Product Recall: Kodachrome Fades

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This article is a “wake”. In June, the Eastman Kodak Co. announced that it is retiring Kodachrome film. Introduced in 1936 as a 35mm transparency (reversal) film for slides, Kodachrome was the dominant color film in still photography for nearly 75 years. Our own family histories and all of amateur photography would have been greatly impoverished by existing only in B/W.

Steve McCurry’s iconic photo of an Afghan girl for National Geographic Magazine in 1985 was made on Kodachrome.


When he returned to photograph the girl 17 years later in 2002, he used Ektachrome. Today, like most photojournalists who have pressing publication deadlines, Steve McCurry relies largely on digital cameras. A fascinating story of this photo sojourn from 1985—how the girl, now a grown woman, looks, and her history since then is here: article

In this Kodak sponsored Youtube video McCurry talks about his early desire to be a cinematographer, his discovery of the solitary allure of the single photo and of his abiding love for Kodachrome. There is a glitch skip at the head of the video, so just manually slide it all the way left:

If you have any undeveloped Kodachrome, still or motion picture film, there is still one place in all of these United States where you can have it developed: Parsons, Kansas at Dwayne’s Photo: link

“In our mind’s eye, the Depression unfolded in black and white,” says Time photo editor Mark Rykoff. FSA photographers under the direction of Roy Stryker traveled the country documenting the poverty and hardship of this era. Walker Evans and Dorthea Lange created many of its most indelible images. The Library of Congress holds over 160,000 frames of the FSA work in B/W.

It was only in 1979 that a researcher discovered a long forgotten cache of color transparencies done by other FSA photographers, a dozen of them, including Russell Lee, Jack Delano and Marion Post Wolcott. There are only about 1600 frames in color, one one-hundredth of the B/W. But they are amazing to behold, collapsing a distant history with a surprising sense of immediacy. And they were photographed on Kodachrome. Here is a slideshow, narrated by Rykoff: “Farm Security Administration and the Dawn of Kodachrome” photo essay

We are also used to seeing WWII in B/W. But director George Stevens, with his film unit that included cameramen Joe Biroc and William Mellor, documented on 16mm Kodachrome the Normandy Invasion, the liberation of Paris, the Fall of Berlin and the discovery of the Dachau concentration camp. The footage of this historic journey was “lost” for decades but was discovered by his son, producer George Stevens, Jr. in near pristine condition and made into a documentary film available on DVD. The color is startling, even disconcerting, to certain critics who feel such indelible history on film somehow should be more sepia colored. You can judge for yourself on the DVD: link

Here is writer Jeff Shannon’s description of the documentary:

Some of the most vivid, indelible images of World War II can be found in George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin. Along with an Army-enlisted band of Hollywood veterans ….. the great director of Gunga Din traveled from the shores of Normandy to the ruins of occupied Berlin, capturing pivotal episodes of history on home-movie magazines of Kodak color film, which his son later crafted into this riveting 46-minute documentary. The narration by Stevens Jr. is rather listless, and other voiceover contributors from the "Irregular" crew are not specifically identified, but their visual account speaks for itself, with unforgettable images of liberated Paris on August 25, 1944 ("the greatest day of my life," said Stevens Sr.); the surrender of 320,000 troops in Germany's Army Company B; the wretched aftermath of the Battle of the Bulge; the discovery of a gigantic underground V-1 bomb factory in Nordhausen, Germany; Hitler's mountain hideaway in Berchtesgaden; and, most horrifically, piles of corpses at the Dachau concentration camp. The color images remain crisp and remarkably lifelike, as if they were shot just yesterday, bringing even greater significance and poignant importance to footage that will surely stand forever as a testament to some of humanity's brightest and darkest hours. — Jeff Shannon

Youtube has a number of links that show WWII in Kodachrome color. This clip from an English documentary of D-Day and beyond brings a seminal event in 20th century world history into arresting immediacy. What a difference the color makes:

In 2002 Els Rijper published a photo history —Kodachrome: The American Invention of the World. Critic-historian A.D. Coleman’s opening essay “Mama, don’t take our Kodachrome away” cites Paul Simon’s like titled song: link

I have had my own archival moment with Kodachrome. In spring and summer of 1969 I was working as camera assistant on a Disney film in Barrow, Alaska. I used Kodachrome in my 35SLR to photograph dozens of icebergs, ever shape-shifting in the Arctic light. Last year I found some of the stored slides. Almost 40 years afterwards they were still pristine.

An AP announcement from late June formalized the announcement of Kodachrome’s end:

Associated Press article

Here is a more detailed explanation of the history of Kodachrome including the revelation that it was pretty much a B/W film at capture stage. It is from an article by Claire Suddath in the June 23 online edition of Time magazine.

The Kodachrome process — in which three emulsions, each sensitive to a primary color, are coated on a single film base — was the brainchild of Leopold Godowsky Jr. and Leopold Mannes, two musicians turned scientists who worked at Kodak's research facility in Rochester, N.Y. Disappointed by the poor quality of a "color" movie they saw in 1916, the two Leopolds spent years perfecting their technique, which Kodak first utilized in 1935 in 16mm movie film. The next year, they tried out the process on film for still cameras, although the procedure was not for the hobbyist: the earliest 35mm Kodachrome went for $3.50 a roll, or about $54 in today's dollars.

While all color films have dyes printed directly onto the film stock, Kodachrome's dye isn't added until the development process. "The film itself is basically black and white," says Grant Steinle, vice president of operations at Dwayne's Photo in Parsons, Kans., the only photo-processing center still equipped to develop Kodachrome film. Steinle says that although all dyes will fade over time, if Kodachrome is stored properly it can be good for up to 100 years. The film's archival abilities, coupled with its comparative ease of use, made it the dominant film for both professionals and amateurs for most of the 20th century. Kodachrome captured a color version of the Hindenburg's fireball explosion in 1936. It accompanied Edmund Hillary to the top of Mount Everest in 1953. Abraham Zapruder was filming with 8mm Kodachrome in Dallas when he accidentally captured President Kennedy's assassination. National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry used it to capture the haunting green-gray eyes of an Afghan refugee girl in 1985 in what is still the magazine's most enduring cover image.

For 20 years, anyone wishing to develop Kodachrome film had to send it to a Kodak laboratory, which controlled all processing. In 1954, the Department of Justice declared Kodachrome-processing a monopoly, and the company agreed to allow other finishing plants to develop the film; the price of a roll of film — which previously had the processing cost added into it — fell roughly 43%. (Read about Kodak's antitrust case.)

Kodachrome's popularity peaked in the 1960s and '70s, when Americans' urge to catalog every single holiday, family vacation and birthday celebration hit its stride. Kodachrome II, a faster, more versatile version of the film, came out in 1961, making it even more appealing to the point-and-shoot generation. Super 8, a low-speed fine-grain Kodachrome movie film, was released in 1965 — and was used to film seemingly every wedding, beach holiday and backyard barbecue for the next decade. (Aficionados can check out the opening credits of the '80s coming-of-age drama The Wonder Years for a quick hit of nostalgia.) When Paul Simon sang, "Mama, don't take my Kodachrome away" in 1973, Kodak was still expanding its Kodachrome line, and it was hard to believe that it would ever disappear. But by the mid-1980s, video camcorders and more easily processed color film from companies like Fuji and Polaroid encroached on Kodachrome's market share, and the film fell into disfavor. Compared to the newer technology, Kodachrome was a pain to develop. It required a large processing machine and several different chemicals and over a dozen processing steps. The film would never, ever be able to make the "one-hour photo" deadline that customers increasingly came to expect. Finally in the early 2000s came the digital-photography revolution; digital sales today account for more than 70% of Kodak's revenue.

Kodak quit the film-processing business in 1988 and slowly began to disengage from film-manufacturing. Super 8 went by the wayside in 2007. By 2008 Kodak was producing only one Kodachrome film run — a mile-long sheet cut into 20,000 rolls — a year, and the number of centers able to process it had declined precipitously. Today, Steinle's Kansas store processes all of Kodak's Kodachrome film — if you drop a roll off at your local Wal-Mart, it will be developed at Dwayne's Photo — and though it is the only center left in the world, the company processes only a few hundred rolls a day.

Kodachrome 64 slide film, discontinued on June 22, was the last type of true Kodachrome available — although the company expects existing stocks to last well into the fall…….

Here is another explanation of the Kodachrome emulsion structure that helps explain why it has been so stable over time. It is from an anonymous article titled “The Wonders of Kodachrome”: article

The key to the Kodachrome's archival stability is that the color dyes (unlike Ektachrome and other E-6 Process films) are not placed in the film emulsion during manufacturing. Kodachrome is basically a black-and-white film with three light sensitive layers, each of which is "filtered" to record magenta, cyan, or yellow "light". During film processing, the correct color dyes are introduced into the respective layers to produce the full-color positive image. This is a much more complicated operation (the original K-11 Process required 28 different steps) than processing color films in which color dyes are already within each of the emulsion layers. But, the Kodachrome approach provides far greater color stability.

You can make a sentimental journey through Kodachromes’s history at this 43-image gallery: Kodachrome slideshow

The images were made by Eric Meola, Peter Guttman and Steve McCurry.

The last rolls of this film will be given to the George Eastman House in Rochester. Some of them will be the final photographed Kodachrome images—and they will be made by Steve McCurry.

Do you wonder how much longer these film transparencies may survive than our digital photo files? I do.

R.I.P. Kodachrome. May your demise be a very, very slow fade.



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