Login/
Create Account

Cat's Cradle Blog

The last Kodachrome roll: photography, history, progress?

Sunday, August 8th, 2010

A year ago the Kodak company ceased production of Kodachrome, that rich medium used in 35mm slide photography as well as in the creation of countless films.  The last 36-exposure roll went to Steve McCurry, whose haunting photograph of a green-eyed Afghan girl (1984) became a symbol of earlier conflict in Afghanistan.   What a task this final odyssey must have been, making decisions about what to include and how to compose and set the shot! 

In one way, the demise of Kodachrome is just a step along the path of photographic history.  The medium is young compared with the other visual arts, such as painting and sculpture.  The transformations photography has undergone are nothing short of amazing. 

Early French technical reference volume for photography

19th century French reference volume for photography

I wonder if early photographers saw the shifts from dauguerrotype to tintype to silver emulsion as nostalgically as this one.  I think rather not.  The early technology of photograph led to greater convenience and better results, generally.  The advent of smaller and smaller hand-held film cameras, especially in the twentieth century, democratized the medium and brought snapshot photography into the hands of Middle America.  Camera portability transformed journalism as well.  Instant Polaroids spoke to instant gratification, which some might say was one of the markers of the post-WWII era.  And the advent of color photography – including the recently departed Kodachrome – took the medium to new realms of possibilities. 

Digital photography, of course, was the next technological step.   Film photographers could be Luddites in the early years of digital development, but most have embraced the technology now.  Instead of film, we use a digital card holding hundreds of images.  Instead of a darkroom, there’s PhotoShop.  Instead of prints, we view images on a screen.  We delete the ones we don’t want (and there are many of those; not having to pay for processing leads us to shoot with great abandon).  The rest we save for printing…or for viewing in a digital picture frame.  The end result is a picture.  The process getting there is transformed forever.

I still have my Olympus OM-1 35mm SLR.  It takes great pictures.  But getting them developed is more and more problematic, especially if I want to shoot in black and white.  The OM-1 went with me to the Outer Banks one summer for some beach photography that I still think is some of my best.  It traveled with me to Britain, France, Italy, and Greece, and rewarded me with rich Kodachrome slides, some of which still send me back in place and time.  My daughter’s baby pictures were taken on the OM-1.  So, too, were the photographs I shot during my short but interesting career in print journalism: peanut farmers worried about drought, outsider artists and their work, historical sites, new businesses hopeful for success, concerts, and even a C-130 that landed at a small airstrip where I was living and working. 

Alfred Stieglitz at the Met

Metropolitan Museum of Art bulletin featuring the work of Alfred Stieglitz

There is a whole history in the heft of the camera in my hand, and in the way the macro lens feels as I balance it.  When I use it, I feel a connection to generations of photographers who have gone before me using different equipment and technologies. 

Don’t get me wrong.  I own digital equipment, and I love using it.  The Nikon D-5000 DSLR is a joy, and its new macro lens an absolute dream.   The palm-sized Fuji Finepix has amazing features for a tiny point-and-shoot.  

And yet, I wonder whether leaving the medium of emulsion film behind is not also leaving something creative behind that is different.  Maybe not better than digital, but different.  When I’m behind the lens, especially the lens of my old 35mm, I feel connected to generations of photographers who have gone before me.  I’m humbled by their superior talent and technical expertise.  But I keep on shooting and capturing anyway.

Savor the work of photographers through time and space in our photography catalog. 

Until next time….

Kathy Carter

Cat’s Cradle Books