Friday, September 12, 2014

Kodachrome - A Brief History + It Lives On Thanks To Digital Technology

Kadak's Kodachrome was the first commercially successful color film. Before Kodachrome, color photography was a difficult process that produced poor results. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of when Kodachrome became commercially available.

Kodachrome was the standard color film for many decades. In fact, for a long time National Geographic would almost exclusively only publish photographs captured using Kodachrome. Paul Simon even sang about Kodachrome. The film produced natural colors, with just enough contrast and saturation that it could be used for landscapes, but not so much that it couldn't be used for portraits. The tiny silver grain (except in the ISO 200 version) was well liked.

In the early 1910's Kodak wanted to improve color photography, but they were not making much progress. A much smaller company called Wratten and Wainwright was, in fact, making some progress, so Kodak bought the company and placed some of the key people into their newly built research lab in Rochester, New York. One of the Wratten and Wainwright employees, John Capstaff, would a couple years later invent a two-color process that was a significant improvement over other color methods. This new two-color process was called Kodachrome and Kodak began selling it in 1915.

While this version of Kodachrome was an improvement over everything else available, it was far from ideal. Kodak continued trying to make a better color film, but with no luck. But, as luck would have it, two musicians, Leopold Godowsky Jr. and Leopold Mannes, saw a color movie in 1917 that they thought was terrible. They decided that they could, in fact, make a better color film. And so they did.

In 1922 Kodak got word of the two Leopold's experiments, and gave the two of them use of their labs and helped fund their project. It wasn't until 1935 that the two successfully figured it all out and created a three-color process that we now know as Kodachrome. The original Kodachrome and this new Kodachrome had very little in common other than they had the same name and were both color. Kodachrome was made in a number of different formats for still photography and cinematography.

Ansel Adams was a consultant for Kodak during this time and provided feedback on numerous projects, including Kodachrome. He used Kodachrome during the 1940's, but didn't really like it. Some of his clients wanted color photographs, so he captured a large number of color images, even though he is known almost entirely for his black-and-white photographs.

Kodachrome is essentially a three-layer black-and-white film. Color was added during development. The process was complicated and required exactness. While the film looked good, the process was not ideal. Kodak would invent Kodacolor, a color negative film, in 1941. Eventually easier processes were invented, including C-41 and E-6 in the 1970's.

In 2002 Kodak began phasing out Kodachrome. By 2009 the line was completely discontinued, including the chemicals needed for development. The very last roll was developed on July 14, 2010 in Parson's Kansas. The photographer who shot that final roll was legendary photography Steve McCurry, and the images were published in National Geographic.

Interestingly, Kodachrome can still be developed as a black-and-white film, but with so-so results and only by a small number of labs that know how to do it. Kodachrome is officially a relic of the past.

Kodachrome still exists digitally. Some photo-editing software programs, such as Alien Skin Exposure 6, can replicate the look of Kodachrome film pretty convincingly. In fact, the image at the top is a Kodachrome 200 digital replication. While the film is gone, and most photographers are using digital cameras now, the aesthetics still remain, proving that Kodachrome was an important milestone in the photography continuum. The legacy still lives on.

No comments:

Post a Comment