End of an era as shutter closes on iconic film


Paul Simon sang about it, great moments of history were captured on it – but as of New Year’s Eve it will be no more. Gemma Tiptonlooks back at all the ‘nice bright colours’ of Kodachrome

SOMETIMES ERAS pass with a whisper, and sometimes with a quiet whimper, but on December 30th, when the very last roll of Kodachrome transparency film will be processed in the very last photolab in the world to accept it, an era will end in full and glowing colour.

You know something is an icon when someone famous makes up a song about it, and Kodachrome got its Kodak moment from Paul Simon in 1973, when he sang, “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, Oh yeah...”

Kodachrome was used to film the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, Abraham Zapruder taped the assassination of President Kennedy on it, and it produced iconic National Geographicimages such as Steve McCurry’s 1984 portrait of Sharbat Gula, the green-eyed Afghan girl. Even the final photolab, Dwayne’s Photo, in Parson’s, Kansas, seems to be as full of history and myth as Kodachrome film itself. The film, first created in 1935, was beloved by professional photographers because of its colour accuracy and storage longevity. The downside was how incredibly difficult it was to process – meaning anyone working in Kodachrome sent their roll of film off to one of an ever-diminishing number of labs, and experienced the added frisson of not knowing whether their pictures had worked or not until the slides or transparencies were returned.

Kodachrome was invented by Leopold Godowsky Jr and Leopold Mannes, two professional musicians who dabbled in chemistry and photography. The coincidence of their names led people to later comment that “Kodachrome was made by God and Man”. Maybe it was, but it was also a devil to use and process.

Photographer Ros Kavanagh describes the film’s exacting perfection: “You had to get the exposure exactly right, it didn’t give you much leeway for error, but it was absolutely the best for colour and sharpness. When you’d show the transparencies to a client on a light box they’d look like little jewels, and the colours would be exactly the same as what you’d seen.” Kavanagh recalls setting shots up, checking them with a Polaroid (another now-discontinued film), and then shooting on Kodachrome.

His relationship with Kodachrome came to an end one Christmas. “I had to do a job, and I’d run out of film. There was none in my studio, and none in the shops, and that was when I switched to digital.” He is still nostalgic for film, however. “Kodachrome transparencies are the ultimate record, they can’t be messed around with, they’re the originals you can always refer back to.” The very last roll of Kodachrome was given to McCurry, photographer of the Afghan girl, and his global odyssey to use these last 36 frames has been made into a film by National Geographic, to be screened in early 2011.

“There’s a certain amount of observation and walking around – exploring, hunting, moving,” says McCurry of the process of photography. “It’s not all about taking pictures. It’s about appreciating this world we live in for such a brief amount of time. I thought, what better way to kind of honour the memory of the film than to try and photograph iconic places and people?”

McCurry’s photographs, which he used a digital camera rather than a Polaroid to check, include the Brooklyn Bridge, Grand Central Station, Robert de Niro, Bollywood stars in India, and the Ribari tribespeople in Rajastan, who are said to be disappearing – like Kodachrome itself. He also went to Kansas to take a picture of Dwayne’s. Paul Simon declined to be photographed for the project.

So with the close of the year, will the era of Simon’s “nice bright colours” really be gone? Maybe, and maybe not – the Impossible Project in Vienna now manufactures Polaroid film, and as photographers have stockpiled rolls of Kodachrome, there is talk of processing machines having been bought by devotees. So who knows, maybe from basement darkrooms around the world, Kodachrome might yet live to capture the colours of another day?