Monday, August 23, 2010

Give Me Those Nce Bright Colors

We have come to an important time in the history of American photography.  Kodak stopped producing Kodachrome just one year ago, in August 2010, after 74 years of production.  The film was loved by many people because of the vibrancy of its colors.  It was especially good at reproducing the color of green foliage, a quality immortalized by Paul Simon in his song "Kodachrome."  (More on this below.)  Photographers liked Kodachrome for its fine grain as well as its bright colors, properties which made it especially well suited for portraits.  The best known photo taken with Kodachrome was a portrait of an Afghan refugee girl with bright green eyes which appeared on the cover of National Geographic in 1985. {Upload}   Some photographers avoided Kodachrome because its development process is exotic, and only Kodak-certified labs could process it.  When production of the film ceased, there was only one lab left that could process the film.  Even in its heyday, Kodachrome had strong competition from Ektachrome and various films produced by Fuji and Agfa.  I remember using both Kodak and Fuji films back in the days when I was a camera enthusiast with a film camera.  Now, like most photographers, I only use a digital camera, but I have sentimental feelings about Kodachrome.

I remember very well the first time I heard the song "Kodachrome."  It was late winter / early spring, the time of year when we get a few spring-like days that make us feel good and then we're plunged back into winter.  I missed greenery so much that I dug up and looked at some of the photos I had taken in summers past.  Then I heard the song "Kodachrome" on a recording I had just bought.  Wow!  I got excited!  Then something else good happened.  A friend called and suggested that we go canoeing at the earliest possible opportunity.  The song "Kodachrome" heralded good times ahead outdoors for me.

Because of Kodachrome's long and renowned use, the last rolls of Kodachrome had to be used in ways that were special.  Steve McCurry, the man who took the famous picture of the Afghan refugee girl, requested and received the last 36-exposure strip.  He spent months planning how to use it.  When he started photographing, a crew of TV cameramen from the National Geographic followed him.  The National Geographic Channel plans to make a one hour documentary of McCurry taking the photographs.  Of course, McCurry asked Paul Simon to pose for a photo, but Simon declined, so McCurry photographed Robert de Niro as a symbol of the world of filmmaking.  Then McCurry photographed the Brooklyn Bridge and Grand Central Terminal.  (Ah, the mind of a New Yorker.)  After that, he made a radical change.  He returned to some of his old haunts in India, where he said that color is culturally important.  He photographed members of tribes which, like Kodachrome, were heading towards extinction.  Finally, McCurry shot his last few photos in Parsons, Kansas at Dwayne's Photo, the only existing lab that still processes Kodachrome.  Of course, McCurry felt under enormous pressure to get great photographs with the very last roll of Kodachrome, so he used a digital camera to help him evaluate composition, light. and perspective.  When McCurry's roll of film was processed, he was happy with the results.

This is a story with a happy ending.  I look forward to seeing the National Geographic documentary early next year.  Right now, I can listen to Paul Simon sing "Kodachrome"and enjoy it.

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