Mama, they’re taking my Kodachrome away

Jon Pine

Jon Pine

by Jon Pine

Another title for this piece might be, “Kodachrome: A Love Story.” (With apologies to Michael Moore).

Sigh. Sometimes progress can be bittersweet. Technology advances so quickly that we often move on to “the next great thing” so fast that we fail to fully appreciate the last great thing. It also makes you feel somewhat expendable yourself. So… yesterday.

Comes the news this month that Kodak will stop manufacturing Kodachrome, its flagship color transparency film that for nearly 75 years has captured hundreds of millions of images, some of them iconic.

Introduced in 1935, Kodachrome captured the crash of the Hindenburg in 1937, Edmund Hillary’s historic ascent of Mount Everest in the 1950s, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. It was also widely available to amateur shutterbugs, who documented less lofty events – family picnics, trips to Niagara Falls, graduations, birthdays, weddings, you name it.

So ubiquitous was this film that Simon and Garfunkel wrote a hit song about it:

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, oh yeah

I got a Nikon camera, I love to take a photograph

Mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away.

There’s truth in them thar lyrics. Long before I started shooting professionally, I was drawn to the sharp details and wonderfully rich color saturation of Kodachrome 64. My first serious camera was a Minolta SR-T 201 – a fully manual 35mm single-lens reflex (SLR) camera. I was still in high school.

Shooting slides while you’re learning photography is great for two reasons: 1. It only cost a dollar or so to process a whole roll of slides; and 2. What you see is what you shot – meaning, the slides you get back are the actual film that was in the camera. With print film, adjustments are made during the printing process to correct your exposures. But just as in life, you learn more when you can identify your mistakes.

Even mundane subjects – the family cat, my brother leaning on a tree, pumpkins lined up on the edge of the porch – seemed to “pop” when captured with Kodachrome 64. The “64” stood for 64 ASA, the film’s sensitivity rating, or “speed.” 64 ASA is on the slow side, which meant you had to have lots of light and use a relatively slow shutter speed setting. You might even need a tripod to steady the camera.

I even got fancy and experimented with Kodachrome 25. A close-up of a ladybug crawling on a sunflower. The fiery foliage of a Catskill Mountain autumn. A bushel of fresh-picked apples. You never saw such rich, vibrant colors!

Later, as a commercial photographer, when I needed to shoot a food layout with, say, a steamed lobster surrounded by fresh vegetables, I instinctively reached for the Kodachrome. Peppers were redder, eggplants purpler and cucumbers greener. I could count on that.

Sure, Photoshop in the right hands can come close. But the expediency and convenience of the digital age still leave me hollow sometimes. There is a certain comfort in knowing that a particular product will perform exactly the same way time after time. And there is comfort in knowing that product will always be around.

Today, Kodachrome accounts for less than 1 percent of Kodak’s sales. So it has been unceremoniously relegated to the dustbin of history. Even though I haven’t shot a single frame of Kodachrome (or any film, for that matter) in well over five years, it feels like a little piece of me is dying with it.

Or maybe I’m just letting my nostalgia get the better of me, as happened when I recently wandered across these two items online:

Item One:

Polaroid is re-introducing its instant-film camera. Honest to blog! And I’m not talking about their new digital camera that has a tiny printer built into it, but a modernized version of the old, boxy camera that spits out a photo that develops before your eyes. Check it:

http://www.polapremium.com/news?date=2009-10-13

After years of wrangling over the licensing of its patented instant film technology, Polaroid is poised to re-introduce the film and camera next year. Interesting tidbit I never knew before: The Polaroid Land camera was named after its inventor – Dr. Edwin H. Land. He really was a genius, creating a truly unique product that virtually everyone has owned at one time or another.

Item Two:

The ’70s rock band Cheap Trick have reunited and released a new recording, “The Latest,” which is available – believe it or not – on 8-track tape:

http://boingboing.net/2009/07/05/cheap-trick-releases.html

Who among us over 40 didn’t have one? What an odd format – four 10-minute programs – but you could play them in your car!  Now if I can just remember where I put my 8-track player… Oh yeah, I threw it out – 35 years ago!

While it’s highly unlikely that I will purchase either of these items, it’s comforting to know they will be available out there somewhere. Like me, and maybe like you, they are relics of a bygone era, stubbornly hanging in there against all the odds.

Which means there may be hope for my beloved Kodachrome after all…

© 2009 Jon Pine

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3 Comments

Filed under Journalism, Photography, Posts by Jon Pine

3 responses to “Mama, they’re taking my Kodachrome away

  1. Why, you sniveling whiner! Get onboard the digital train, Grandpa, else you be left standing at the station, clinging to other old school products such as “Digestive Biscuits” and the classic, happily named drug store medicine, Save The Baby.

    You should be thrilled with the digital world. I mean, haven’t you noticed how rich and full and spatial today’s albums and MP3s sound when recorded with ProTools or other hard-drive digital recording methods. The ticks, pops, and scratches of yesteryears have been replaced with a thrilling digital “blurring,” which makes all the highs and lows just sound dull and listless. It’s better by miles!

    And besides: Without the digital world, we wouldn’t have great websites like SweetHotAsians.com. So jump on board the digital pony, Japser, your ride awaits, taking you straight to synthetic fun, thrills, and nookie!

    • Jon Pine

      You know, Bob, my first draft actually had a graph about the long conversations you and I have had about the poor quality of digitized music. But it seems a subject worthy of a post all its own, by the one guy I know who’s the obvious choice to write it – you.

      One would think that someone, somewhere would have figured out a way to have the best of both worlds – the ease and convenience of digital, while preserving the spatial qualities of analog recordings. Perhaps that’s still coming…

      In the meantime, you gotta admit — it’s awfully ginchy to be able to carry around your entire music collection in your shirt pocket!

  2. Robert Smith

    In all seriousness, I still whip out my Pentax K-1ooo from time to time…still be best 200 smackers I’ve ever spent; at one point, I figured that I took about 500 published photos with the cheapest SLR of its day. Truth be told, good optics and good film was the key…

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