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Is Kodachrome Fading Away?

September 22, 2008

Avid Kodachrome fans are worried the elaborately crafted photographic film, extolled for its sharpness, vivid colors and archival durability will disappear.

“Part of me feels like, boy, if only I’d been born 20 years earlier,” says Alex Webb, 56-year-old photographer, whose work has appeared in National Geographic magazine. “I wish they would keep making it forever. I still have a lot of pictures to take in my life.”

Currently, only one commercial lab in the world, Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kan., still develops Kodachrome. The film was a ubiquitous brand that has caught the world in rich but authentic hues since it was introduced in the Great Depression.

Once a year, Eastman Kodak Co. makes the slide and motion-picture film in just one 35mm format, and production runs – in which a master sheet nearly a mile long is cut up into more than 20,000 rolls.

Kodachrome stocks currently on sale have a 2009 expiration date. If the machines aren’t fired up again, the company might just sell out the remaining supplies, and that would be the end.

“It’s a low-volume product; all volumes (of color film) are down,” says spokesman Chris Veronda.

Kodachrome was the standard choice for professional color photography and avant-garde filmmaking for decades.

During its most popular years, Paul Simon crooned, “Mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away” in 1973.

It’s also the only film to have a state park named after it – photogenic Kodachrome Basin State Park in the red-rock canyons of southern Utah.

Countless snap shooters used to hauled out a carousel projector and trays of slides to replay a family vacation during the 1960s and 1970s.

But the landmark color-transparency went into a tailspin a generation ago, when video, easy-to-process color negative films and a tidal-wave preference for hand-sized prints took over the market.

Kodachrome is limited to a small global market of devotees who wouldn’t settle for anything else.

However, industry experts say, Kodak might stop serving that steadily shrinking niche as the 128-year-old photography pioneer bets its future on electronic imaging.

Steve McCurry’s portrait of an Afghan refugee girl with haunting gray-green eyes that landed on the cover of National Geographic in 1985 is considered one of the finest illustrations of the film’s subtle rendering of light, contrast and color harmony.

“You just look at it and think, this is better than life,” says McCurry, 58, who has relied heavily on Kodachrome for all but the last two years of a 33-year career.

McCurry is turning to digital cameras as the technology gap closes.

“I like to shoot in extremely low light, inside of a home, a mosque, a covered bazaar,” he says. “To stop movement, it’s just absolutely impossible to do that with Kodachrome or with practically any film.”

John Larish, a consultant and writer on photography, fawns over its quality. “I’ve got Kodachromes from the 1930s and the blue skies look as bright as they did in the 1930s,” he says.

Even dentists, plastic surgeons and ophthalmologists still rely on its clarity and unique palette, especially for multiyear studies.

“Different eye diseases can have different colors,” says Thomas Link, an ophthalmic photographer at Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic who shoots 10 to 15 rolls of Kodachrome a week to help doctors diagnose and treat illnesses. “Even now we will go back and look through images taken 30 years ago for research purposes.”

If Kodachrome simply goes away, “we’d either change to a different type of film or do it digitally,” Link says, but long-term studies could suffer.

The Kodak subcontractor in Kansas still processes tens of thousands of rolls annually but admits sales are sliding.

“If Kodak doesn’t feel it’s economical, they might stop making the film itself,” says owner Grant Steinle. And “if film volumes become so small that we’re unable to economically process it, then we might stop.”

Kodachrome is purely black and white when exposed, and the process is unique.

The three primary colors that mix to form the spectrum are added in three development steps rather than built into its micrometer-thin emulsion layers.

Dwayne’s charges $8.45 per roll plus $9 for development. That’s at least 50 percent more than color negative film, the kind that prints are made from.

Yet fans like Webb remain bewitched by Kodachrome’s “vibrant but not oversaturated colors.”

“It has an emotional punchiness that really always seemed right for me,” especially in tropical urban locales he gravitates to in the Caribbean and in “mucky light” near dawn or dusk. Digital boasts “remarkable clarity,” he says, but “it’s almost too clear and doesn’t seem to have depth and texture the way film does.”

Webb was “incredibly distressed” when Kodachrome 200, his all-time favorite, was taken off the market November 2006.

He bought 600 rolls and is using up the last 150 to complete a photography book on Cuba this fall.

“It seems kind of appropriate because Cuba is a world of the ’50s on some level,” Webb says. “It has existed in a bubble outside the world of globalization now for 50 years, and Kodachrome goes hand-in-hand.”

Image Courtesy Kodachrome Project

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