Sunday, November 22, 2009

The old order passes

INTRODUCED IN 1935, KODACHROME IS DEAD. Last week, I discovered that Kodak ceased the manufacture of this wonderful film this year, after 75 years, but will support its processing until the end of 2010. Sad, but inevitable, for a number of reasons: in the 1990s, other colour emulsions finally caught up with it for sharpness, and then with the advent of digital photography, the silver era is ending. But as Dan Bayer observes on his site, The Kodachrome Project,

Kodachrome is a very unique film that has played a major roll documenting much of the last century of our world's history. It has encapsulated many important eras preserving them safely in the cradle of its superior archival properties. As a result, Kodachrome's 75 year lifespan will have become an era in its own right; an era deserving of its own preservation effort.

That the film exists at all, is amazing. It was invented by two New York city musicians, Leopold Godowsky Jr. and Leopold Mannes.  Like Dan says, Kodachrome is unique:

Kodachrome is fundamentally different from other transparency and negative color films that have dye couplers incorporated into the emulsion layers. Kodachrome is unique because it has no dye couplers in the emulsion; these are introduced during processing.

That makes its processing much more complex, compared to other emulsions, except the Technicolor 3-strip dye transfer process. That's why, except for the U.S. (because of antitrust concerns) Kodachrome was sold with processing included, with a mail-pouch to put the used cassette in to send to the Kodak lab.

So why was it important? Well, it was originally introduced as 16mm movie film, but soon afterward, some bright soul in Kodak authorized its manufacture in 4x5" sheets, for the big view cameras and Speed Graphics used by serious photographers.

When WW2 came along, the U.S. Government put a corps of photographers out in the field to capture America at war — using 4x5 Kodachrome.  To the delight of archivists, as decades passed, it was discovered that if processed Kodachrome transparencies were stored in darkness, there was virtually NO colour degredation, unlike other colour film, which would start to deteriorate rapidly.

And this brings us to SHORPY, a delightful web site that is a compendium of all manner of photographs. They have a great number of these 4x5's to display — and they are awesome. Great saturated colour that is 70 years old, but looks as fresh as today. Anyway, go visit Shorpy for some colorful history.

Notice the subtle, non-fried, non-faded 70 year-old skin tones in the photo below, of workers on lunch break at North American Aviation's Inglewood, California factory:

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