Is the rich-hued Kodachrome era fading to black?

Published9/20/2008 12:04 AM

ROCHESTER, N.Y. - It is an elaborately crafted photographic film, extolled for its sharpness, vivid colors and archival durability. Yet die-hard fan Alex Webb is convinced the digital age soon will take his Kodachrome away.

"Part of me feels like, boy, if only I'd been born 20 years earlier," says the 56-year-old photographer, whose work has appeared in National Geographic magazine. "I wish they would keep making it forever. I still have a lot of pictures to take in my life."


Only one commercial lab in the world, Dwayne's Photo in Parsons, Kan., still develops Kodachrome, a once-ubiquitous brand that has freeze-framed the world in rich, authentic hues since it was introduced in the Great Depression.

Eastman Kodak Co. now makes the slide and motion-picture film in just one 35 mm format, and production runs - in which a master sheet nearly a mile long is cut up into more than 20,000 rolls - fall at least a year apart.

Kodak won't say when the last one occurred nor hint at Kodachrome's prospects. Kodachrome stocks currently on sale have a 2009 expiration date. If the machines aren't fired up again, the company might just sell out the remaining supplies, and that would be the end.

"It's a low-volume product; all volumes (of color film) are down," says spokesman Chris Veronda.

For decades, Kodachrome was the standard choice for professional color photography and avant-garde filmmaking. At its peak, a reverential Paul Simon crooned "Mama, don't take my Kodachrome away" in 1973. It's the only film to have a state park named after it - photogenic Kodachrome Basin State Park in the red-rock canyons of southern Utah.

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During its mass-market heyday in the 1960s and '70s, countless snap-shooters put friendships in peril every time they hauled out a carousel projector and trays of slides to replay a family vacation.

But the landmark color-transparency created by Leopold Godowsky Jr. and Leopold Mannes - "God and Man" in photo research circles - went into a tailspin a generation ago. It was eclipsed by video, easy-to-process color negative films and a tidal-wave preference for hand-sized prints.

Nowadays, Kodachrome is confined to a small global market of devotees who wouldn't settle for anything else. And before long, industry watchers say, Kodak might well stop serving that steadily shrinking niche as the 128-year-old photography pioneer bets its future on electronic imaging.

The digital revolution is undermining all varieties of film, even a storied one that garnered its share of spectacular images: the giant Hindenburg zeppelin dissolving in a red-orange fireball in 1936; Edmund Hillary's dreamy snapshot of his Sherpa climbing partner atop Everest in 1953; and, most iconic of all, Abraham Zapruder's 8 mm reel of President Kennedy's assassination in 1963.


Steve McCurry's portrait of an Afghan refugee girl with haunting gray-green eyes that landed on the cover of National Geographic in 1985 is considered one of the finest illustrations of the film's subtle rendering of light, contrast and color harmony.

"You just look at it and think, this is better than life," says McCurry, 58, who has relied heavily on Kodachrome for all but the last two years of a 33-year career.

"Different eye diseases can have different colors," says Thomas Link, an ophthalmic photographer at Minnesota's Mayo Clinic who shoots 10 to 15 rolls of Kodachrome a week to help doctors diagnose and treat illnesses. "Even now we will go back and look through images taken 30 years ago for research purposes."

If Kodachrome should vanish, "we'd either change to a different type of film or do it digitally," Link says, but long-term studies that hinge on image consistency might suffer.

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