Analog photography’s long death rattle was heard again recently, as the last manufactured roll of Kodachrome was processed at Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas. Media coverage was intense, with everyone from National Public Radio to the pop-technology blog Gizmodo offering coverage of this latest chapter in the “end of film.”
As with any obituary, the language was teary with nostalgia. Heavy words like “extinction” and “requiem” were used, and the simple act of exposing and processing a roll of film assumed an almost mythological slant. Steve McCurry, the venerable National Geographic photographer who specifically requested to shoot the final thirty-six frames, became a minor deity, a maker of iconic images charged with this most solemn task. Dwayne’s Photo took on the gleam of a mystical place, Kodachrome’s Valhalla-in-Kansas, where angels schooled in the chemical arts would ease this long-serving warrior into the afterlife.
It was, in short, a spectacle. But what is to be expected at the passing of a dear old friend? During its seventy-five year run, Kodachrome was the king of all films, a product that transcended the insular photographic community to become a household name synonymous with vibrant, beautiful memories. It was truly a cultural marker: no one ever wrote a hit song about Velvia. But let’s be clear. Kodachrome’s demise is certainly a moment for reflection, but it’s not the apocalypse.
Photographers have always had to trust the marketplace to provide them the materials to make their art, and Kodak’s (or Agfa’s, Fuji’s, etc.) profits have always dictated the way we make photographs. According to Kodak, Kodachrome “currently represents a fraction of one percent of our film sales.” It’s a fact of the photographer’s life: when the bottom line determines the availability of products, amazing things will be introduced, thrive, fade, becoming niche things, then nothings. Yes, change is difficult, but mass-produced photography products have been coming and going for over a century now.
And despite the mainstream consensus, photography’s “old ways” are not vanishing; any view to the contrary ignores the current health of wet-plate photography. Wet-plate photo thrives because it is the opposite side of the Kodachrome coin: folks with a working knowledge of chemistry (and a steady hand and patient demeanor) can mix chemicals, pour plates, and make images. The chemicals used aren’t a proprietary mix created by an R&D department; thus, they’ll stay with us, as long as the knowledge of how they’re used survives.
Beyond the articles themselves, comments flooded the blogs and newspaper sites. Rose-hued reminiscences mixed with the usual clashes between devotees of film and fans of digital imaging. Among the memoirs and screeds, this comment from Salon.com’s coverage (Requiem for print photography, July 28, 2010) revealed an important reality:
Wednesday, July 28, 2010 12:25 PM ET
As soon as I started reading this article I began thinking of an iPhone app I own—the Hipstamatic. I’m very glad you mentioned it. I love it, but I never knew [its] roots.
Though I own a DSLR I never put in the effort to learn real film photography. Apps like Hipstamatic are an easy way to achieve interestingly developed pictures. I know many other users of the Hipstamatic and who use its Kodachrome take-off “Kodot.” Though Kodachrome may be gone, the style of its images may live on in people, like myself, who never used the original.
Thanks Kodachrome, I wish I’d known ya.
—Mike J Y Wood
Tectonic shifts continue in photography, and few people making images today have ever used celluloid film let alone loved it like so many did Kodachrome. As film fades, its important for photo-educators to remind their pupils that digital photography emerges from analog photography; the Hipstamatic app apes older films stocks, Photoshop’s “burn” and “dodge” tools refer to the wet darkroom, and all cameras—whether oatmeal cans or Canon 5D Mark IIs—are built on the same principle.
Despite their endurance for much of the twentieth century, the mass-produced technologies and materials of photography are proving to be as ephemeral as the moments photographers seek to capture. But the true roots of photography remain the same. So goodbye, Kodachrome. It was a glorious run. We’ll never forget you. But the light is still good and there are still lots of pictures to be made.
Luke Strosnider is the website editor for Afterimage Online. For more of his arts writing and photographic projects (including many images made with gone-but-not-forgotten films), please visit www.lukestrosnider.com.