It’s a Kodak moment: the end of Kodachrome

The vice-president of the last place on Earth that still processes Kodachrome film talks to spiked.

Nathalie Rothschild

Topics Culture

When Dwayne Steinle founded Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas in 1956, little did he know that his business would grant the small town a place in the annals of photography history. Today, the family-run photo-processing company is one of the largest specialty labs in the US – and it’s also the world’s last certified lab for processing Kodachrome, the film that was used to create some of the twentieth century’s most iconic and enduring images.

As the deadline for sending Kodachrome rolls from Europe to Dwayne’s passes this week, we are, as the lab’s website puts it, witnessing ‘the end of an era’.

Kodachrome was released by Kodak in 1935. It became the world’s first commercially successful colour film, favoured for its sharpness and durability. As Grant Steinle, vice president of operations at Dwayne’s Photo, and son of Dwayne, tells me: ‘You can put a Kodachrome slide in a file box and it still looks great 80 years later. It remains to be seen if that will be the case with digital photography.’

So loved was Kodachrome that Utah named a state park after the film, which, as Paul Simon sang, ‘makes you think all the world’s a sunny day’. ‘Mama’, Simon begged, ‘don’t take my Kodachrome away’.

Yet last year, Kodak did just that. After 20 years of steadily dropping sales, Kodachrome, which was used for both moving and still images, was discontinued. Kodak explained in a statement that ‘the majority of today’s photographers have voiced their preference to capture images with newer technology – both film and digital’. Kodachrome was long ago eclipsed by video and easy-to-process colour negative films.

Steinle says that while digital photography technology has a lot of advantages, and can come close to recreating the look of Kodachrome, the discontinuation of the film involves a certain loss to photography. ‘It has a unique dye set and colour palette and tremendous archival keeping quality… If you’re capturing with digital, you’re capturing a different view of the world.’

Kodachrome was always extolled for producing enduring pictures that were vibrant and intense in colour, yet still true to life. That, coupled with the fact that it helped turn colour photography into a mass medium, was what made Kodachrome revolutionary. However, the inevitable wave of nostalgia that was unleashed by the announcement that it was being discontinued is motivated by a desire to cling to an older, pre-digital look and feel of photography.

In some respects, this is understandable. As Steinle explains, ‘those who are still shooting in Kodachrome feel a sense of loss. It has become a niche product for a lot of people. It’s part of their lives and in some cases their businesses.’

Yet outside of such niche circles, it seems many people simply think that photographs looked better in the past. Even amongst those who have adopted digital photography there’s a growing trend for using the latest technology to emulate, rather than move away from, the old. Consider all the vintage photography iPhone apps that have been developed lately – from Hipstamatic, which recreates the effects of low-tech, plastic lomography cameras, to ShakeitPhoto, which emulates old Polaroids. It’s ironic that one of the most overhauling inventions of recent years – the iPhone – is being used to recreate an obsolete technology: analogue film photography.

Steinle recognises that there is nostalgia for the old days of film. ‘It’s interesting to people to make images look like they did in the past.’ He thinks this is one of the advantages of digital – ‘you can process and manipulate an image to make it look in a whole variety of ways’.

Of course, vintage photography apps are fun and experimental, and they can certainly produce more interesting shots than the rudimentary iPhone camera. But as more and more of us go faux-analogue, Hipstamatic and the like are turning vintage photography into the standard choice rather than the wacky, occasional alternative.

Unlike Kodachrome, the point of these trendy apps is to produce images that distort reality; images which make things look like they did in old representations of the world. And rather than giving the photographer more control over the outcome of the image, their attraction is the strong element of surprise and accidental effects. Hipstamatic, for instance, sells itself on bringing back ‘the look, feel, unpredictable beauty, and fun of plastic toy cameras from the past’. (Though lomography enthusiasts will tell you that part of the fun and the art is to predict, and manipulate, the ‘accidents’.)

Some Kodachrome aficionados, too, displayed an urge to cling to the past when it became clear that the film stock was depleting. For many, this was a Kodak moment to be mourned rather than treasured.

The photographer Alex Webb told the Washington Times: ‘Part of me feels like, boy, if only I’d been born 20 years earlier. I wish they would keep making it forever. I still have a lot of pictures to take in my life.’ Webb had stockpiled 600 rolls of Kodachrome 200, and was using up the last 150 for a photography book on Cuba. ‘It seems kind of appropriate because Cuba is a world of the Fifties on some level’, he said. ‘It has existed in a bubble outside the world of globalisation now for 50 years, and Kodachrome goes hand in hand.’

Other photographers feel that the potential to capture reality in a stunning way now lies in new technologies and new types of film and so they’re ready to move on. As Peter Guttman put it, ‘with the strict discipline of a Kodachrome vision firmly under my belt, I felt free to playfully experiment with other films. I have in recent years become enamoured with Ektachrome 100VS which has now become my film of choice for its dazzling hues, deeply saturated colour and intense sharpness – all optical tools that serve me well in portraying our planet’s stunning diversity.’

Kodachrome was invented by two professional musicians, Leo Godowsky Jr and Leopold Maness (hence the quip ‘Kodachrome was invented by God and Man’), and was introduced during the Great Depression. Godowsky and Maness revolutionised photography by creating a film that allowed both professionals and amateurs to portray the world in dazzling colours. After all, real life isn’t black and white and to this day the magic of film and photography lies in how they allow us to see our lives recreated in print and on screen, and to see what things are like in far-flung places.

Kodachrome was for a long time many photographers’ film of choice, and its history is closely wrapped up with the history of photojournalism. Some of the past 75 years’ most iconic moving and still images have been made with Kodachrome film – from Abraham Zapruder’s reel of President John F Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 to Steve McCurry’s famous 1985 National Geographic portrait of the Afghan refugee girl with emerald-coloured eyes. Thousands of images in magazines such as National Geographic and Life have been created with Kodachrome.

But the circle of Kodachrome aficionados has, as Kodak recognised, been shrinking and processing the film is not something that can be tried at home. It’s a complex affair, requiring specialist technicians and large machinery. And as we know, film technology has moved on and there are now other, excellent alternatives out there. Even McCurry stopped using Kodachrome in recent years. When he returned to Afghanistan in 2002 to track down that Afghan girl, he used Kodak Professional Ektachrome Film E100VS to take her portrait.

Yet while many are nostalgic for the pre-digital age, with all the discipline, delayed gratification and sparseness it entailed for photographers, few are actually willing to go back. Even those who use vintage apps prove this point – rather than carrying around bulky cameras and paying for film, processing and printing, we can download several apps and editing tools in a matter of minutes to recreate the effect of old cameras to an impressive degree of accuracy. No, it’s not the same. But nothing ever is.

In the 1930s, Godowsky and Maness’s invention made colour photography accessible to the masses, but in today’s snap-happy, smart-phone, social-networking era, film photography is relatively cumbersome and expensive. Today, digital photography makes film photography exclusive, expensive and inaccessible by comparison. As for Kodachrome, as Kodak explained, ‘For all of its magic, Kodachrome is a complex film to manufacture and an even more complex film to process’.

With the risk of sounding nostalgic, as Dwayne’s Photo processes the last rolls of Kodachrome over in Kansas, it’s clear that the past 75 years of photography has produced some inspiring and stunning shots by photographers who used groundbreaking technology to express their visions and experiences in print. So now, with all the talk of the ‘democratisation of photography’, what kind of a collective photographic archive are we creating for the future? Well, if the fad for vintage photography lasts, perhaps future generations will think of the Noughties as a rip-off of the past, or as a time when people felt the world looked better through rose-tinted lenses.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture


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