The Captivating Story of Kodachrome

There are few photography brands as storied as Kodak. And a lot of it has to do with Kodachrome. Although the company stopped making its iconic slide film in 2009 and moved on to focus on other imaging-related lines of business, the Kodachrome saga is closely linked with the growth of photography in the latter half of the 20th century. This was when the trend of chronicling one’s life through photographs caught on. Thanks to some savvy marketing by the company, people began to seek out ‘Kodak moments’ to capture on a regular basis.

Many of the facts surrounding Kodak and Kodachrome are well-known but not all of them are.

Kodachrome film first made an appearance in the 1930s, with the movie film being produced first and the popular 35mm slide film a few years later. It wasn’t the first color film on the market but it made color photography more accessible by removing cumbersome equipment and techniques from the mix. And it helped created some wonderful images. As the authors of this article on the history of the company and its most famous product write:

Kodachrome was a beautiful film– bright vivid colors, low grain and images that jumped out of the screen and filled the projection room with the awe of mountain landscapes, close-up portraits and children playing on backyard swings.

But the film technology that yielded such vibrant colors and sharp images also made it difficult to process. In fact, for the first 20 years or so, as this Time magazine article reports, people had to send their rolls to a Kodak Lab to develop. This changed in the 1950s after the Justice Department ruled that a monopolistic practice. But even in the years that followed, there were only a limited number of places with the capability to develop Kodachrome film.

This did not faze many professional photographers who felt the results were well worth the hassle of developing it. Several iconic images have been shot with this film, the most famous one being Steve McCurry’s portrait of a young Afghan refugee woman – an image that was immortalized through a National Geographic cover.

Steve McCurry's portrait of a young Afghan Refugee Woman

Photo: Steve McCurry (via Wikipedia)

The piercing expression that McCurry captured in the frame was proof of his skills as a photographer but its earthy tones had a lot to do with the film he used. McCurry himself was a big fan of Kodachrome and in a 2012 interview with Vanity Fair, he explained why:

“I don’t think you can make a better photograph under certain conditions than you can with Kodachrome. If you have good light and you’re at a fairly high shutter speed, it’s going to be a brilliant color photograph. It had a great color palette. It wasn’t too garish. Some films are like you’re on a drug or something. Velvia made everything so saturated and wildly over-the-top, too electric. Kodachrome had more poetry in it, a softness, an elegance.”

This was clearly a heartfelt endorsement from someone who had shot with Kodachrome for most of his pre-digital career. And so when Kodak finally pulled the plug on the film in 2009, it gave the last roll to come off the production belt to its long-time champion. We can view this final set of Kodachrome images – shot in places as far apart as New York and Mumbai – here. National Geographic also made a short movie titled “The Last Roll of Kodachrome” that captures McCurry’s journey while on this assignment.

At the end of it, he dropped his roll off at Dwayne’s Photo Service in Parsons, Kansas. Dwayne’s was the only place at the time to still process Kodachrome rolls and it finally discontinued that service in December 2010 after wrapping up McCurry’s order.

The story of Kodachrome may have come to a fitting end but its many images live on, along with memories of an era when people were discovering and falling in love with color photography. An era of which Paul Simon painted such a vivid picture in 1973 when he sang:

Kodachrome

They give us those nice bright colors

They give us the greens of summers

Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day

I got a Nikon camera

Love to take a photograph

So mama don’t take my Kodachrome away

A photo from a batch of Kodachrome slides ScanCafe recently scanned for a customer

A photo from a batch of Kodachrome slides ScanCafe recently scanned for a customer

Two photos from a batch of Kodachrome slides ScanCafe recently scanned for a customer.

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