Kodachrome 1935-2009| B&H Photo Video Pro Audio
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An Appreciation

When Kodak announced they were discontinuing the film that put color photography on the map, the news was somewhat akin to hearing about the loss of an old friend, someone with whom I shared a history. Kodachrome was my film of choice for over 2 decades, as it was for many photographers I crossed paths with over the years, one of whom went as far as having 'KR135 36' on his license plates.

Kodachrome had a terrific run. Seventy-four years to be exact. Oddly enough, two unemployed jazz musicians concocted Kodachrome - one of the most complex film processes ever created - in the bathtub of the apartment they shared. What's also striking is that the film that brought us "nice bright colors", "the greens of summers", and made "all the world a sunny day", was born during the Great Depression, a place in usually viewed in grittier shades of gray.

What's interesting is how many advances were made in the field of camera technologies during Kodachrome's seven-decade reign as the finest color film money can buy. At the time of its debut, cameras had three basic controls, none of which required batteries. There was a shutter-speed dial, aperture ring, and focusing barrel. That's it. And autofocus was still a good 50 years down the pike.

As for exposures, you used a hand-held selenium-cell light meter or a variation of the sorts clipped onto the camera's accessory shoe. It wasn't built-in, and in many cases it didn't even link to the aperture ring or shutter dial. Nor was there a choice of Program mode, Aperture-priority, Shutter-priority, or any 'creative' (sic) Scene modes designed to eliminate the need to think before taking a picture. But thinking is something you had to do when shooting Kodachrome.

Never a truly fast film – the original Kodachrome emulsions had single-digit ISO ratings – most pros stuck to the ISO 25 and 64 versions, while keeping a few rolls of the 200-speed version tucked away for light-starved shooting scenarios. Not having the option of cranking up sensitivity levels to 800, 1600, 3200, 6400, or beyond, Kodachrome shooters learned to navigate carefully among their exposure options when shooting under lighting conditions less than optimal. A few independent labs advertised 'pushed' processing for Kodachrome, but the results usually had the look of last-ditch attempts at covering up one's mistakes.

And as tight as Kodachrome's grain structure was, that's how tight its exposure range could be under contrasty lighting conditions. While you could afford to be 'sloppy' when shooting negative film and to a lesser extent other slide films, with Kodachrome you only had about a third-of-a-stop wiggle room. Over or under a half-stop often made the difference between a dead-on exposure and a blown exposure.

The passing of Kodachrome reminds me of a day long ago when my father and I stood on the rooftop of our Brooklyn apartment house and watched in the distance as the first commercial jetliner, a Boeing 707, lifted off the runway at Idlewild Airport. For my father, who was a master mechanic who could dismantle, repair, and rebuild anything containing pistons including P-51 Mustangs and Hellcats during WWII, the event was particularly poignant. As we watched the gleaming silver jet bank over our home he wistfully said to no one in particular 'They finally got all of the kinks out of propeller-driven aircraft engines… they finally got it 'right'… and soon there'll be no need for them."

The last time I shot film was August 2000. Fittingly it was photographing a couple of antique speedboats on Lake Hopatcong. And though I learned the art and craft of photography using sheet film and a 4x5 camera, I've never looked back. Is digital perfect? Nope, and maybe it never will be. But just as jets have relegated piston-powered aircraft to private enthusiasts and regional puddle-jumpers, film will always be around, and considering our culture and human nature in general, we'll surely be seeing numerous revivals of various photographic processes.

And just as we'll never see another Lockheed Constellation or DC-3 taxiing down the runway at JFK, so goes Kodachrome. But then again, no aircraft from Boeing, McDonnell Douglas, or Lockheed can ever lay claim to having a best-selling record or state park named after it.

-Allan Weitz

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