these folks have known nothing but a digital world. On the other hand, I’m a member of that dwindling herd whose lives stretched back into the analog era. Before computers allowed us, enticed us, coerced us, forced us, to do things the way we do them now, the world was a very different place. Daily life was conducted in a very different fashion. We took for granted how time and space stretched out in a languid manner, a pace that would be intolerable to most people weaned on the instantaneous responses facilitated by digital technologies – technologies that compress time and space in ways we could have barely imagined fifty years ago.

I’ve looked at life from both sides now, analog and digital, and I’m not saying one is better or worse. But they sure are different. Kodachrome is one beautiful and evocative manifestation of those differences.

Until I heard a BBC story on Kodachrome, I had not really considered some of the unique technical characteristics of the film. For now, this bit of trivia: a 35mm Kodachrome image contains the equivalent of a whopping 20 megapixels of data. And, when I learned that Kodachrome was invented by a pair of professional musicians (no, not Simon and Garfunkel) I decided that this story will need to be continued on another day.


Jim Parker said...

The Washington Post has nice little photo essay.

Kodachrome: Those nice bright colors, the greens of summer

GULAHIYI said...

Thanks! Great link and those are some more amazing Kodachromes. Subtle - but on a primal level - it was part of how we came to see the world, a way of capturing the shadow and light of a split second frozen in time.

Anonymous said...

I had a lot of genetics in my zoology training, so I know about umlikely phenotypes among otherwise homogeneous populations, but I still like to think that the Afghan girl in McCurry's NatGeo cover was an echo of the movement of Alexander's army so many generations ago.


GULAHIYI said...

Perhaps that was the caase with the Afghan girl. I don't have a link for it, but there's a great story about McCurry returning there many years and eventually finding her once again.