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But the images from all those outdated cameras live on in my files.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.