Old Kodachrome slides in Clarence, N.Y. David Duprey/Associated Press
Film photography isn’t dead. Granted, the smartphone continues to be the primary way with which people take pictures, due to the relative ease and convenience when it comes to connectivity. A photo can be snapped and stored in mere seconds, posted on social media, or sent through messenger, email, or Bluetooth. This is fine and all, but traditional photography can be a singular, indelible experience.
Prior to the digital revolution, photography was largely a film-centric industry. In order to get their film developed, people had to frequent photo labs, and the development process involved a personal touch. It might be regarded as cumbersome in comparison to the swift processes nowadays, but getting film developed was and still is special – it’s like handing a roll of your precious memories and chosen snapshots to be cemented and reinforced into vibrant, colour photographs that would last a lifetime. And quite possibly, no other film has elicited such experiences as Kodachrome. At the very least, it may be the most iconic film ever to be produced by the Eastman Kodak Company.
'Sharbat Gula, Afghan Girl', Pakistan, 1984. Photographed by Steve McCurry.
Color photography had been around long before 1935, but it was in this year that the process was successfully streamlined with the invention of Kodachrome. It became the "go-to color format for film,” and was considered a technological triumph at the time due to its ability to depict colours in a vivid and rich way (Wallace, n.d.). The process was created by former musicians turned scientists, Leopold Godowsky Jr. and Leopold Mannes, who spent years trying to perfect a technique of film production that would yield the best colors. Apart from possessing satisfying hues, Kodachrome also has great archival abilities, and can reliably capture and retain images for up to 100 years, if properly stored (Suddath, 2009). As with most innovative ideas, it would soon find strong competition down the decades, with improved offerings from competitor companies such as Fujifilm, as well as from Kodak itself. However, Kodachrome reigned during the 60s and 70s. The pictures taken in this method most definitely speak for themselves.
Suddath writes of the iconic moments cemented in history through Kodachrome, such as the Hindenburg’s fireball explosion in 1936, Edmund Hillary at the peak of Mount Everest in 1953, President Kennedy’s assassination accidentally filmed by Abraham Zapruder, and the famous Afghan refugee girl captured by National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry in 1985. Both amateur and professional photographers have expressed passionate sentiments and praise for Kodachrome. Steve McCurry said of the film’s qualities, “Sublime, rich colors. The best rendition of reality.” (Tocchio, 2017). The nostalgia that surrounds Kodachrome is strong, and the images that it rendered defined a whole era for photography.
Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas. By Steve Hebert for The New York Times
All good things must eventually come to an end, and Kodachrome was no exception. “Kodachrome film is truly dead,” wrote Praetorius on December 30, 2010. On that day, Dwayne’s Photo, in Parsons, Kansas, became the last lab ever to process Kodachrome film. Kodak had also stopped the production of Kodachrome during the previous year. Many individuals from all walks of life undertook the pilgrimage to Parsons on that fateful day, hoping to get their final rolls of Kodachrome developed. Visitors ranged from Steve McCurry himself to a railroad worker from Arkansas named Jim Denike, who had come to pick up 1,580 rolls of film which he had paid $15,798 to develop (Sulzberger, 2010). In its 75 year run, it became the beloved medium for many distinguished photographers and hobbyists, resulting in photographs that provided glimpses into the lives of many individuals.
Kodachrome had been a mainstay in popular culture during its peak, so much so that in 1973, acclaimed musician Paul Simon wrote a song about it, one heartfelt line going “Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day.” In 2017, a movie entitled Kodachrome was released, starring Ed Harris, Jason Sudeikis, and Elizabeth Olsen, encapsulating the last few days of its processing, from the perspective of a dysfunctional father and son.
Kodachrome by Paul Simon, in 7" vinyl
The question remains, will Kodachrome ever make a comeback? Now that even the current generation is starting to share the love of all things ‘vintage’, will Kodak bolster this affinity with the resurgence of their most-beloved film? Plenty of photographers have advocated for its return, but Kodak has shown little interest in its reproduction. Tocchio (2017) remarks that “the brand seems to be struggling to bridge an ideological gap between the energetic development of exciting products and the harsh economic realities of manufacturing expensive, niche items in the modern world.” Not to mention that it was not particularly environmentally friendly, and there are modern iterations of film which are more so.
Perhaps Kodachrome will remain a thing of the past, a once-favoured item that reached its peak, according to the demands of the times and the relative advancement of technology. But as intended, the images it has produced have solidified its presence in the world of photography, continuing to be a standard of good quality and evoking some of the best memories of humankind.
Praetorius, D. (2010). Last Kodachrome Developer Stops Developing. Huffpost. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/last-kodachrome-developer_n_802921
Suddath, C. (2009). A Brief History of Kodachrome. Time. http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1906503,00.html
Tocchio, J. (2017). Kodachrome Retrospective – Kodak’s Most Famous Film. Casual Photophile. https://casualphotophile.com/2017/10/04/kodachrome-retrospective- film-profile/
Wallace. (n.d.). The History of Kodachrome. Aperture: A Kodak Digitizing Blog. https://kodakdigitizing.com/blogs/news/the-history-of-kodachrome
Hebert, S. (2010). Dwayne's Photo in Parsons, Kansas. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/30/us/30film.html
Kodachrome by Paul Simon, in 7" vinyl. (1973). Discogs. Retrieved from https://www.discogs.com/release/14966051-Paul-Simon-Kodachrome
McCurry, S. (1984). 'Sharbat Gula, Afghan Girl', Pakistan, 1984. Sotheby's. Retrieved from https://www.sothebys.com/en/buy/auction/2019/photographs-2/steve-mccurry-sharbat-gula-afghan-girl-pakistan
Old Kodachrome slides in Clarence, N.Y.David Duprey/Associated Press. (n.d.). Kodak TV. Retrieved from https://kodaktv.in/kodak-legacy/#