As the song says, everything looks worse in black and white, and if there’s only one color film that could make “all the world a sunny day,” it was Kodachrome. Or so it seems. Like many film shooters today, I was born into an era in which Kodachrome was nothing more than an old, expensive film, slow to process and cumbersome to display (what’s a slide projector?). So any time I hear photo geeks of a certain age wax poetic on Kodachrome, I have to wonder, was it really so good?
It’s possible it wasn’t. After all, nostalgia is a funny thing. The over-used refrain “they don’t make ’em like they used to” is as inaccurate as it is ubiquitous. The reason we think products from the past were better than products today is because only the good ones have survived. What’s left after decades of wear and tear is the best of yesteryear’s gear, and the quality of these few survivors is eventually universally applied to all products of the past. In forty years, my grandkids will moan that their coffee teleportation unit broke again, saying “they don’t make coffee machines like they did back in the 2000s”, unaware of the hundreds of thousands of Keurig machines (not) decomposing in our landfills.
Could the rose-tinted spectacles of nostalgia be obscuring the vision of those who mistily recall the name Kodachrome? Because we see world-class Kodachrome shots on five decades worth of National Geographic pages, do we assume the film was also world-class, and forget its failings?
After years of hearing about how special Kodachrome was, I wanted to know more, so I spent some time poring through the online archives of the Library of Congress, reading the literature of the time, watching documentaries, and most crucially, talking with photographers who were shooting long before I was even alive. The sum total of this probing has been surprising; unanimous praise. People don’t talk about Kodachrome the way we usually talk about obsolete and replaced tech. People talk about Kodachrome as if it were an unforgettable lover.
“You mean my first true love?” The first words spoken when I asked Ned Bunnell, former President of Pentax US, if he’d like to talk to me about Kodachrome. “Never used it for everyday slide film due to its demand for perfect light, exposure, and careful composition. However, when the subject matter warranted the very best image, I’d always shoot with Kodachrome.”
In the short documentary The End of an Era, a National Geographic film crew follows Steve McCurry as he shoots and processes the final roll of Kodachrome to roll off the assembly line. A man who’s possibly shot more Kodachrome than anyone else (by his own estimation, over 800,000 images) calls it a legendary film, adding, “Probably the best film ever made.”
That’s pretty high praise. But what made it so phenomenal?
Kodak’s contemporary literature is decidedly understated when measured against all the lauding the film receives today. They described Kodachrome as nothing more than a moderate-speed, extremely fine grained film for daylight shooting. Nothing too special there. Even when rating the film’s resolving power, things were rather staid. With 96-135 lines per millimeter, it landed right in the middle of Kodak’s resolving power scale. But these descriptors fail even to hint at what made Kodachrome so special. For that, we have to talk to photographers.
When asked what made it his favorite film, Ned replied with one succinct sentence. “Brilliant, natural colors.”
This sentiment’s been echoed by everyone I talked to. The owner of my local processing lab, a shop that’s been in business since the 1970s and has weathered all the storms of the past fifty years, said of its colors, “Kodachrome was unreal. Actually, it was extremely ‘real’. No other film could make such true, vivid images. When you exposed it right, you got a slice of real life on film. It was incredible. The best photos I ever took were made on Kodachrome.”
In the film, McCurry confirms these statements on Kodachrome’s intangible qualities. “Sublime, rich colors. The best rendition of reality.”
But these words don’t tell the real story. Only staring into the depth and richness of Kodachrome images can the quality of the film be properly absorbed. For that, we’ve included some sample shots from contributors and a link to the online archives of the Library of Congress. Here and in other galleries is where we see the real magic of Kodachrome; in its incredible ability to archive moments in time with a stunning clarity I’ve never found in any other film.
It achieved its signature look by doing something no other film did to the time of its invention. Kodachrome’s dye couplers, which other films typically had embedded on them, weren’t added until the development process had begun. That meant that its emulsion layers could be thinner and less light was scattered on exposure, leading to sharper images. It was a film with high contrast, which further added to its punchiness, and yet its color remained subdued compared to other slide films of the day. The combination of high contrast and life-like color created images that were refined and poetic, and its archival abilities ensured that properly stored images would remain vibrant as the day they were made for upward of a hundred years (the proof of which we see today).
The overtly demanding and complicated nature of the beast meant that development was a laborious affair heavily reliant on operator skill and knowledge. For decades, development was handled only by Kodak. In the 1950s, Kodak Processing was declared a monopoly by the Department of Justice and the brand relinquished control, allowing independent labs to develop the film. This lowered the price of the film by over 40%, and helped spur Kodachrome’s popularity to heights never known by any film before it. For the next two decades, Kodachrome would be shot in hundreds of thousands of cameras all over the globe, capturing everything from family vacations to the Kennedy assassination, Edmund Hillary’s ascent of Everest to McCurry’s most famous shot, Afghan Girl.
By the mid-1980s the film had been largely outmoded by faster, cheaper, films from Fuji and others. The high technical threshold for making successful photos and the complicated developing process that once made Kodachrome’s final images so incredible and cherished now acted as a liability. Consumers wanted friendlier, easier to shoot films that could be processed in under an hour by the summer help at the local drug store, and as the digital revolution picked up steam, fewer and fewer labs were willing and able to suffer the proprietary Kodak development machines and processes.
In the late 1990s and 2000s, Kodak eased production of many films, Kodachrome included, and production of the film stopped entirely in 2009. The last lab to develop Kodachrome ceased doing so shortly thereafter. And finally, after 75 years of making images, Kodachrome was finished.
Talking to the earlier generations of photo geeks, I get the distinct impression that the end of Kodachrome production meant more than just the loss of another film stock. For many, it seems, the end of Kodachrome signaled the end of an era, the end of shooting film. Indeed many older shooters I meet, especially those who are surprised to see a film camera on the street in 2017, mention Kodachrome by name, usually in a reverent sentence strung to the end of a conversation about their favorite cameras and where and when they used them. To these photo geeks who swore by Kodachrome and held onto their Nikon F3 or Pentax K1000 even as their friends were switching to digital, the end of Kodachrome was the final knell. And when the last rolls vacated store shelves, many of these diehard film shooters finally switched to digital, and for some it seems that photography was never quite the same. Even as digital cameras became masterful machines in their own right, a certain magic was lost.
But where does that leave us today? You’ve read all the fanfare and blinked in amazement over the classic images. You’re likely feeling a real desire to shoot this stuff. Which leads to one burning question – will Kodachrome ever come back?
No one I’ve talked to can imagine that Kodachrome, as it was in the past, will ever come back. The complicated and environmentally damaging chemistry, the specialized development process, and the expensive equipment all make large-scale development of Kodachrome in 2017 an impossible dream. Kodak themselves have shown tempered interest, but 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.
For the past few years the boys in Rochester have cyclically teased the photography and film communities with amazing ideas and jaw-dropping announcements, such as their Super 8 digital/film hybrid movie camera that was announced in 2016, quietly delayed in 2017, and later had its projected MSRP double. Now at the end of 2017, the thing has all but disappeared aside from unspecific messages on Instagram saying the brand’s still seeking to bring it to market. In January of 2017, Kodak Alaris announced the second coming of Ektachrome. We’re still waiting for details on that one, though it does seem that there’s movement toward opening processing facilities, hopefully in preparation for the new emulsion’s launch. The latest word is that it’ll be available sometime in 2018.
These rumblings of products that recall the past speaks to an understanding within Kodak of the passion that photographers still have for its historically excellent products and its most cherished film. Though we’ve yet to see these rumblings erupt into any tangible flow of product, it’s at least a glimmer of hope. It’s even true that things bearing classic film names are once again spilling out of Kodak, and while these things aren’t exactly film, it’s still good to see.
The dream that Kodachrome could ever come back in a meaningful way (there are individuals working on small scale development, but the results aren’t what we’d expect from Kodachrome) is only a dream. Kodachrome, as the world knew it, is gone. But that’s okay. All good things must come to an end.
Is there anything out there that can take its place? Will Kodak release a new emulsion to act as a suitable stand-in, if only in name and image characteristics? Time will tell. Until then, we’ll be firing up some Paul Simon, flicking through the archives of what most photo geeks claim is the best film ever made, and knowingly nodding when those old-timers tell us that we missed out on something special.