In just over a year’s time George Eastman House has been painted with large splashes of Technicolor, Colorama, and now Kodachrome, via three important acquisitions.
As the world’s oldest museum photography, the vast collections feature all processes and formats of motion pictures and photography. And the color collections continue to expand. The Technicolor corporate archive was formally acquired in March 2010, followed by Kodak’s gift of the Colorama archive – the images and history of the 60×18-foot images that dominated Grand Central Terminal from 1950 to 1990 – announced in June 2010.
An elder from the Rubari tribe, from the last roll of Kodachrome, photographed by Steve McCurry in India.
Fast forward one year and the photographs from the last roll Kodachrome were donated to Eastman House on June 12, 2011. Kodachrome was the first commercially successful color film, and experienced
a quarter-century of rich, unparalleled colors as well as a love affair with countless photographers. Kodachrome film was manufactured in various formats to suit still and motion picture cameras, and required a complex processing system.
When Kodak announced in 2009 it would no longer produce Kodachrome film, company officials announced two ways the famed film would be celebrated: 1) National Geographic and Magnum photographer Steve McCurry would be given the last roll off the Kodak production line and 2) the images from that historic roll would be donated to the archives at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.
McCurry’s historic journey took him in 2010 to his hometown of New York City to western India and finally to Parsons, Kansas. That final stop was to the last lab in existence to process Kodachrome, which would close at the end of 2010, but not before developing his precious roll.
“I don’t think there’s ever been, in the history of photography, a better film, a better way to actually look at the world than with Kodachrome,” McCurry said. “This was the only way I shot for decades.”
McCurry spoke at Eastman House this week before a capacity audience, shared the 31 photographs he captured from the 36-frame roll — some frames were duplicate images — and told stories of his travels and his fears the roll would be harmed by airport security scanners. He talked with the audience and Anthony Bannon, the Ron and Donna Fielding Director at Eastman House, about celebrating Kodachrome. A color film process that lasted longer than any other, it was extolled since the Great Depression for its sharpness, archival durability, and vibrant yet realistic hues.
The subjects McCurry shot on the last roll include Robert DeNiro and photographer Elliott Erwitt, plus unknown people in various parks in New York City; McCurry in his hotel room in Parsons awaiting film processing; and in India – where McCurry noted “color is important culturally” and where he used Kodachrome’s magic to subtly render contrast and color harmony in depictions of Bollywood luminaries in Mumbai and the Rubari tribe in Rajasthan on the verge of extinction.
“I thought, ‘What better way to honor the memory of Kodachrome than to try and photograph iconic places and people?’ It’s in (my) DNA to want to tell stories where the
action is, that shed light on the human condition,” McCurry said. He planned the trip, which he calls “a six-week odyssey,” for nine months. A crew from the National Geographic Channel followed him on his journey. That special has not aired yet in the United States but debuted this spring on European television.
Kodachrome was produced for 74 years, from 1935 to 2009, in a wide variety of formats, including 35mm slide film and 8mm movie film. McCurry used Kodachrome for his well-known 1984 portrait of the green-eyed “Afghan Girl” on the cover of National Geographic.
Kodachrome is appreciated in the archival and professional market for its dark-storage longevity, with colors remaining intact for decades. The early papers of one of the creators of Kodachrome, Leopold Godowsky, are held in the archives at Eastman House, as are many varieties of Kodachrome film in original boxes from several decades as well as moving footage, slides, and photographs, including the documentation of Sir Edmund Hillary’s history ascent of Mt. Everest.
“It’s definitely the end of an era,” he said of Kodachrome. “It has such a wonderful color palette…a poetic look, not particularly garish or cartoonish, but wonderful, true colors that were vibrant, but true to what you were shooting. It was the gold standard of imagery.”
Proof of its affect on popular culture, Kodachrome was the subject of Paul Simon’s song “Kodachrome” and Kodachrome Basin State Park in Utah was named for it, becoming the only park named for a brand of film.
Eastman House will present a display of projected images in early July and will mount an international tour of the photographs in 2012.
Dresden Engle is the Public Relations Manager for George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.