Kodachrome Fades—Out: But the Afterglow Lingers

Final frame, final photo R.I.P..

This is the last photograph on the last roll of Kodachrome film manufactured by Kodak. It was taken by National Geographic photojournalist Steve McCurry with his trusty Nikon F, the camera on which for decades he loaded thousands of 36 exposure rolls of the 35mm color-transparency film. This final exposure was made in a cemetery (what an apt metaphor) in Parsons, Kansas (location of Dwayne’s Photo, the last lab in the world still processing Kodachrome). McCurry had brought the roll there himself, hand-delivering it to Dwayne Steinle, whose family still owns and operates the lab that he founded in 1956.

Dwayne's—Last stop for Kodachrome.

From its introduction in 1936, the year after Kodak had introduced it in the 16mm. motion picture format, Kodachrome reversal became a film of choice for professionals and shutterbugs alike. It was the emulsion that William Eggleston chose for his photographs, work became a 1976 landmark book and exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the first ever in color by that institution.

Kodachrome is the film, in motion picture and still formats, on which so much of America’s mid and late twentieth century color photographic history rests. John Huston’s documentary, Report from the Aleutians, (discussed in my recent essay on Let There Be Light), as well as George Stevens’ WWII liberation of Paris footage, were both shot on the then still young emulsion. So were several thousand images from the WPA depression era; these color slides exhibit a surprising sense of casual immediacy that many of the more iconic, stylized B/W photos lack.

Time.com—“The Dawn of Kodachrome” audioslide show link

Millions of feet of “home movies” in 8mm and Super 8mm were shot on Kodachrome. The visual history of our families, friends and most of popular culture were recorded for decades on Kodachrome. It was the first film school for many established filmmakers working today. It may be difficult for young people to imagine, in a culture that now has so many instant recording media available, what was the anticipation of waiting for developed film to come back via mail from the lab—then stringing the 50' or 100' roll up on a home projector, or popping the slides into a Kodak Carousel to watch breathlessly as the images danced on a roll-out tripod screen in a dim room.

Who can deny the wondrous technology we have at hand today, with multiple viewing platforms overwhelming us, and with the ability to manipulate images on a laptop, and posting them online? I for one could never have fantasized this richness, this total democratization of image making, when I was a kid exposing 8mm film of the family summer outing in Yellowstone Park in the mid-fifties. The merged memories of travel, summer vacations and Kodachrome home movies, was so pervasive at the time that the state of Utah named one of its parks Kodachrome Basin.

In 1973, Paul Simon recorded one of his many pop anthems (at Muscle Shoals, Alabama) titled simply Kodachrome. It is wonderfully upbeat and catches the love that a generation had for the film.

No one ever preached that Kodachrome records totally faithful color. In fact, that was the point. Its colors were intensely saturated and thickly luscious, more so than quotidian life. Everything looked BETTER and BRIGHTER on Kodachrome. That’s the spirit captured by the Simon song and the look of the hyper-chroma of a YouTube video. It bears as much resemblance to the real look of Kodachrome as the colors of a Maxfield Parrish painting do to one by Jacques-Louis David. But thanks to Carann5 for creating this “tone poem.”


They give us those nice bright colors

They give us the greens of summers

Makes you think all the world's a sunny day, Oh yeah

I got a Nikon camera

I love to take a photograph

So mama don't take my Kodachrome away

Mama don't take my Kodachrome away

Mama don't take my Kodachrome away

Mama don't take my Kodachrome away

Several weeks ago, while discussing with my friend Rob Hummel the subject of the eagerly anticipated second report of AMPAS’ Sci-Tech Committee that will address the challenges of digital archiving, The Digital Dilemma—he told me about recently discovered Kodachrome film and slides he had of his own family. He was astounded at the high quality of preservation of slides that had been stored in boxes for more than 60 years, shelved away with no archival intent. Here is a photo scanned from a Kodachrome slide—of his grandmother in 1947.

And one of his mother, Lois.

Both photos were taken by Rob’s dad on Kodachrome 828 film with a Kodak Bantam Special camera. Rob says he still has the camera.

The Kodak 828 Bantam Special.

And here is one of William Eggleston’s most famous 35mm Kodachrome images; it was included in the recently closed retrospective of his work at LACMA.

William Eggleston, Red Ceiling.

I recently viewed this exhibition with Nicolas Harvard, a young filmmaker I met several months after having written a series of pieces about his (in)famous Xtranormal.com video, Cinematographer vs. Producer.

Xtranormal.com—Cinematographer vs. Producer link

Nic, who is in his late twenties, is a full-fledged child of the age of digital imagery; he has been considering which direction to go with his movie career, to continue as an AD or to become a cinematographer. Like most of his generation evaluating a career in image making, the current film/digital dialogue is both exciting and confusing. Wholesale change in the arts is always disruptive because it is about so much more than just the equipment, about even more than the overarching technology. Movies have ridden the edge of this razor many times before and seem even more susceptible to technological evolution than the other arts. But memory, emotion—dare I say, “nostalgia”, are powerful factors when we examine the tools with which we create our work. I’m no exception.

Well over a decade ago, on the day I began filming the Jim Brooks film, As Good As It Gets in NYC, the camera truck failed to make the morning call time; it had been stolen overnight from a “secure” parking lot. Some of the lenses were missing, including my meter case which contained a very outdated but much beloved analog Photo Research Pro light meter, the meter I had bought used in 1965 when I was a student at USC. The battered leather case had once been tossed out by a meaningful camera assistant and replaced with a new one, much to my distress—but eventually the shredded case was retrieved. That meter and case was my own Pooh-Bear.

I know that here’s nothing rational about holding onto obsolete equipment—or onto a by-passed technology. But we do—because we all live in a world that is rich in the past as part of our ongoing experience. This is one reason there was such a level of protest last year when Kodak announced that it was discontinuing the manufacture of its signature consumer product, Kodachrome. No matter to its legions of fans (many of whom had not exposed it in years): they were bereft and signaled their pain via online chat rooms.

There is an intensely affecting scene from an episode of Mad Men where ad man Don Draper pitches more than a new machine to Kodak executives. He pitches a narrative. He pitches a dream.

Not “The Wheel.”

Embedding of the clip of Mad Men is “disabled by request” but here is the direct link. It’s a brilliant scene.

Youtube.com— Mad Men, “The Carousel” link

In the scene, insert shots of the Kodak Carousel projector clicking through the slides evoke a powerful sensory recall. There is something immediate about the analog, rhythmic shuttling of the projector tray that elicits a visceral response—at least to a certain aged demographic. I wonder if there will be an equivalent emotional hitch 30 or 40 years from now when the smart phone, iPhone generation, thinks back about their by then obsolete touch screen devices.

Dwayne’s Photo discontinued processing Kodachrome at the end of 2010. There was such a rush of orders that they did not turn off the final processor until almost mid-January. The announcement of the shutdown was made amid much media coverage, including a wonderful profile of Dwayne’s frenzied final work orders—one of which included 1,580 rolls of 35mm. Kodachrome processed at a cost of almost $16,000. It was picked up by a 53-year old railroad worker from Arkansas named Jim DeNike. He had borrowed the money for processing the film from his father’s retirement account. DeNike loaded the boxes of slides into his old maroon Pontiac. All the thousands of photos, he said, were of railroad trains.

Nytimes.com—“For Kodachrome Fans, Road Ends at Photo Lab in Kansas” article link

The nearby newspaper, the Wichita Eagle, featured a slideshow of employees at Dwayne’s working the Kodachrome processors.

Kansas.com—“Last Roll of Kodachrome” article link

CBS’ Sunday Morning TV show ran a story:

CBSnews.com—“Kodachrome: The Legendary Film’s Last Days” story link

After the initial announcement in 2009 ending Kodachrome’s manufacture, BBC news editor and photographer Phil Coomes began a project that he called 64x64. He made a single photograph on Kodachrome 64 every day for 64 weeks and posted them on flickr. His inspiration was William Eggleston’s project, The Democratic Forest, no hierarchy of imagery or critical judgment—just every image standing alone for itself.

Phil Coomes blog, “Traces of Life” link

Flickr.com—blinkofaneye: “64 Weeks on Kodachrome 64” photo link

As you can imagine there was much juggling to decide whose roll of Kodachrome would be the last one to be processed. Dwayne’s Photo owner, Dwayne Steinle, made the decision.  He exposed the roll himself. The NY Times story by A.G. Sulzberger documents the final rite.

It took three tries to find a camera that worked. And over the course of the week he [Dwayne Steinle] fired off shots of his house, his family and downtown Parsons. The last frame is already planned for Thursday, a picture of all the employees standing in front of Dwayne’s wearing shirts with the epitaph: “The best slide and movie film in history is now officially retired. Kodachrome: 1935-2010.”

Steinle may have processed the last roll of Kodachrome but it was Steve McCurry who was given the last roll manufactured by Kodak. McCurry’s name and reputation is more closely associated with Kodachrome than that of any other photojournalist. A year ago last October I wrote a piece about Kodak’s decision to cease production of Kodachrome.

John’s Bailiwick—“Product Recall… Kodachrome Fades” article link

McCurry was featured prominently in this essay including an embedded Kodak video of him talking about his love for the film.

Not only was McCurry given the last roll of Kodachrome, but he also decided to turn its frame-by-frame exposure into a worldwide trip, a photo essay back into his own past. He began in India where he had had so many assignments for National Geographic magazine and to the country that had spawned several of his books.

Steve McCurry in India, 2010, last roll of Kodachrome.

On his return home, McCurry passed through New York City where he photographed three American icons—the Brooklyn Bridge, Grand Central Station and Robert de Niro, before ending up at the cemetery in Parsons, Kansas.

Steve McCurry, Grand Central Station 2010.
Steve McCurry, Robert de Niro, 2010.

A documentary crew from the National Geographic channel accompanied him. The sojourn became an hour-long film to air on television in April. Concurrently, National Geographic Magazine will run a feature story of some of the images.

Ben Dobbin of the Seattle Times wrote a story about this nostalgic trip, which concludes with a quote from McCurry regarding the storage cabinets in his darkroom, drawers that are filled with Kodachrome slides:

McCurry has a personal archive of 800,000 Kodachrome images he takes good care of. But in late July, he chanced upon a batch of 1969 and 1972 Kodachromes he'd put in storage in Philadelphia long ago and forgotten about. The discovery got him reminiscing about his days as a hungry photographer hopping from Amsterdam to Africa to Soviet-era Bulgaria.

Dobbin concludes with McCurry’s footnote on Kodachrome’s archivability:

“Not only was the color really good, but they were actually not bad pictures,” McCurry marveled.

“Imagine leaving digital images in a hard drive and coming back 40 years later. Would anybody be able to read that data? That's the great thing about film. It's a self-contained object. You hold the picture up to the light and there it is.”

Seattletimes.nwsource.com—“De Niro, Brooklyn, India on last Kodachrome roll” article link

Here are two of the Indian photographs that McCurry made on that last roll of Kodachrome:

Steve McCurry, Raburi woman, India, 2010.
Steve McCurry, Raburi tribal elder, 2010.

Vanity Fair has recently published an online story about this last roll along with a slideshow of the frames of this last roll. Here is the link.

Vanityfair.com—“The Last Roll of Kodachrome–Frame By Frame” article link

The slides made from this last roll have been given to the Eastman House collection in Rochester, the city that is the corporate headquarters of Kodak. Drumroll irony, please.

In a heartfelt story by NPR writer Claire O’Neill posted on Dec. 30, the journalist recounts a holiday family homecoming. Her father projected 12 boxes of Kodachrome family slides. None of the children had ever seen them.

NPR.org—The Picture Show blog, “Goodbye (Again) To The Last Rolls Of Kodachrome Film” article link

For various reasons it was probably the most bittersweet thing we've ever done as a family, completely drenched in nostalgia. That's the paradox of slide film: It has a hefty permanence and tangibility to it, but is almost by definition a nostalgic experience. You only haul those boxes out on special occasions but when you do, it really is a special occasion.

When my wife, Carol, returns from any of her ambitious walking trips, such as the Santiago Campostella pilgrimage trail, she creates comprehensive digital slideshows with music—a natural impulse for a film editor. So far, viewing has not moved beyond her computer screen. And so far, so good—nothing has been lost. But Carol is methodical in upgrades since she spends hours every day working with the latest iteration of the Avid. Many friends not in the film industry, however, have lost large digital photo files—whole family records; this includes her sister, Betty, who has recently published a multi-generational family history that includes several hundred photographs—a veritable history of nineteenth and twentieth century Oklahoma, seen through the prism of a single family. When all the digital copies were lost in a hard drive crash, Betty still had the paper prints to rescan, many of them over a century old. One can’t help but wonder what may happen, long term, if your own family photo history (captured only on digital cameras) is posted on Shutterfly or flikr.

The death of Kodachrome may be dismissed with a regretful but casual shrug by those of us who have no nostalgic history with 35mm film cameras, those who look ahead to the ever more promising horizon of digital photography. After all, everything and everyone has its time in the sun. I confess that even as I transition into the inevitability of a post photochemical motion picture future, I can’t help but cast a backward glance.

I suspect that some of the emotional reaction to Kodachrome’s final passing, especially as a motion picture film (discontinued in 2005), is that this demise is also emblematic. Eastman Kodak can find reasons to justify discontinuing a film stock. They do it all the time as improved emulsion generations are introduced. So, what’s the big deal? Just this.

Kodachrome was not just another film stock. It was once the flagship product of the company, one that (as we have seen) symbolized the pre-eminence of Eastman Kodak in the world of consumer and professional photography. Its archivable dyes preserve our personal and national history.

But today, Kodak is a company that appears to be at odds with itself over its own future. The corporate execs in Rochester do not seem, from my perspective at least, to have a clear vision of how to move ahead, of how to present its side of the motion picture film narrative to an industry where the manufacturers of digital technology have captured the high ground. Kodak corporate executives may try to maintain a reasoned voice extolling the continuing merits of film emulsions—amid a marketplace filled with screeching digital hawkers. But this non-confrontational posture is simply not working. The one time digital gnats buzzing around Kodak's imperial crown now have become vampire bats draining its life blood. Yet Rochester seems unfazed, certainly not fazed enough to fight back, not enough to present their case in an aggressive pro-active mode. Those of us who want to continue making movies on film don't get much back-up from corporate headquarters.

Not so long ago the Kodak name sounded in harmonious sync with America, in tune with its happiest and saddest moments--- those moments that we wanted to remember-- save, savor and share. The vaunted "Kodak moment" was our own moment. What happened? I don't believe this looming crisis of corporate identity  is only about a seismic, technological digital revolution. I believe it's about a loss of vision.

I fear that the death of Kodachrome is just the surface manifestation of a much greater illness within the corporate body of Kodak. Kodachrome’s lamented passing, sadly, may symbolize the imminent death rattle (at least for its still profitable photochemical film division) of a great American company, a sputtering which its top brass in Rochester seem loathe or unable to staunch.This apparent disconnect does not reflect, it seems to me, the spirit of Kodak men and women in the field. It is they who continue daily to represent the best of Kodak; they are committed passionately in their support of FILMmakers, students, and professionals alike.

From my own student days, Kodak has always been engaged with emerging filmmakers, sponsoring many events and seminars. Cinematographers, myself included, have traveled with Kodak's sponsorship to lead discussions and workshops around the world. Last year, I was Kodak's cinematographer-in-residence at UCLA, and have been a judge for Kodak's annual Student Cinematography Awards. These are important ongoing commitments that Kodak makes to the future of cinema-- and never once have I been asked to promote film over video.

Those of us who love FILM, even as we work more and more in a digital industry, want to hear that this kind of support for young filmmakers will translate into a compelling narrative, that Kodak will rise up strong in defense of its still superior product, that the corporate honchos in Rochester believe and will convince skeptics that motion picture film is still the best and most durable "capture" medium, that a “mature” technology like film will continue to co-exist with a digital one….  But I’m not holding my breath. . . . In any case, you can get the T-shirt.

The comment box is open.

Next week: Owen Roizman's photo exhibition, portraits of fellow ASC members at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and sciences.

Dwaynesphoto.com link



Subscribe Today

Act now to receive 12 issues of the award-winning AC magazine — the world’s finest cinematography resource.

Print Edition   Digital Edition
July 2020 AC Magazine Cover June 2020 AC Magazine Cover May 2020 AC Magazine Cover