When I Think Back On All The Crap I Learned in High School: Ode To Kodachrome, 1935-2010

I started having pictures taken of me as soon as I was born. My godmother was a photographer/art teacher at UCLA, and I spent the very early bits of my life in weird artsy places and dark rooms at UCLA smelling chemicals, as well as her incense and (very likely) pot-smelling apartment in Santa Monica.

She had crazy amounts of cameras. Underwater cameras. Regular cameras. By the time I was 6, going to Samy’s was like going to the park or the grocery store or something. I dunno. It was just something we did. I knew names of film (Fuji, Kodak) and I kept hearing about this strange thing called an ISO…?

She took pictures. And my mother took pictures. There was a shutter flashing every two seconds. *click*  **zzzz** I still happen to think that the sound of a manual camera is one of the sexiest sounds on the planet. Put that and perhaps an Irish or Scottish accent next to my ear, and I might just automatically have no bones in my body and a huge shit-eating grin on my face.

We have fairly decent collections of family albums due to the fact that before digital cameras came in and caused us to simply look at something and delete its existence forever due to someone closing their eyes or a misjudged hand in the “incorrect place” we got them developed. And not only did we get them developed, but we had this strange exhibit called a “slide show.”

I know, I know, some of you may not remember this or know what this is. For those of you who do not know what a slide is, I will give you a picture:

All kidding put aside, these were very important and essential parts of my life. I doubt my parents (or my excruciatingly stoned godmother and her partner my sorta other godparent-ish guy) ever knew how much these little pieces of my very early childhood this meant to me, but all I can say is that I probably would not be a cinephile if I hadn’t had slide shows all the time as a kid. I remember laughter, my mom having a drink and the ice clinking, and the crack in the wall (our house was built in 1919, or something ridiculous like that), and great photos. Whether they were artsy photos, family shots, or a mix of the two, we had a good time.

The main thing was that it was not unlike 16mm film. The 16mm format, introduced in 1923, was utilized as a way to create “real” movies but at home. It may not have been 35mm, but hey- it was still film, right? And you could project ’em yourself, too? Not only that, it created a sense of community and brought the family together in a way that other things could not. It was one way that, historically, media absolutely built bridges instead of tearing them down. The process of creating a film together, and then watching it together was a bonding experience. Look at the opening of the TV show, The Wonder Years.

Within this clip, you see a family that is very clearly having Family Fun Times. Ok, yeah. It’s a television show. But it’s a television show that I grew up with. I also watched this show explore some pretty harsh issues of the time in a fairly sensitive and smart manner, so I would have to say that opening the show with a 16mm family film was a good call. It showed the historical reality that was going to be presented withing the fiction. Not bad for an 8:00pm ABC show, essentially aimed at a mid-range adolescent audience.

So back to slide shows. My slide shows in the ’80’s served a similar purpose to the 16mm home movies. They really brought us together. Seeing as my family had quite a bit of tragedy happen before I was even in Kindergarten, we needed some o’ that. Plus they were all hippies anyway. It was their thing, man. At any rate, I enjoyed the pretty pictures. And now, with the death of Kodachrome, I am starting to realize (perhaps) where the birth of my love for cinema came from.

When I went to summer camp, I took a photography class. It just made sense. I liked the visual image. I like the pictures. I like making pictures with my eyes. I like certain photographers as artists much better than most painters, sculpters, etc. The first camera I ever used was a Pentax K-1000 up at Camp Swig, in Saratoga, CA. It was awesome. If I remember correctly (and I believe pretty heavily in the Dorothy Parker quote “Women and elephants never forget”) I believe I ended up being the assistant to the camera teacher. Her name was Emily, she had dyed black hair, and she really liked this band I’d never heard of called Pavement and wore khakis. She was really really really cool. I think about her sometimes and wonder whatever happened to her. I have a feeling we’d be friends now. not just because I have a very good sense of who the hell Pavement is, but just because I think we would. I liked her a lot. She was my entrance into The Camera.

Then came High School…and thus the title for this piece. The darkroom at Fairfax High School in 1995 was no joke…to me, anyways. I learned stuff and had a great teacher. And I met one of my better high school friends who I am still in and out of touch with. My first Punk Rawk Pal that was my own age! Imagine THAT!  Yeah, so upon entering that scarlet chamber, I was given several options: engage in a drug deal (generally pot, but I might’ve been able to go harder. Never asked. Wasn’t interested), lounge around and talk about the exciting and engaging world of high school sexuality and politics (Oooo! Sounds thrilling when I have a chance to have 2-3 hours of darkroom time) or use some decent equipment to print pictures with. I chose the latter of the three. Every time. My only issue was negotiating the other idiots who were inside that space with me and the people who actually wanted to work. Regardless, it got done. And I got lovely work out of it.

My next darkroom, at Los Angeles County High School for the Arts? So. Much. Better. I had my work in our shows, it inspired me to go to Venice Beach on busses and get into photography as a True Love For Life. I think at Fairfax it might have been just a crush that I was considering moving in with. But I committed, hook, line and sinker at LACHSA. My only regret? I missed the day that we did pinhole cameras. I think I might’ve been getting my braces off or it was the dentist or something stupid like that. Someday…I want to do a pinhole camera.

The question now, however, is…will I get to? Perhaps some of you have seen the articles floating around people’s Facebook pages about the Death of Kodachrome. And almost all of you have heard the Paul Simon song “Kodachrome.”

Yesterday, after 75 years of glorious color, Kodachrome came to a screeching halt. Dwayne’s Photo, the building in Parsons, Kansas, and the last Kodachrome developing processor in the world, is being sold for scrap. People sent their rolls and reels in from all over the world to get them in by the deadline, spent retirement funds, traveled internationally, just so they could get those “greens of summer.”

I know what you must be thinking. Is it really that good? Can’t they get those colors digitally at this point? They can do anything with computers now! Can’t they reproduce Kodachrome? The easy answer is yes. You can get that color. The problem is you will never get the tone or, more importantly, the feel. Because I have had close relationships with Real Live Film Projectionists for years, I have been lucky enough to experience the warmth of Kodachrome, and it is simply a film look that is like no other (save perhaps Fuji, but that *still* doesn’t have the same thing that Paul Simon sang of- the dude wasn’t stupid!!).

The thing about Kodachrome is that it keeps its color. It was highly regarded for that reason. It started getting beat out by cheaper processes, but there were studies done and according to professionals, archivists, and the scientists-in-between like Wilhelm Imaging Research, Kodachrome “clearly is the most stable transparency film in dark storage; the film is especially outstanding in terms of its total freedom from yellow stain, even after extended aging.”  Unlike other films, even a roll that is undeveloped can keep its color. Look at these two photographs after 20 years lying in the Canadian rainforest, partially buried:

Picture of the best film roll, no white balance

Picture of the best film roll, white balance applied









So if that didn’t hit you, why don’t we try something a little harder. Here is a piece of film work where they seem to be testing out early incarnations of Kodachrome. No, this is not made today. This is actual honest-to-goodness, back-in-the-day, 1922 footage. I swear. If this doesn’t hit you on the glory of Kodachrome, I’m not sure what (if anything) will.

So, when I heard about Dwayne’s closing, and Kodachrome leaving us for good…my heart was broken. The amount of home movies and relationships that were created upon a format whose very emulsion had properties that outlasted the ones of other color film elements? Countless. The history that was made on Kodachrome photography? Beyond measure. National Geographic, for just one example. Familiar with this?

That’s Kodachrome. An iconic image. Documentaries were done about this photograph and the girl in it. Hey, Kodachrome, how ya doing? Naw, you’re not essential to American media culture. Not at all. We’ll just use the quicker, cheaper, ways. ‘S ok. We can fix all that with computers anyway. Digital! It’s the future!

What you can’t fix with computers is the warmth from the screen, the pure vibrancy of the colors of a printed photograph, the laughter amongst an audience, the bond between families making a home movie. These things take on lives of their own. It is no mistake that most artists consider their works to be “parts of themselves’ or their “children.”  In either situation, they are sentient beings or at least possessing blood, musculature and some possibility of animation.

The big joke was that Kodachrome was made by God and Man, as it was created by two musicians named Leopold Godowsky, Jr. and Leopold Mannes. Kodachrome was almost like a combination of the human and the divine. It could do what other color films could not do and for longer, and conduct great miracles (of the Canadian forest variety!). But it also shared a magic on-screen/paper/slide that others have not been able to match. It has touched people in a way that no other film has. Whether it was through a movie camera or the eye of a photojournalist, Kodachrome made an impact on American culture that was clearly almost religious. We have Kodachrome Basin State Park in Utah named after it! Last time I checked, I wasn’t going and picnicking at Ilford or Agfa State Park!

And then there’s Paul. Oh, Paul.

So yes. This is a eulogy. But perhaps it is only a temporary one.  I feel that with the onset of the technological age, unless something changes fast, it will be permanent. The funny thing is that in Paul’s song he says “everything looks worse in black and white” and now that is the only way that Kodachrome can be processed, by a company called Film Rescue International. Oh, irony. According to the New York Times, some folks’re still holding on to their rolls of film because they are hoping that Kodak might “see their lack of wisdom” in killing Kodachrome. And to me that is how it should be. We should always hold out a little hope for the future. After all, it is Kodachrome. It is, has been, and always will be, as Todd Gustavson of the Eastman House says, “more than a film, it’s a pop culture icon.”

4 thoughts on “When I Think Back On All The Crap I Learned in High School: Ode To Kodachrome, 1935-2010

  1. Strangely, in the Simon & Garfunkel “Concert in Central Park,” they changed the lyrics to “looks better in black and white.” Perhaps it was a notion that being older, the truth wins out over pretty fantasy, but it was a big strike on me since I grew up with the old lyrics. I wonder if anyone will have the cheek to ask Simon himself about this terrible event.

  2. Enid Sperber says:

    The 1922 Kodachrome test footage is gorgeous. This is a great blog post and a touching eulogy and I am not just saying that because I’m the Mom!

  3. Tremendous! This particular is all I can think pertaining to a blog post like this excellent. This kind of is literally a notably explanatory article post on the blog. You just need to know a lot about this amazing

  4. God, I miss that film! Or should I say, Godowsky… I had a handful of rolls processed in the last batches run in early January 2011, and the images are as beautiful as the Kodachromes I have of my mom from 70 years ago. I suppose I should say that the other way around, but either way there is basically nothing like it – only Technicolor comes close and that’s because it’s more or less the same technology.

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