Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Goodbye, Kodachrome

It has happened more times than any of us can count: An artist, a writer, an inventor or some individual who has made significant contributions to a particular field lives beyond his creative prime and dies in obscurity.

It’s a familiar story: After a particular Creative Genius has given what he had to give, the world moves on without him. After a while his original achievements are taken for granted, maybe even denigrated as “passĂ©”. Forgotten, his passing is little noticed and less mourned.

But then…with enough time and under the right conditions the true worth of the former Creative Genius is rediscovered. There is collective delight among the public. Wonderment is followed by curiosity: “Look at what fresh, enduring work that was, and so long ago.” “Why was this Creative Genius ignored and forgotten when his work displays such obvious merit?”

This phenomenon is happening again, only this time not in regard to a particular artist, but a specific technical medium.

On June 22nd, 2009 Eastman Kodak Co. announced it was ending production of its Kodachrome film.

Casual photographers and even most professionals will take little notice. According to The Wall Street Journal, for the last few years Kodachrome has accounted for less than 1% of Kodak's diminishing film sales. Photography has gone digital to a greater degree and faster than many thought likely. Eastman Kodak executives themselves believed digital photography was a toy and failed to get involved with it until it was almost too late.

Most people are delighted with digital pictures. Recent developments in the medium have been truly impressive. But before we wave goodbye to Kodachrome we need to consider not what made it a great film in the past, but rather why it will be relevant in the future.

Kodachrome was introduced in 1935 as the first practical color film. Before that, all was black & white – or costly and complicated color that required a special camera.

Kodachrome not only solved the color problem, it did so spectacularly. Even the earliest versions of the film are renowned for vibrant color and image sharpness. It was incredibly precise and accurate. In fact, the film was limited only by the shooting equipment and the talents of the photographer. Improve your skills and use better lenses, was the only way to improve results. In terms of what you put in your camera, Kodachrome delivered the goods.

Through most of the 20th century Kodachrome was the color film of choice partly because there wasn’t much choice. There were early versions of Ektachrome. Agfa, Fuji, Dufay and some others came out with different color films. But the results, though less expensive, were clearly inferior.

No matter what kind of color film is used, Kodachrome offers a single unique characteristic that is only now being appreciated, and will be valued even more with the passing of time: It produces images that are nearly permanent. As long as the film itself is not destroyed the picture will remain.

A box of Kodachrome slides kept in the bottom of a drawer or the back of a closet will be as crisp and vibrant one hundred years from now as the day it was shot. Kept under archival conditions of controlled temperature and humidity it is said to be stable for 500 years. Maybe more.

Our visual impression of the world before the invention of photography is based solely on paintings, drawings, stone carvings and written descriptions. But with Kodachrome, there it is; the world in full color, going back to 1935.

Think of it. One hundred, two hundred, or five hundred years from now someone can open a box of Kodachrome slides and hold them up to a light and see a perfect image of Pop and Uncle Harold standing around the backyard grill; a ‘53 Pontiac is parked in the driveway. They can see Winston Churchill and General Eisenhower, rumpled, meeting after D-Day. Or they can look down a neighborhood street in St. Paul, Minnesota and see exactly what it looked like in the mid-20th century. These pictures are largely snapshots of people, places and things, not spiffed up for a photograph, but presented informally as they truly were. They are detailed documentary proof of a civilization as it once existed.

My point here is to suggest that this is an occasion of reflection. If you have a few Kodachrome slides somewhere, they’re likely in fine shape. Go ahead and take a peek just to refresh your memory.

For the next five centuries the world will retain this bright 75 year-wide window into the 20th and very early 21st century. People centuries from now will be able to look back through it and see us as we really were.

We are now in an era when the record of what goes on around us is entirely electronic. This is good in terms of instant communications, as the pictures coming out of Iran attest. But what the digital age offers in terms of speed and convenience, it takes away in the form of permanence and durability. Within a generation most of what is digitally shot today will be gone, either erased or irretrievable. This is a tragic bargain.

Sure, photographic records will exist in the Ivory Tower, at some level of officialdom. But “We the people” will have lost the means of preserving the image of who we really are. No more views will be preserved of every day lives, of the changing backyards, of families, living rooms or streetscapes of America. They may be here today, but they’ll be gone soon enough.

Happily, Kodak has made major improvements in their newer Ektachrome films. In terms of visual quality they rival, and in some ways surpass Kodachrome, but in terms of permanence there is still work to be done. I have heard that new Ektachrome stocks are now much less prone to fading as they once were. Supposedly they can last for nearly a century. That’s better than nothing. But, I believe that somewhere down the road, well before the year 2500, we will miss the long timeline of Kodachrome.

Some day in a future archive someone will look up from a light table full of slides and marvel, “Wasn’t that a terrific medium of record they had back then? I wonder why they threw it away.”