Saying “farewell” while celebrating 75 years of Kodachrome

Posted by on Jan 05 2011 | Photography

Last Thursday was a day in history that even Paul Simon longed wouldn’t happen as he sang “Mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away.”

It was the final day Kodachrome was being accepted for processing anywhere in the world, as Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas, had the glory of being the final lab to create those “nice bright colors … greens of summers … (that make) you think all the world’s a sunny day” (as per Simon’s lyrics). And these final hours of processing — expected to be completed this week — take place 75 years after Kodachrome was unveiled in 1935.

Envelopes filled with rolls of Kodachrome arrived from around the globe, as media from around the globe also descended upon Dwayne’s to capture this moment in history. Many of these media folks also contacted George Eastman House — including CBS News Sunday Morning, ABC World News, The New York Times, and Al Jazeera — to obtain related photographs to illustrate news stories and to speak with an expert who could put this pop-culture icon known as Kodachrome into context. That expert was Eastman House’s curator of technology, Todd Gustavson (who conducted countless interviews during his holiday vacation.)

The passing of Kodachrome has been news, of course, since Kodak announced in 2009 the end of the film’s production, due to dwindling sales and the difficulty photographers had having it processed. Kodak decided the final roll would be given to National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry, who will give these prints to George Eastman House later this year. He chose New York City and India as the backdrop for these precious 36 frames.

Why was Kodachrome so popular? Well, the search to produce stable and permanent images in natural color dates to the very beginning of photography. Fast-forward to April 1935, when Kodak introduced Kodachrome film. It was considered by many the first modern multi-layer color transparency film. First rolled out as an amateur 16mm ciné film, the still photography version became available in September of the next year in 35mm and 828 roll film sizes. Larger sheet film was offered to the professional beginning in 1938, although Kodachrome was the film that brought color photography to the amateur photographer.

Countless baby-boom families documented their personal histories, birthdays, graduations, holidays, and vacations on Kodachrome, creating slide-shows, projected with their Kodaslide projectors to show off imagery to friends and relatives. Its brilliant colors were also highly popular with magazine photographers. National Geographic used it exclusively for more than half a century.

Kodachrome was the culmination of many years of investigation, with the research preformed by two professionally trained musicians, pianist Leopold Godowsky, Jr. and violinist Leopold Mannes, who Kodak moved to Rochester in 1930 to work on the project. Their research papers, along with many Kodachrome artifacts, are in the archives at Eastman House.

The finished product was a film like no other. This multi-layer film contained no dye couplers, but rather the color dyes were added to the appropriate film layer during processing. Processing the film in this manner gave Kodachrome images their unique saturated color look, and created a very stable fade resistant color images.

“With a production life span of nearly 75 years, Kodachrome was one of the longest-lived of the light-sensitive products,” Gustavson said. “Its name was geographically memorialized with Utah’s Kodachrome Basin State Park, idealized by the Paul Simon song of the same title. Kodachrome, like the Barbie doll and Schwinn Sting-Ray, became a pop-culture icon product of the twentieth century. This shouldn’t be looked at as a sad day, but rather as a celebration of Kodachrome.”

And we’ll let Paul take us out …

“I love to take a photograph

so, mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away.

Mama, don’t take my Kodachrome,

Mama, don’t take my Kodachrome,

Mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away.”

 

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    Dresden Engle is the Public Relations Manager for George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.

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