R.I.P. Kodachrome, Chronicle of a Closedown
For economical reasons provoked by the dramatic drop in sales, the Eastman Kodak Co announced in 2009 that it would cease production of Kodachrome film. Kodachrome 64, the last item to remain the market, disappeared from store shelves on June 22, 2009, with a late 2010 expiration date. This coincided with the announcement that Dwayne’s Photo Service in Parsons, a small city of 11,000 people in Kansas, announced that it would no longer develop the film. It was the only remaining laboratory still processing the film after the closures of both the Renens lab in Switzerland on September 30, 2006 and in Tokyo in December 2007.
The Kodachrome saga began towards the end of the ‘20’s when Leopold Mannes and Lopold Godowski Jr., two musicians who enjoyed experimenting with chemicals during their free time, developed a new procedure for color photography. Conducter Walter Damrosch brought their discovery to the attention of George Eastman. The founder of Kodak, who had seen “dozens” of color procedures, did not respond. Several years later, however, Eastman was convinced by the color quality and the potential of this new procedure. The two men were hired and joined the research team in Rochester in the early ‘30’s. After a two layered version, they presented a three layered formula on April 15, 1935 for 16mm film called “Kodachrome”.
Based on a subtractive method, this original process was applied to 35mm film in 1936 and continued to improve for 75 years. Ranging from photography and movie film for professionals and amateurs, it quickly became the world’s most popular color film. The five base layers of celluloid requiring a complex 28 step development process continued to evolve and diversify. In 1936, Kodachrome was sold in “cartridge” form (the famous red and yellow package). In addition to the A, B, D, or F films of low sensitivity (8 to 16 ASA) requiring a K-11 treatment, were the Kodachrome II and Kodachrome-X requiring the K-12. Then later came the K-14 treatment for Kodachrome 25 (1974-2001), Kodachrome 40 (1978-1997), Kodachrome 64 (1974-2009) and the Kodachrome 200 (1986-2007).
In addition to these films and development procedures, in 1938, Kodak commercialized the 2” cardboard “readymount”, allowing the film to be placed directly into a cardboard mount (5 × 5cm) producing slides to be projected with the “Kodakslide transparency projector”. These innovations were as helpful to making this product a wide success as the quality of the color, the detail and the longevity. Criteria quickly adopted by professionals.
Milwaukee, 1937, a local newspaper ran the first color print and in 1938 Kodachrome became the official film of National Geographic with “Austria Kodachrome from a candid camera.” The film also became a signature product for a a wide number of photographers capable of highlighting the film’s qualities. At the Kodak-Pathé laboratory in France, expert lab techicians could even provide clients with the exact degree of maturation for the film. Without Kodachrome, the aesthetic and the work of Ernst Haas, Harry Gruyaert, Francis Giacobetti, Lise Sarfati or Nan Goldin would have undoubtedly been different. Or the work of Luigi Ghirri whose 1978 book published by Ponte e Virgulo in Modena was simply entitled “Kodachrome”. A title the photographer would again use for a 1979 series published in a catalog by Feltinelli in Milan. But it would be Steve McCurry, photographer for the Magnum agency and author of the famous portrait of a young Afghani published by National Geographic, to whom Kodak would give the final rolls of film produced in the enduction tunnels for a final photo story on New York. But despite the thousands of rolls received the day before closing in the hopes of being the last film developed, it was Dwane Steinle, the owner of the Parsons laboratory, who got that honor.
The picture is historical. It is of the laboratory staff wearing T-shirts that read “The best slide and movie film in history is now officially retired” Kodachrome 1935-2010.
Correspondant of the Institut de France