I may be among the last to lament the retirement of Kodachrome from the diminishing lineup of Eastman Kodak films yet, there may be room for just one more eulogy. On December 30, 2010, the last photo lab in the the world to provide processing of the iconic film, shut down its Kodachrome operation. Kodak ceased shipping the film itself earlier in the year, then halted production of the proprietary chemistry for souping the film. The surviving method of processing transparency film, called E-6, is a simpler process, and the required chemistry is available from a number of suppliers. Films with names like Ektachrome and Fujichrome survive; although their futures are uncertain. Unlike Kodachrome, these films don’t elicit the same feelings of nostalgia and long-lasting praise.
My first exposure to Kodachrome was not as a slide film, but as 8mm home movie film. I still have hundreds of feet of still brilliant and colorful footage, captured by my father on countless family outings. The tonal warmth of the film is still apparent, so many years later. Kodachrome was also produced in the 2 1/4 square and 4×5 formats for still photography. The great landscape photographer Eliot Porter, championed the use of this film in his view cameras. Porter also pioneered the use of the Kodak Dye-Transfer Process, a laborious and challenging technology that easily eclipsed the ability of other processes to produce remarkably sharp prints with a wide tonal range. Kodak discontinued production of the proprietary chemistry for this process in 1994, angering its few, but devoted champions and admirers who understood its value.
The passage of Kodachrome, like Kodak black & white printing paper just a few years ago, is yet another trail marker on the one-way journey we have taken into the digital realm. More than the loss of specific imaging techniques and attributes, I mourn the loss of the slower, deliberate pace of photography; born in the 1830’s in France and continuing until the early 2000’s, when film cameras vanished from camera store shelves; practically overnight. My Kodak Carousel projector sits in a dusty corner of my home, lonely, and unused. An attempt to sell it last year on eBay got no bids. I will hear all reasonable offers! My hand-hewn light table, upon which I sorted thousands of slides, 4×5 transparencies and negatives with a lovely Schneider magnifying loupe, is suffering a similar fate. Ten years ago I donated my un-marketable darkroom enlarger and accessories to the local high school. I wonder if they are still using it?
Somehow today, the hours I spend in front of an iMac and Photoshop are not comparable to the meditative hours I spent in the darkroom, carefully mixing chemistry for paper and film, experiencing the magic of print development beneath an amber-colored safe light. The 36 frames on each 35mm film had a personality, and often, a precious quality. Today the equivalent of that role, is hundreds of exposures stored on a tiny flash memory card. It just isn’t the same!
So, forward we march, or stumble, out of the day when work was done with hands and hearts, into the era of speed and performance. To me, the most important benefit of digital photography, is the aspect of instantaneous feedback. The quality of my work improves at a much greater rate today, than in the time when turnaround for Kodachrome ran from several days, to as long as one week. While it is fun to look back now, and use selective memory to recall the good old days of film, it is also quite satisfying to admire a large print, pulled fresh from my ink-jet Epson, ready to be displayed. And so, forward we go…
Your comments and recollections are welcome here!