Kodachrome fades away

By Sydney Stokoe

Those greens of summer / 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.”

When a type of film manages to not only be memorialized in song by Paul Simon, but also have a state park named after it, it’s bound to have an important place in history.

The end of Kodachrome — yet another significant milestone in the history of photography — will not go unnoticed. The last roll of Kodak’s legendary Kodachrome film has rolled out of the factory and into the camera of one of the century’s most influential photographers.

The final roll of the discontinued film was entrusted to world-renowned photojournalist Steve McCurry, whose “Afghan Girl” photo captured the attention of the world on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic. McCurry used the 36 exposures to capture New York City, south Asia and Robert De Niro, shooting off the final three frames at Dwayne’s Photo Services in Kansas before being developed and sent to the Kodak factory that produced it.

McCurry, along with many other photographers who have used Kodachrome throughout their careers, has shown the world’s true colours with their work and these images have been burnt into memory. “Afghan Girl” — shot on Kodachrome — was proclaimed the most recognized photo in the history of National Geographic, the intense green of her eyes captured by the dead film.

As the first colour film of a professional quality, Kodachrome sparked a new era in photography. Although later films, such as Kodak Ektachrome, surpassed it in quality, there is certain nostalgia associated with Kodachrome. The vibrant colours stayed strong years after development while other films faded. Kodachrome not only captured colours, it actually made them look better to the point where it has been referred to as the “lipstick and makeup” of film photography.

While its death was inevitable, it’s still an event worthy of nostalgia. As technology moves forward, it’s no surprise that some of the industry’s important features get left behind. Kodak stopped production of the film citing low sales. Although there are still a fair few avid film photographers, the high cost of Kodachrome, combined with the difficult development, meant that few photographers were willing to shell out the cash necessary to sustain the production.

It wasn’t the digital age that killed Kodachrome — many other films are still being produced and shot by film enthusiasts all over the world — but rather the technicalities of its own success. In order to get the sort of colours that the film offered a complex and expensive development process is necessary. Kodak itself had to supply labs with the proper chemicals, which not only cost a great deal but also required a more involved development process. Standard colour slide film uses a much simpler E-6 colour process, and as a result, managed to maintain a lower price and a larger user-base.

Even in its prime, Kodachrome could only be developed in labs that have been certified by Kodak to carry out the 17-step process. Today, Dwayne’s Photo Services in Kansas is the last remaining Kodachrome lab and they will be ceasing development in December this year.

Needless to say, the roll of Kodachrome currently stored in my freezer will see the light of day before the developing tanks are emptied for the last time. Those greens of summer aren’t gone, but after 74 years the original way to capture them is no more.


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