Friday, December 31, 2010

Mama, they took my Kodachrome away

Sometimes, when it’s all moving too fast, you just wish and hope things would stay in place, that somehow time would stand still in the viewfinder of your life, resisting the urge to blur, to escape, to flee a fraction of a fraction of a second later, gone forever. But in the modern world, right now less than 24 hours from a new year and a new decade, things move on, despite our best intentions.

For photographers, that sense of wistfulness is more real now, today, than it’s been in generations. Kodachrome is fading to black. After 75 years of being something of a gold-standard tool of photography, Kodachrome rides into the sunset today, when the only remaining Kodak-certified processing facility on the planet, Dwayne’s Photo Service, 415 S. 32nd Street, Parsons, Kansas 67357, ends its processing processed its last roll of Kodachrome film.

For old-school photographers and photojournalists, it’s the end of more than one era. Any of them who remember Paul Simon’s 1973 hit song “Kodachrome” are probably singing it today with tears clouding the viewfinders of their cameras, and their lives.

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It’s been a great run. Created by Eastman Kodak in 1935, Kodachrome became the world’s first commercially successful color reversal film, a huge favorite with weekend shutterbugs and professional photogs alike for its long shelf life and its signature — images with a deep, obscenely rich color saturation that, quoting from Simon, “make you think all the world’s a sunny day, oh yeah.”

"It's definitely the end of an era," professional photographer Steve McCurry told The Wichita Eagle. "It has such a wonderful color palette ... a poetic look, not particularly garish or cartoonish, but wonderful, true colors that were vibrant, but true to what you were shooting."

McCurry, who’s used Kodachrome for 35 years, should know. Among the tens of thousands of images he’s shot with Kodachrome, for National Geographic Magazine and other publications, is an iconic one. McCurry took the legendary image of Sharbat Gula — the “Afghan girl” — that graced the cover of National Geographic in June 1985, making photographic history by crafting perhaps the most alluring, mysterious individual portrait of a woman since the Mona Lisa.

McCurry, no Luddite he, recognizes the value of digital photography. “We can evaluate the light and composition and the design instantly,” he told The Eagle. “And we can shoot in extremely low light, which was impossible with film."

But McCurry seemed to suggest that something of the essence of creation — its soul, if you will — is vanishing. "I like having something to hold in my hand," McCurry said. "With digital photography, it's just a hard drive. With Kodachrome, the film is real. You can touch it, put it in a drawer, and come back to it later. It's tangible. It's an object. With digital, the pictures only exist in a hard drive, in a memory chip."

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It’s not like we didn’t see it coming. Kodak announced plans to discontinue the film back in June 2009 “due to declining customer demand.” The company said that Kodachrome sales accounted for less than 1 percent of its still-film sales. “Simply put, not enough people are shooting KODACHROME for us to continue offering it,” the company said.

It’s going out in suitably colorful style. Earlier in the year, McCurry arranged with Kodak to shoot the last 36-frame roll of Kodachrome made by the company, for a National Geographic assignment. Nat Geo plans to publish a spread of some of the final McCurry Kodachrome images next spring, about the same time National Geographic Television airs a special documentary on the last of Kodachrome and its role in documenting Nat Geo’s enduring subject: the life of the world.

It’s a world that won’t look the same. Some photographers have bemoaned not just the end of Kodachrome but the way digital photography has altered the way we look at photographs. The pixel is the square building block of digital photography; with digital shots we’re looking at tens of thousands of pixels, squares that, once assembled, trick the eye into believing there’s curves there — all the curves our eye naturally recognizes — when there really are no curves. No accurate depiction of the world our eyes gaze upon.

Johngy observed at The Eagle: “Take a digital picture of a tree with its limbs bowing toward the ground. Then blow the picture up. The limbs are made up of little squares. Now, go and look at the limbs of the tree itself. It is not made up of little squares. Digital can not recreate curved surfaces. It only makes a reasonable facsimile. Only film can truly recreate the scene that was photographed.”

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We’ll get by, of course. With every successive evolution of our knowledge, the creative spirit has always found ways to adapt to the technology that purports to liberate it. Photography is no exception. And you might make the case that it’s much ado about nothing. McCurry’s own observation, — “with digital, the pictures only exist in a hard drive, in a memory chip" — fairly raises the question: What was Kodachrome itself but another kind of memory chip, an improvement on the dageurrotype and the panchromatic plates that preceded it?

The loss of Kodachrome in 2010 follows months after the plug was pulled on another once-indispensable artifact of the culture, the Sony Walkman, the portable music player rendered obsolete by the iPod and other 21st-century music players that digitized whole libraries into something you can fit in your hand.

The art historian and writer Walter Pater once observed that “all art aspires to the condition of music.” That may be true enough, but there is no art without the image — in the realm of photography, the faithfully recorded image. There’s no escaping the fact that, once the last of the Kodachrome processing mailers have been received and developed, if there are any left, we’ll have lost something … important in our culture. Whether we know it or not.

With Kodachrome’s demise, we’ll walk through the door of the realization of a hard, sad fact: Nothing — from the greens of summer to the eyes of an Afghan girl — will ever look quite the same again.

Where have you gone, old friend Kodachrome? A planet turns its digitized eyes to you. Boo hoo hoo.

Image credits: Kodachrome boxes 1941, 1956, 1980 and 2009: "Afghan Girl" © 1985 Steve McCurry.

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