The 19th and 20th centuries saw a dizzying array of photographic technologies, from the daguerreotypes that launched modern photography (and used toxic chemicals combined with polished sheets of silver to capture images) to tintypes, cyanotypes, lantern slides, gelatin silver prints, autochromes and so on, all the way up to the 1990s and the explosion of digital photography.
But my favorite is a format which revolutionised colour photography. The New York Times called it “the greatest film invention of the century.” It’s probably the only photographic technology with colour rendering capabilities so good that they inspired a Paul Simon song. It even has a park in Utah named after it. It’s Kodachrome.
Kodachrome was a colour film introduced by Eastman Kodak in 1935. It was invented by two professional musicians (both named Leopold), who also happened to be trained scientists. They took ten years to perfect it, running out of money and nearly going bankrupt in the process. When Kodak finally launched Kodachrome, it quickly became the first colour film to reach a mass-market audience. Kodak would go on to produce Kodachrome for 74 years, making it the longest continuously used colour film in history when it was finally retired in 2009.
Among photographers and archivists alike, Kodachrome is generally held to have almost magical properties. Photographers love it for its vibrant, slightly oversaturated colours, and they aren’t afraid to wax rhapsodical about it. Asked to compare Kodachrome to the technologies of today, photographer Steve McCurry (of National Geographic fame) says “Kodachrome had more poetry in it, a softness, an elegance. With digital photography, you gain many benefits [but] you have to put in post-production. [With Kodachrome,] you take it out of the box and the pictures are already brilliant.”
In the eponymous song ‘Kodachrome’, Paul Simon invokes Kodachrome’s vibrant colours to describe vibrant images from his youth and imagination, singing “Kodachrome/They give us those nice bright colours/They give us the greens of summers/Makes you think all the world’s/A sunny day.”
Like a polariser or a good Instagram filter, Kodachrome makes reality look just a bit realer than it actually is.
On the archival side, Kodachrome is beloved for its incredible stability. Other colour films–especially early ones–fade and discolour in just a decade or two. Kodachrome can sit for 185 years, and in that whole time, only one thing will happen; the yellows will fade by about 20%. That’s it. In 1989, a hiker dropped a backpack with a canister of unprocessed Kodachrome film in the Canadian woods. The backpack was buried under 8 inches of earth, where it sat for 19 years. In 2008, the bag was found, and the film was developed. The pictures came out fine.
To illustrate Kodachrome’s legendary stability, below is a photo shot on Kodachrome transparency film from the Fiji Islands, circa 1975. Note the vibrant colour, crisp details, and generally appealing look, despite 40 years of sitting in a box.
Now, here’s a photo from Fiji, from the exact same time period (in fact, taken on the same day), but shot on early Ektrachrome, a newer color film from Kodak (today’s Ektachrome is much better, by the way).
You can plainly see that the Ektachrome photo is a mess. The colors are faded, the image looks washed out, and the edges are blurry. The difference is a simple matter of archival stability–Ektachrome is only stable for about 20 years, so by the time we scanned these slides, they were basically gone.
Of course, like many of the best things in life, Kodachrome isn’t always easy. Developing film Kodachrome is devilishly complex, and required photographers to ship their canisters to a dedicated lab run by Kodak. Newsrooms started shooting breaking stories on other Kodak films (like Ektrachrome), because these films could be developed in their own in-house labs, allowing them to have photos ready in time for the next morning’s paper. With Kodachrome, you had to wait.
On the digitisation side, too, Kodachrome can be a challenge. With most slide films, we use a technology which shines infrared light through the slide before we scan it. The infrared light bounces off any dust or lint on the slide, allowing the scanning software to detect the dust and remove it from the final scan. The blue pigment in Kodachrome, however, blocks infrared light, making automatic dust removal impossible. The upshot is that scanning Kodachrome means spending lots of time manually removing dust from the film with a microfiber cloth and a surfeit of patience.
But in the end, it’s worth it. Kodachrome’s incredible photographic properties and stability makes it one of the best (and often, only) mediums for seeing events of the 20th century in living color, both the significant and the mundane.
The extra time spent with microfiber and Photoshop is fine–to paraphrase Paul Simon, just don’t take our Kodachrome away.