Art News

Images from Final Roll of Kodachrome Donated to George Eastman House

artwork: I’d made proposal to National Geographic to do a story on a train journey across India. But I wasn’t aware that the train went to close to the Taj Mahal, there’s an enormous rail road yard across from the Taj and there were many steam locomotives that made perfect contrast.  ...Steve McCurry

ROCHESTER, NY.- When Kodak announced in 2009 it would no longer produce Kodachrome film, company officials announced two ways the famed film would be celebrated: 1) National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry would be given the last roll off the Kodak production line and 2) the images from that historic roll would be donated to the archives at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. McCurry today donated photographs from that final role to George Eastman House during a press conference in the museum. Eastman House will present a display of projected images beginning July 9 and will mount an international tour of the photographs in 2012.

McCurry’s historic journey took him in 2010 to his hometown of New York City to western India and finally to Parsons, Kansas. That final stop was to the last lab in existence to process Kodachrome, which would close at the end of 2010, but not before developing his precious roll.

“I don’t think there’s ever been, in the history of photography, a better film, a better way to actually look at the world than with Kodachrome,” McCurry said. “This was the only way I shot for decades.”

artwork: Steve McCurry - Who's best-known for his Kodachrome portrait of a green-eyed Afghan refugee girl in 1984.McCurry spoke at Eastman House , sharing the 31 photographs he captured from the 36-frame roll – some frames were duplicate images — and telling stories of his travels and his fears the roll would be harmed by airport security scanners. He and Eastman House officials also talked about the celebration of Kodachrome, a color film process that lasted longer than any other.

“We celebrate Kodachrome at George Eastman House,” said Dr. Anthony Bannon, the Ron and Donna Fielding Director. “It was the world’s first commercially successful color film, extolled since the Great Depression for its sharpness, archival durability, and vibrant yet realistic hues.”

The subjects he shot on the last roll include Robert DeNiro and photographer Elliott Erwitt, plus unknown people in various parks in New York City; McCurry in his hotel room in Parsons awaiting film processing; and in India – where McCurry noted “color is important culturally” and where he used Kodachrome’s magic to subtly render contrast and color harmony in depictions of Bollywood luminaries in Mumbai and the Rubari tribe in Rajasthan on the verge of extinction.

“I thought, ‘What better way to honor the memory of Kodachrome than to try and photograph iconic places and people?’ It’s in (my) DNA to want to tell stories where the action is, that shed light on the human condition,” McCurry said. He planned the trip, which he calls “a six-week odyssey,” for nine months. A crew from the National Geographic Channel followed him on his journey. That special has not aired yet in the United States but debuted this spring on European television.

Kodachrome was produced for 74 years, from 1935 to 2009, in a wide variety of formats, including 35mm slide film and 8mm movie film. McCurry used Kodachrome for his well-known 1984 portrait of Sharbat Gula, the “Afghan Girl,” for National Geographic magazine. It also was used in 1953 for the official moving footage of the coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second.

Kodachrome is appreciated in the archival and professional market for its dark-storage longevity, with colors remaining intact for decades. As digital photography reduced the demand for all varieties of film in the first decade of the 21st century, Kodachrome sales also declined. On June 22, 2009, Kodak announced the end of Kodachrome production.

Kodachrome was invented in the early 1930s by two professional musicians, Leopold Godowsky Jr. and Leopold Mannes. A known comment in relation to these two men is “Kodachrome was made by God and Man.” Godowsky’s early papers are held in the archives at Eastman House, as are many varieties of Kodachrome film in original boxes from several decades as well as moving footage, slides, and photographs, including the documentation of Sir Edmund Hillary’s history ascent of Mt. Everest.

“It’s definitely the end of an era,” he said of Kodachrome. “It has such a wonderful color palette…a poetic look, not particularly garish or cartoonish, but wonderful, true colors that were vibrant, but true to what you were shooting. It was the gold standard of imagery.”

artwork: Steve McCurry -  War in Afghanistan, graphic war images taken in 1991-92

About Kodachrome

Kodachrome was the first commercially successful color film. Kodachrome was the trademarked brand name of a type of color reversal film manufactured by Eastman Kodak Company from 1935 to 2009. It used a subtractive method — in contrast to earlier additive “screenplate” methods such as autochrome and Dufaycolor — and remained the oldest brand of color film.

Kodachrome film was manufactured for 74 years in various formats to suit still and motion picture cameras, including 8mm, Super 8, 16mm, and 35mm for movies and 35mm, 120, 110, 126, 828 and large format for still photography. For many years it was used for professional color photography, especially for images intended for publication in print media. The film was sold with processing included in the purchase price except in the United States, where a 1954 legal ruling ended that practice.

Kodachrome was first sold in 1935 as 16 mm movie film. In 1936 it was made available in 8 mm movie film, and slide film in both 35mm and 828 formats. Kodachrome would eventually be produced in a wide variety of film formats including 120 and 4×5, and in ISO/ASA values ranging from 8 to 200. Each of these formats was discontinued one by one through the last decade of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century.

Unlike transparency and negative color films with dye couplers incorporated into the emulsion layers, Kodachrome had none. The dye couplers were added during processing. Without couplers, the emulsion layers were thinner, causing less light scattering and allowing the film to record a sharper image. A Kodachrome slide is discernible by an easily-visible relief image on the emulsion side of the film. Kodachrome had a dynamic range of around eight stops.

Kodachrome required complex processing that could not practicably be carried out by amateurs. After labs around the world closed, Kodak subcontracted in recent years the processing work to Dwayne’s Photo, an independent facility in Kansas, which was the world’s last Kodachrome pressing facility. Dwayne’s announced in late 2010 that it would process all Kodachrome rolls received at the lab by Dec, 30, 2010, after which further processing would cease. Due to high demand, the processing continued into January 2011, and then the world’s last K-14 processing machine was taken out of service.

Proof of its affect on popular culture, Kodachrome was the subject of Paul Simon’s song “Kodachrome,” and Kodachrome Basin State Park in Utah was named for it, becoming the only park named for a brand of film.