Back then it wasn’t really easy being a color film.
Green or yellow, red or blue. Color photography never took off until 40’s, but it was certainly experienced far before the last century, as we have the first descriptions of it dated as far as the 1860’s. Back then it was all about glass plates, tripods, extremely long exposures and tricky complicated development process. But the results were incredible for the time. Pale and barely tinted images were the results of these magical tricks, so beautiful yet far from realistic.
4×5 Kodachrome box from October 1944
Since 1935, photography was finally able to capture the shades and the tints that our eyes are able to see.
The Kodachrome process is very complicated, they sense-making: the three emulsions, each sensitive to a primary color, processed separately in different baths. Short description about a really complicated and error prone technique. Only few labs in the world were still developing Kodachrome in the 2010s. You can get a better idea of the process invented by Leopold Godowsky Jr. and Leopold Mannes, two musicians turned scientists who worked at Kodak’s research facility in Rochester, N.Y. in the video below.
They were disappointed by the poor quality of a “color” movie they saw in 1916, therefore they spent years perfecting a new technique, which Kodak first utilized in 1935 in 16-mm movie film. The following year they tried out the process for 35-mm film Kodachrome. It was a success, even though it was quite pricy back then, topping 50$+ per camera roll.
Normally, all color films have dyes printed directly onto the film stock, but Kodachrome is different: dye isn’t added until the development process. “The film itself is basically black and white” says Grant Steinle (Dwayne’s Photo, you have seen him in the documentary up above). Steinle says that although all dyes will fade over time, if Kodachrome is stored properly it can be good for up to 100 years. The film’s archival abilities, coupled with its comparative ease of use, made it the dominant film for both professionals and amateurs for most of the 20th century.
Kodachrome was the film roll in Edmund Hillary‘s camera when he successfully topped Mount Everest in 1953. Abraham Zapruder had a Kodachrome 8-mm film in his super-8 in Dallas when he accidentally captured President Kennedy’s assassination. Steve McCurry (National Geographic) used it to capture a world famous portrait in Afghanistan in 1985 which is still today the magazine’s most enduring cover image.
Edmund Hillary, Mount Everest, 1953
Steve McCurry, Afghanistan, 1985
For the first 20 years of commercial Kodachrome, anyone wishing to develop the film had to send it to a Kodak laboratory, which controlled all processing. In 1954, the Department of Justice declared Kodachrome-processing a monopoly, and the company agreed to allow other finishing plants to develop the film; the price of a roll of film — which previously had the processing cost added into it — fell roughly 43%.
Kodachrome’s popularity peaked in the 1960s and ’70s. In 1961 Kodachrome II was marketed, a great update, it was faster and more versatile, starting de-facto the point-and-shoot movement (or generation).
Super 8 was released in 1965.
But by mid 1980’s the film fell into disfavor. Polaroid and Fuji’s instant films became the most loved mediums for point-and-shoot exercises and the digital video recorders from Sony took away the some Super-8 lovers from the film medium. It was a fact: Kodachrome was a pain to develop. Large machineries, different chemicals and over a dozen processing steps. It was no “one-hour photo” film. Then Kodak killed it herself inventing the Kodak digital imaging system in the early 2000’s, opening the gates of digital imaging hell to the masses.
Kodak quit the film-processing business in 1988. Super 8 went by the wayside in 2007. 2008 was a strange year for Kodak: only one run of Kodachrome film was produced, it was a mile-long sheet cut into 20.000 rolls. We can call it the green mile of the Kodachrome era.
One last roll was symbolically donated to Steve McCurry, some other to the George Eastman House’s photography museum.
“Thank you all, beautiful people for loving me and using me to help you document your life. My ride has been long and truly great. I’ll be fine. Take care.”