“Mama, Don’t take my Kodachrome away”…from the song Kodachrome, sung in 1973 by Paul Simon
Today, Thursday, December 30, in Dwayne ‘s Photo in Parson, Kansas, the very last of the Kodachrome films will be processed. It was developed in 1935 and existed for 75 years, one year shorter than my life span. It was and is and perhaps always will be the best film every produced.
Photography was built on three films. The first two were black and white—Kodak’s Super X, followed by Tri X. For film it was Kodachrome. There were made for those photographers, amateur and professional, who used 35mm cameras.
Kodachrome was…. simply beautiful. It was sharp, clear as winter air, warm, glowing but natural in its rendering of the world.
The first Kodachrome I used was ASA 10, used in my Nikon and Leica. In sunlight (I didn’t have an exposure meter), I would shoot at 1/250th of a second with the diaphragm set just below f4. I would expose as low as 1/30th F2.8 for bad light (that was my fastest lens). We learned to hold our cameras still.
This film glowed with afternoon light. It was warm, sunlight was golden, it was rich, happy, and joyful—it had a sensual feel and was overwhelming when seen through a projector on a silver screen. It even made me gasp when looking at it, as I usually did, through a loupe. Yet it portrayed the world as it really looked. A beech or maple tree photographed against snow and blue sky looked as you remembered it. The tree trunk looked natural. There was no cast to the snow (early morning and late afternoon snow turned a golden blue hue, as it really was). The sky was deep blue.
It was best to underexpose the film about a half stop.
Then along came Kodachrome 25. Something happened. I backlit many of my photographs to create the Kodachrome Glow, as we called it. It was a halo of rich light, so evident when using a telephoto lens at a low F stop and the background was fuzzy. The new Kodachrome had turned wooden. We Kodachrome users conferred and we found out the film had to be aged before the golden hue developed. Some aged it for six months. Others couldn’t wait, like me. So I aged it in the oven, set real low usually for a night, and then I placed the boxes of film on a window with lots of sunshine. It worked.
The film remained faithful in its recording and its downfall began when the Japanese developed Velvia in 1990. Oh they omphed the color. It was a candy film. Bright, garish, shadows a deep blue. Magazine covers popped. I remember seeing some Vermont Life covers of spring foliage so chartreuse, as garish as food coloring; it was enough to vomit. The Japanese had hit on a trend. Popped colors attracted attention, to hell with reality. Advertisers loved Velvia. Yeah, I shot it too.
Velvia turned snow slight magenta, which was okay, and when the sun went down, the snow turned very blue, which I used to advantage. But the best of the deep blues on a winter day when the sun went down was Kodachrome Tungsten.
To answer Velvia’s popularity (and speed of ASA 50), Kodak developed Kodachrome 64 and later Kodachrome 200. I did not like the grainy Kodachrome 200 except on rainy flat days but I used Kodachrome 64 with gelatin filters of yellow, red, magenta, and blue and movie filters made by Harrison. In combination with the filters and time of day one could do about anything.
You had to know the light. And understand colors so you could feel the change in hue, or what the filter would do with the light to the film.
Well Velvia toned down a bit and won the day. It was a snap to process and the time element for deadlines was a key element to its popularity. Kodachrome became a very pretty, but forgotten, wall flower
Well, today Kodachrome is buried. Velvia is used by some, but many are turning to the more modern palettes of color negative film.
They are holdouts. The rest of the world has gone digital. You just shoot and shoot and have the camera monitor give you the best exposure and then, when working on the computer you put in any color (and transplant that tree or head, if you want to). Anyone can shoot a photo that is technically acceptable. Of the millions of digital images shot a year by six to ninety year olds you know the law of averages is going to yield a number of superb images by people who may never have held a camera before.
Photography is dead. No editing with a loupe, light table, a waste paper basket and some plastic sleeves. Hours are spent on the computer instead of behind the camera. A pixel color is rendered almost always perfect in the eye of the beholder. Photographers no longer “see” the world, or learn a sense of light, or gain an introspection of what they are shooting. Go to a tourist destination, say the Eiffel Tower. Look how many people are looking at it holding up a camera between them and the tower, They don’t look at the tower, they look at the camera. They do this all over the world. What do they see? What do they experience?
Photography is dead. Oh Mama, why did you take my Kodachrome away?