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Please, don’t take my Kodachrome away

There was plenty to feel bad about in Tuesday morning’s New York Times, but this was the headline that reached out and clutched my throat: 

“Kodak Will Retire Kodachrome, Its Oldest Color Film Stock.”   

I am going to miss Kodachrome. Not that I’ve shot any lately. I’ve “been digital” for years, like most Americans, which is why demand for Kodak’s old warhorse isn’t big enough to keep it alive.

Besides, I know there really isn’t any room for nostalgia in the electronic revolution. So my missing that old slide film is kind of like an iPhone user longing for a wooden wall phone with a side crank and an earpiece on a cord. Quaint, but no cigar.

I think I’m going to buy myself one last roll of Kodachrome, anyway. It’s small enough to be a symbol, cheap enough to be a harmless souvenir, and it will be comfortable in the museum of photographic relics already on my office shelves. Rogue’s gallery might be a better term.

There’s the black-plastic Brownie Hawkeye I got when I was nine. I once proved to a relative that it was real camera by opening the back and revealing the film inside, inadvertently learning the most basic of photography lessons: Don’t do that.

And the “Baby Rollei” —  a little gray-bodied double-lens reflex that I carried on my first trip abroad, as a 16-year-old exchange student in Germany, where that Rolleiflex camera was born. 

And a pair of beloved Pentax bodies that died when an ocean wave sideswiped my Zodiac off the north coast of Kauai.

I soaked them in fresh water and baked them dry in a kitchen oven set on warm, as a Hawaiian camera shop advised, but it was too late: The salt in the water had instantly fried their light meters and permanently frozen their shutters. They’ve been good for nothing but bookends ever since.

Which is about all that my other film cameras are good for now.

But the images from all those outdated cameras live on in my files. I have folders of negatives shot with Tri-X, Kodak’s fast, reliable black-and-white film, a journalism favorite because of its speed and its lovely warm grays.

And stored in various closets and crates, there are hundreds of little boxes of slides, each labeled with the name and date of the trip they documented. The oldest aren’t even journalistic — they’re family slides, most of them from summer camping trips in the 1950s and ’60s.   

Kodachrome was always on the garish side — violent reds, intense blues, flaming yellows and oranges, hot golds and bitter greens. It was exciting to look at but complicated to get developed: It had to be sent away for processing, and only certain labs would do it.

No surprise, then, that most of our family trip slides are on Ektachrome, a newer Kodak product. It had a blue cast to start with, which tended to flatten out the world’s colors, but it could be processed locally and fast: Shoot it today, have a slide show tomorrow, or at least by the weekend.

All our Ektachromes, however, have morphed into mementos mori —  little 35-millimeter lessons on the transience of life and time. Both of those fade, and so does  Ektachrome. The saddest slides are now a pale, dismal, vacant blue, like snapshots of mental depression, not family fun.  

Ah, but the Kodachromes! Our Kodachrome slides have changed very little, and some of them look virtually new.  My favorite is of my little sister Liz and baby brother John, aged 3 and 2, playing with Laddie, our big, beautiful, terribly dumb collie, on the bright-green lawn of our old home.

The dog wandered away for the last time soon after that slide was taken; the house was torn down for a freeway a few years after that, and those children have become adults in their late 50s.

But even now, if I hold that small rectangle of Kodachrome film up to the light, their hair is still yellow-blond, their play clothes are still bright blue and red, and Laddie’s gold and white coat still gleams like a butterscotch sundae.   

I think of that slide often, whenever I’m editing digital images on the computer or copying them to a separate hard drive for safekeeping or putting them on CDs for extra backup.

Computers can crash, as everybody knows — one of mine carried off three years’ worth of photos as it died — and I’ve read that even CDs deteriorate. You can’t be too careful. 

Don’t get me wrong — I wouldn’t give up digital photography for anything. It’s easy, quicker than quick, with the glorious freedom to check an exposure on the spot and instantly reshoot, instead of having to wait till you get your film processed to find out that you set the aperture wrong a month — or a continent —  ago. 

Still, as I was thinking this morning, any change really is a loss. Unless, of course, you were lucky enough to store your memories on Kodachrome.

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by John Olson on 06/25/2009 - 12:01 pm.

    Like you, I am mourning the demise of Kodachrome. What is even more painful to watch is the slow death of “old school” photographic film as digital technology marches on. I cannot help but wonder if Kodak as a company is slowly dying one product at a time.

    Yes, I will confess to no longer owning any film cameras (the Nikkormat was my favorite), but I am staying with my older Nikon digital SLRs so I can continue to use my older Nikkor lenses as long as I can. “Newer” doesn’t always necessarily translate to “better.”

  2. Submitted by Andy Gilats on 06/25/2009 - 12:04 pm.

    Thank you, Catherine! As always, you have perfectly captured something precious to me — an important part of my life! The cameras, the film, the joy of taking photos. It even brings back so many memories of my closet darkrooms in all the fourplexes I lived in during the 70s! With gratitude, joy, and admiration.
    Andy Gilats

  3. Submitted by Norman Larson on 06/25/2009 - 01:24 pm.

    I took a lot of pictures with Kodachrome and my Voigtlander — and then started using film that gave me prints. I do not have a digital camera, and don’t know if I ever will. I do not want my pictures to look like those I see in the Star Tribune — really bad, and the retouching is horrific.

  4. Submitted by Joan Elwell on 06/25/2009 - 04:57 pm.

    Thanks for the wonderful article. I shot a lot of slides in the 70s and don’t remember – Kodachrome or Ektachrome. Now I need to haul out my crates of slides and hope the images are still there! I was a reluctant convert to digital photography. But one photo shoot with my first digital and I was an instant convert. And don’t even think of taking my Photoshop away!

  5. Submitted by Chris Johnson on 06/25/2009 - 06:38 pm.

    How wonderful to find Ms. Watson writing here at MinnPost. Call me uninformed, but still a pleasant surprise, after reading her columns for many years in print.

    And a really nice article about Kodachrome, too. Back when I was really into film photography, I couldn’t really afford to shoot Kodachrome except now and then. But after spending a year working in the darkroom for a professional photographer in high school, I really appreciated it’s finer qualities.

    I still have my last film camera, a Nikon F3, but haven’t used it in a few years. Poorer eyesight has me relying too much on the autofocus of the newer digital cameras, in addition to all the other benefits digital brings.

    Still, I mourn the loss of Kodachrome (and Polaroid film). I may do as Ms. Watson says and go buy myself a roll (or 2 or 5) of Kodachrome as a memento, or something.

  6. Submitted by Richard Parker on 06/26/2009 - 12:00 am.

    Thanks so much, Catherine. I still have vivid 16mm Kodachrome home movies my grandparents shot in the 1930s (it came out in 1938, I think), and a 2-1/4 Ektachrome transparency that won me first prize for color portraiture in the 1960 Scholastic-Ansco awards. The latter has lost almost all of its colors. But we have hundreds of family slides, fortunately shot on Kodachrome and still fine. Yup, you had to send the film to Kodak or a licensed lab, but we know now that it was worth it.

  7. Submitted by Katie Johnson on 06/26/2009 - 08:11 am.

    I graduated from college in 2004 and although I believed it was archaic at the time, now feel fortunate my mass comm department required students to learn film photography — developing film in a darkroom, winding the camera, all of it. One of my first newspaper jobs even required us to roll our own film, at least until we finally acquired digital SLRs.

    I still own a film SLR and know my film developing days are numbered. Eventually I will give in and purchase a much more pricey digital model.

  8. Submitted by Larry Pearson on 06/28/2009 - 01:20 pm.

    Hi Catherine,

    I remember my Brownie Hawkeye fondly too, and the 620 film that went in it. Unfortunately I dropped mine on a railroad rail when I was 10 and cracked the body. And those hundreds of boxes of slides … Even in boxes they’ve been getting dusty over the years. As for those old SLR camera bodies, hadn’t thought of using them as bookends. Thanks for the tip.

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