Is the rich-hued Kodachrome era fading to black?
By BEN DOBBIN
Mon Sep 22, 11:03 AM ET
It is an elaborately crafted photographic film, extolled for its sharpness, vivid colors and archival durability. Yet die-hard fan Alex Webb is convinced the digital age soon will take his Kodachrome away.
"Part of me feels like, boy, if only I'd been born 20 years earlier," says the 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."
Only one commercial lab in the world, Dwayne's Photo in Parsons, Kan., still develops Kodachrome, a once ubiquitous brand that has freeze-framed the world in rich but authentic hues since it was introduced in the Great Depression.
Eastman Kodak Co. now 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 — fall at least a year apart.
Kodak won't say when the last one occurred nor hint at Kodachrome's prospects. 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.
For decades, Kodachrome was the standard choice for professional color photography and avant-garde filmmaking. At its peak, a reverential Paul Simon crooned "Mama, don't take my Kodachrome away" in 1973. It's the only film to have a state park named after it — photogenic Kodachrome Basin State Park in the red-rock canyons of southern Utah.
During its mass-market heyday in the 1960s and '70s, countless snapshooters put friendships in peril every time they hauled out a carousel projector and trays of slides to replay a family vacation.
But the landmark color-transparency created by Leopold Godowsky Jr. and Leopold Mannes — "God and Man" in photo research circles — went into a tailspin a generation ago. It was eclipsed by video, easy-to-process color negative films and a tidal-wave preference for hand-sized prints.
Nowadays, Kodachrome is confined to a small global market of devotees who wouldn't settle for anything else. And before long, industry watchers say, Kodak might well stop serving that steadily shrinking niche as the 128-year-old photography pioneer bets its future on electronic imaging.
The digital revolution is undermining all varieties of film, even a storied one that garnered its share of spectacular images: the giant Hindenburg zeppelin dissolving in a red-orange fireball in 1936; Edmund Hillary's dreamy snapshot of his Sherpa climbing partner atop Everest in 1953; and, most iconic of all, Abraham Zapruder's 8-millimeter reel of President Kennedy's assassination in 1963.
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.
John Larish, a consultant and writer on photography, marvels at its staying power. "I've got Kodachromes from the 1930s and the blue skies look as bright as they did in the 1930s," he says.
Collectors of airplane and train images value its unsurpassed fade resistance. Assorted 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 should vanish, "we'd either change to a different type of film or do it digitally," Link says, but long-term studies that hinge on image consistency might suffer.
Alarm bells have been ringing since Kodak exited the film-processing business in 1988. One by one, its Kodachrome home-movie and still-film formats have been discontinued, and only a 64-speed remains. (Film speed is a measure of its sensitivity to light; low-speed films require a longer exposure).
An even slower 25-speed version departed in 2002, an equally beloved 200-speed in 2006, a Super 8 movie stock in 2005 — all supplanted by standardized films far easier and cheaper to process.
Dwayne's, the Kodak subcontractor in Kansas that has had the market to itself since a Kodachrome lab in Tokyo closed in December, 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."
Unlike any other color film, Kodachrome is purely black and white when exposed. 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.
There's a high price for this: 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.
As slide-film sales began to plummet in the 1980s, an already limited number of independent photofinishers willing to make use of Kodak's exacting color-diffusion development formulas fell away. Customers then evaporated when it became much harder to get Kodachrome processed quickly.
Ektachrome — another line of Kodak slide films — and similar products from Fuji, Konica and Agfa were well within the capabilities of all processors and took over the market as they improved in quality.
McCurry, who shot the "Afghan Girl" picture with Kodachrome, 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."
Yet aficionados 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, bit the dust in November 2006. He stockpiled 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."