23 June 2009

A World One Film Poorer

About seven years ago I became seriously interested in photography, for the second time. I had a fling with it in high school, and am starting another right now, but that particular fling came at a most interesting time.

In high school, of course, I mostly learned all about different films and developing. There was no auto-focus, zoom lenses were something of a novelty, and digital imaging required a camera the size of a sofa. 10-pound Nikons with towering motor drives and massive proboscises of prime glass danced in my dreams.

But seven years ago, digital imaging had not only arrived, it was poised to take on film as a serious medium. The whole digital vs. film debate was in full swing, with most serious photographers still arguing that not only was film superior, it was hard to see it ever really being surpassed. So, while I bought the best compact digital I could afford (a used Canon G3), I also invested in quite a bit of film gear.

That was obviously a bust. The whole digital/film debate now seems like a quaint and curious argument. But the argument for film was compelling at the time because contemporary films were brilliant while digital images were merely good. Films are still brilliant, but so is pro digital, and for the low end of the market, merely good digital is good enough. And digital is so much cheaper and easier to work with. Film is well on its way, if not to extinction, at least to the far margins of obsolescence.

But it is still a sad day whenever another great and historic film is discontinued, as has just been announced of Kodachrome. I confess to being fond of great photo films. Kodachrome was revolutionary in its heyday, from the 1950s onwards. It uses a unique film process to produce images that have good color, very fine grain and, unlike other older color films, exceptional archival stability. It is probably the only film to have a state park named after it, Kodachrome Basin State Park in southern Utah.

Kodachrome was a photographer's darling well into the 1980s, when the decline of slide film and the rise of great conventional color films (especially Fuji Velvia) challenged its popularity. It's always been very expensive to develop, which has also hastened its decline, and today only a single K-14 processor is still in business. So Kodak's decision to discontinue it was not a big surprise.

There are a number of homages to Kodachrome going up, which is fitting, given how much of the 20th century's history is recorded on it. Check out this modest one by Kodak (see gallery, mid page), but the place to watch is the Kodachrome Project. While purists are agonizing over what to expend their last rolls on, I expect a lot of great old Kodachrome photography is soon coming to an internet near you.

Update: See the story and gallery at NPR.org, which also mentions an upcoming Kodachrome exhibit by National Geographic in Washington, D.C., which "was meant to be a celebration of the impending 75th anniversary of the film that changed the course of photography. Instead, it will be something of a funeral."

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