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Momma Say it Ain’t So! Kodachrome Discontinued After 74 Years

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35mm Kodakchrome 64 – the last ISO/size of Kodachrome film – available while supplies last.

35mm Kodakchrome 64 – the last ISO/size of Kodachrome film – available while supplies last.

 

By Diane Berkenfeld

Kodachrome film, beloved by pro and enthusiast photographers alike, was the first commercially successful color film for Eastman Kodak, (www.kodak.com) introduced in 1935. It will just slide into its 75th anniversary by the time the last of the rolls are sent for processing. [no pun intended]

Kodachrome is a unique emulsion, technically a B&W film until the Cyan, Magenta and Yellow dyes are introduced during the development process. 

On June 22, 2009 Eastman Kodak announced it would retire the film. Kodak estimates that current supplies of Kodachrome film will last until early this fall at the current sales pace. If the many Kodachrome devotees purchase large amounts of film, the available inventory may disappear sooner.

What was once the most popular and successful film for Kodak now represents “just a fraction of one percent of the company’s total sales of still-picture films” the company reports.

During its heyday, Kodachrome filled a special niche in the imaging world. Photographers and magazines alike revered the film—for the fine detail it offered with no visible grain. It was used to capture some of the best-known photographs in history, while also being the film of choice for family slide shows of the Baby Boomer generation.

Kodachrome was immortalized not only in the millions of photographs captured on the film, but through song as well. Singer/musician Paul Simon immortalized the film in his 1973 hit “Kodachrome”. [See Lyrics Below] Simon sang the praises of the film’s unique, brilliant colors.  There’s even a park in Utah named after the iconic film: Kodachrome Basin State Park (http://stateparks.utah.gov/stateparks/parks/kodachrome) was given its name by the leaders of a National Geographic expedition in 1948 who used the then relatively new film.

“Kodachrome film was probably the finest film ever produced. It was used by every major photographer over the past 70 years; and has enjoyed a cult-like following amongst consumers,” says Jonathan Sweetwood, chairman of the board/CFO, Unique Photo (www.uniquephoto.com). 

According to Patrick DelliBovi, senior VP of Sales and Marketing for Freestyle Photographic (www.freestylephoto.biz), “Twenty-three years ago, Kodachrome was a key product that we sold. Other films made up a small portion of our sales.”

“Kodachrome film is an iconic product and a testament to Kodak’s long and continuing leadership in imaging technology,” said Mary Jane Hellyar, president of Kodak’s Film, Photofinishing and Entertainment Group. “It was certainly a difficult decision to retire it, given its rich history,” she added.

History alone does not bring in the profits needed to keep any film emulsion, or photographic or other product for that matter, in production. As photographers over the past decade migrated to digital, film use declined. Kodak remains committed to providing both film and digital products to meet the needs of photographers, According to the press release sent out on June 22, while Kodak now derives about 70% of its revenues from commercial and consumer digital businesses, it is the global leader in the film business. Kodachrome is simply no longer financially viable for the company to produce.

For all of its magic, Kodachrome is a complex film to manufacture and an even more complex film to process. Unique Photo’s Sweetwood notes, “The emulsion for this film was essentially mixed by hand by a group of highly experienced chemists.  As they have retired, the difficulty of manufacturing this product is compounded.”

Freestyle Photographic’s Eric Joseph, VP of Merchandising, explains, “Film doesn’t start out the manufacturing process at the width of a roll of film. [Large] master rolls are made, and coated. Production lines are then run as needed.” The film is most likely not produced on a daily basis. The equipment that Kodachrome is manufactured on probably sits idle for much of the year. Joseph adds, “You also have to do a full production run of the film every time, there’s no way for them to cut the recipe and make it in batches either.”

Then there’s the processing. Dwayne’s Photo (www.dwaynesphoto.com) in Parsons, Kansas is the only lab left in the world that processes Kodachrome. There were few labs dedicated to the complicated K-14 process that’s used for Kodachrome, even in the film’s heyday. It is suggested that only 36 labs processed the film during that time.

According to Grant Steinle, co-owner of Dwayne’s Photo, the fundamental difference between Kodachrome and other films is that while the dyes are incorporated into other films during the manufacturing process, this is not done with Kodachrome. “Its just a B&W film until its processed. Then the dyes are introduced. That’s why it is so stable and archival in dark keeping. No extra dyes are present that may become unstable,” explains Steinle. “The K-14 chemistry doesn’t come preprocessed like E-6 chemistry does. All of the chemicals come in their raw forms. They have to be weighed, measured and mixed from scratch,” he says. This requires the quality control standards to be much tighter as well. “And unlike E-6 which utilizes two developers, Kodachrome has four developers, because each of the dyes—cyan, magenta, and yellow are introduced during the developing process,” he adds.

“We’re sad to see Kodak’s decision to discontinue Kodachrome, its an icon of the 20th century,” says Steinle. “We understand the business decision surrounding it. Manufacturing the film, the dyes, the entire process…”

Eastman Kodak and Dwayne’s Photo have agreed to continue to offer processing of Kodachrome film until December 31, 2010. “Once we’re no longer processing [the film] the only option is to develop it as B&W.” At this point, Steinle says it is too early to tell if processing will be available after the cut off date. It will depend upon film volume and chemical availability.

Why Now?

Freestyle Photographic’s DelliBovi explains that Kodak has been saying this day was coming for the last 10 years. “We don’t like to see any products discontinued, but as technology moves forward, it is going to happen. The resources that have to be expended to manufacture Kodakchrome film and K-14 chemistry is just too large.” He adds that Kodak will be shipping until its remaining inventory is gone. And retailers are stocking up now.

DelliBovi admits that color slide film has been a casualty of digital but B&W film use still remains strong.

“I don’t think [it] is an indication of anything to come,” says DelliBovi. I don’t see a time when B&W darkroom or color photography will be eliminated. In fact we’re seeing a renewed interest over the past few years, especially in the last six months. One of the factors behind the resurgence in the use of color film is the popularity of the Toy Camera category. These include such cameras as the Holga, Diana and Lomo.”

Many schools still feel there is no match for the effectiveness of teaching B&W photography using film and the wet darkroom.

Unique Photo’s Sweetwood adds, “Film still remains a near perfect medium to capture images, and many products will be continued to be viable for the foreseeable future.  The inherent beauty of images, especially of people, captured on film remain the industry standard.”

Outcry                                               

Almost immediately the announcement spawned an outcry by those photographers who still shoot Kodachrome. Forums and blogs were abuzz with talk—some understanding and reminiscing, while others were bitter and complaining.

Companies discontinue products because people aren’t using them, or because there’s something newer and better. Too few people are shooting film nowadays—Kodachrome in particular. For all of the outcry about Kodak’s decision, had more photographers been shooting more of this particular film, maybe it wouldn’t have come to this conclusion.

This is not the time to suggest that photography is dead—or even that film is dead—because neither is true. This was purely a business decision. Everyone we spoke with feels that Kodak knows how important Kodachrome is to photography, and if there was any other way, they would have come up with it. The film started its decline 10 years ago and Kodak has spent the last 10 years keeping it alive. For those who ask why Kodak can’t license or sell Kodachrome to another company to produce—the assumption can be made that the film is too proprietary for the company to allow that.

Daniel Bayer, photographer and founder of the Kodachromeproject.com [See Kodachrome Project Below] has seen this type of response to similar news before. “When one looks at other films that have been discontinued, there is always the initial outcry but then it calms down a bit,” he says.

Bayer says most Kodachrome shooters are very aware of the impending deadline for the last available processing by Dwayne’s Photo set for the end of next year. He hopes the buzz gets people to look around and see what they have in their drawers and refrigerators and get the processing done in time.

Once Kodachrome is no longer an option, those photographers who regularly use the film will have to make a decision whether to either use another slide film—such as Ektachrome from Kodak or Fujifilm’s Fujichrome—or make the switch to digital photography. Bayer notes that most photographers did make the switch in the late 90s, leaving Kodachrome a niche film.

As far as digital versus film, it is starting to level out a bit in that many people now shoot both. It really boils down to what you feel like using to make your images. I think those who are passionate about using Kodachrome now use it because it is a unique medium and enables a unique look right out of the lab,” he says. “As far as my use of film or digital beyond Kodachrome, I will move on to other E-6 stocks and continue to use digital for color work while ramping up my use of film only for B&W.”

The Kodachrome Project

Bayer started the Kodachrome Project in 2004 as a means to create a body of work that truly spoke of the Kodachrome era instead of seeing it pass quietly. “The outcome I hope to produce is a book/exhibit about the 75th year of Kodachrome, what the world looked like and to create a series of essays that tell clear and relevant stories at the time of Kodachrome’s passing. The main body of the work will be mine with select essays and work by other members of the project,” Bayer explains.

“The website www.Kodachromeproject.com was launched a few years ago and the forums shortly thereafter. The forums are fairly popular as far as niche film products go.” There are more than 300 members, of which over 100 are active and more than two dozen serious photographers engage in the opportunity of the project.

Additional Tributes

Along with Daniel Bayer’s Kodachrome Project, the film manufacturing giant is planning a tribute to the film as well. Eastman Kodak will donate the last rolls of the film to George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film (www.eastmanhouse.org) in Rochester, NY which houses the world’s largest collection of cameras and related artifacts. Professional photographer Steve McCurry will shoot one of those last rolls and the images will be donated to Eastman House.

McCurry is best known for the image of a young Afghan girl that captured the hearts of millions of people around the world as she peered hauntingly from the cover of National Geographic Magazine in 1985. Incidentally, 17 years later, McCurry sought out the young woman he had photographed almost two decades earlier; this time he captured a portrait of her using Ektachrome Film E100VS.

“The early part of my career was dominated by Kodachrome film, and I reached for that film to shoot some of my most memorable images,” said McCurry. “While Kodachrome film was very good to me, I have since moved on to other films and digital to create my images.”       

Kodak has created a gallery of iconic images, including the Afghan girl and other McCurry photos, as well as others from professional photographers Eric Meola and Peter Guttman on its website: www.kodak.com/go/kodachrometribute. Photographers can also leave comments, many dozens have already expressed their feelings, both positive and negative.

Coincidentally, “Kodachrome Culture, The American Tourist in Europe,” a new photography exhibit displaying more than 100 photos from 21 countries across Europe, will be on display at the National Geographic Museum, from June 25 to Sept. 7, 2009.

From the museum’s description of the exhibit: “…The bold 1950s and 1960s Kodachrome color photographs documented an era of peacetime travel and helped shape National Geographic’s tradition of photographic excellence by offering a fresh look at distant places.

“Culled from the National Geographic archives, the images showcase the work of more than 35 legendary photographers and revisit a photographic medium that changed the way we document the world.

“National Geographic pioneered the use of Kodachrome film in the late 1930s and was among the first to recognize its advantages. The film produced a dye image without the grain found in other color processes, and the photographs could be enlarged without loss of detail. The film was also faster. Instead of requiring a tripod, color shots taken with a compact 35mm camera could be spontaneously composed.”

The National Geographic Museum is located in Washington, D.C. For information on the exhibit, visit www.ngmuseum.org.

Final Thoughts    

“The discontinuation of Kodachrome production represents the end of the analog photography era. While there are still pros and enthusiast film photographers out there, it is clear that from an industry standpoint we are firmly in the digital age,” says Christopher Chute, research manager, Worldwide Digital Imaging Practice, IDC. “Now the question will be ‘how will pro and commercial photography continue to be re-shaped by changing customer tastes and social networking technology.’”

The final frames of the last roll of Kodachrome film will likely be shot and developed just days before New Year’s 2011, 75 years after the first rolls of Kodachrome film came off of the production lines. Until then photographers far and wide still have a chance to savor in the vibrant, saturated colors of their favorite slide film. Make it something special.

 

“Kodachrome” — Lyrics by Paul Simon

When I think back

On all the crap I learned in high school

It’s a wonder

I can think at all

And though my lack of education

Hasn’t hurt me none

I can read the writing on the wall

Kodachrome

They give us those nice bright colors

They give us the greens of summers

Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day

I got a Nikon camera

I love to take a photograph

So mama don’t take my Kodachrome away

If you took all the girls I knew

When I was single

And brought them all together for one night

I know they’d never match

my sweet imagination

Everything looks worse in black and white

Kodachrome

They give us those nice bright colors

They give us the greens of summers

Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day

I got a Nikon camera

I love to take a photograph

So mama don’t take my Kodachrome away…

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