Kodachrome is dead, long live Kodachrome

With the announcement that Kodak is discontinuing its legendary color slide film, Kodachrome, I find myself frequently humming Paul Simon’s song about that film. Then I got to thinking about the film, which I once used in VERY large quantities. Finally, I came to consider the film’s successor(s.) Just like when the ruler of a country dies, he (or she) might be gone but the next leader is soon in place and most importantly, the institution lives on. That is how I see Kodachrome’s and photography’ continuing forward.

Noting this momentous occasion, what is it I will miss about Kodachrome? In the early years, it was the most consistent color slide film. The more recent E-6 process slide films are as consistent, but things were not always that way. If you mastered Kodachrome, you knew that if you used it right, the picture you wanted would be the picture you had on film.

There was a real physicality with all slides, but especially with Kodachrome. For most of the film’s active life, the slides were mounted in cardboard mounts that always felt more substantial than the more recent plastic slide mounts. (Yes the plastic mounts probably did do a better job protecting the slides but the cardboard felt more important.) Getting the film back from the lab in the tightly packed yellow boxes with 36, 37 or even 38 images was like getting a birthday present. Opening it involved getting through a series of covers, then you spread the slides out on a light box and look at them with a loupe (magnifier.)

And just like opening a gift box, sometimes you were pleased with what you found and sometimes disappointed. I can remember many heartbreaking edit sessions when I finally had to face the fact that I did not t get the image that I thought I had captured. There was often a week’s delay (or more) between the initial exposure and the post processing edit. That gave me time to embellish my memory of making the image, in my mind’s eye, turning a good shoot into what I was sure was a masterpiece.

There were an equal number of joyous editing sessions where laying out the slides on the light box took my breath away. There were many times where a situation I was photographing, which I was not sure worked that well, looked great on film. There was real, palpable joy knowing “I got it.”

Working for publications, you knew that if you got the slide right it was very difficult for the publication to ruin your printed images. Most printers prided themselves on accurately reproducing the slide they had in front of them. Similarly, slides were an easy way to store a lot of visual information. On a more technical note, a properly exposed slide is a perfect ROM (Read Only Memory.)

On the other hand, Kodachrome processing took longer, days rather than hours, and was done by fewer and fewer lab as time went on. The nationwide growth in the number of E-6 labs for slide processing seemed to grow in inverse proportion to the shrinking number of labs that processed Kodachrome.

Exposing slide film in general, especially Kodachrome, required a real mastery of light, exposure and composition. It was a remarkably unforgiving film, especially compared to the slide films of the 1990’s. When the newer slide films, with their wider exposure latitude and ease of processing, came along I was happy to leave Kodachrome behind. I transferred my mastery of Kodachrome to the more modern slide films and achieved even better results, aesthetically and technically.

So I do not miss Kodachrome. It served a vital purpose and yet it was displaced as time marched on. The same is true for the E-6 films that slowly chipped away at Kodachrome’s market. Digital photography is driving the last nails in the coffin of E-6 processed slide films. Is that good or bad? I can’t say. I am not sure I even care. I only know that it simply is happening. Just as digital imaging has radically reordered the landscape of professional photography, it has reordered the film business too.

For me, photography is a process (not a goal) and the best part of the whole process is taking the actual photographs. The joy in photography for me is in being out photographing in interesting places with amazing light. Showing the work in publications and exhibitions is rewarding, but not primary. Getting paid for my photography is also important but again it is not the primary part of the process.

Like many a king, Kodachrome dominated the landscape for much but not all of it’s 74 year life. For many of us, Kodachrome, like many such rulers, it also overstayed its welcome. Now it is going quietly.

When a monarch dies, the tradition is to say, “the King is dead, long live the King,” alluding to how the death of one leader is followed by the immediate ascension of another. My preferred interpretation of that quote is that the institution, the monarchy, is more important than any one figure. With that interpretation in mind, I think we would all agree that photography is more important (and longer lasting) than anyone film, even one as significant as Kodachrome.

2 responses to “Kodachrome is dead, long live Kodachrome”

  1. David — Not on this topic, but I found your photos of a changing India absolutely amazing. You have captured a period in time that is going on throughout the developing world with such visual eloquence. I am so glad your photos are there to tell the story that is unfolding today, and will be there to document the history of this time when all has been homogenized. You are a truly remarkable visual artist. Thanks for sharing your wealth of knowledge and experience. Greta Bolger

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