Kodachrome

Posted on August 29, 2010

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Despite Paul Simon’s strenuous objections, Eastman Kodak discontinued production of its famous Kodachrome color film last year.  The decline of older films like Kodachrome is due, in large part, to the widespread adoption of digital photography.  As I learn the fundamentals of electrical and computer engineering, I hope to take frequent breaks to examine how the technologies enabled by this field have changed the way we live and think – and how they continue to do so.  Digital photography is certainly an example of that.

Before I continue, let me take this opportunity to remind anyone in possession of undeveloped Kodachrome film that you can still get your film developed, but not for long! Officially, only one photo lab in the entire world is processing Kodachrome film and they’re going to stop on December 30th, 2010.  Any film not received by Dwayne’s Photo by that time will not be processed!  The website of Rocky Mountain Film Laboratory also indicates that they process Kodachrome, but they are not mentioned on Kodak’s website.

 

Digital photo courtesy of Amy Lavallee

 

A coworker of mine, Amy Lavallee, was recently showing me photos of her five month boy and I was struck not only by how cute her baby is, but also by how great all the photos are.  There was an overwhelming number of photos in the collection she showed me and those were just the selected favorites.  No longer limited by rolls of film, Amy and her husband take photos as often as they please – instead of waiting for just the right moment.  So there are a lot more candid shots and, after sorting out the gems, a lot more really great pictures.

As each photo flashed up on the screen for a moment, I saw that they were all crystal clear, unblemished, and in beautiful, true-to-life color.  …and they were going to stay that way!  Digital photographs don’t deteriorate over time the way film photographs do.  So when Amy’s baby is all grown up and has kids of his own, he’ll be able to show them this photo looking just as sharp and vibrant as it does today.

Photographs of my parents when they were young are some combination of faded, stained, or even cracked.  And photos from a generation before that are all in black and white or sepia-toned.  For my generation, the transition from monochromatic photographs and motion pictures to full color has made black and white a sign of antiquity.  Not just a sign, in fact, but also a symbol of antiquity – so much so that movies and television shows will frequently use black and white to represent flashbacks or past events, even if those events took place in the year 2000.  Heh … remember when “The Year 2000” was “THE FUTURE”?

Anyway, Kodachrome actually did something similar for family photography to what digital imaging is doing now.  Because of the peculiar way in which the film is developed, Kodachrome photographs last an incredibly long time if you take good care of them and store them in darkness.  And the sharpness and color fidelity were also a major improvement.  But one of the reasons that Kodachrome is so loved, even today, is actually the imperfections in its color fidelity.  Kodachrome reproduces colors in a way that appears just a little bit different to the human eye than the original, real life image did.  Many people feel that the colors are more the way they remember colors being in “the good old days”.

 

Kodachrome photo by Chalmers Butterfield (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 License)

 

So did Kodak stumble into a chemical process whose effect on color somehow closely matches the way human long-term visual memory fades?  Or do so many people remember their childhoods by gazing through the window of a Kodachrome print that it’s actually altered the way they remember things?  The latter, it seems to me, is the central assertion of Paul Simon’s famous song.  Will digital photography mean that our children remember their childhoods in a different way than we do?

Thanks for reading!  (And thanks for the photo, Amy!)

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