Heavy Metal Madness: I'm Looking Through You. Where Did You Go?
I’m a bit late in this eulogy to a couple of products from Eastman Kodak that together played a big role in my life and in the image I have of myself. I readily accept the death of these products as necessary given market forces, changing consumer habits, new company focus, blah, blah, blah. But it is still sad to see pioneering and ubiquitous products reduced to collective memory and the closets of a small but highly obsessed group of preservationists. The loss of good friends like the Kodak Carousel slide projector and Kodachrome 8mm movie film make me feel old and considerably less relevant. The list of “eras” I have to get over is growing too quickly.
Thanks to a complex processing scheme, Kodachrome film produced bright colors, impressive contrast and terrific longevity. The down side, at least until more recent versions, was that Kodachrome had a very low speed rating and not much flexibility in exposure.
I mourn these products because the majority of our early memories are really just memories of the photographs, movies, videos, and stories that documented those years. Do you picture that first birthday as a grainy black-and-white memory, or a high-definition, colorful one complete with an iTunes soundtrack? Are the colors in your memories yellowed and faded or set to “millions?” For quite a few generations, memories and Kodachrome are synonymous, for better or for worse.
We now document just about everything in secure media forms that don’t fade, color shift, or deteriorate. Our quest for accurate color, ease of use and permanence assures that generation-whatever will be able to re-play much of their troubled lives on demand. The cherished box of photos to save in a fire is now the hard drive of the family computer, and I suppose that’s progress. Accurate memories are undoubtedly better than filtered ones, even if the filters over-saturated colors and made everything look better than it really was.
But still, Kodak’s announcements that they are no longer manufacturing slide projectors or Super 8mm Kodachrome film seem significant to me. We are quickly nearing the end of transparencies as a visual medium, and even though modern computer-screen viewing is also technically transmissive (as opposed to reflective), there is a unique result when you pass light through film that doesn’t translate into digital formats. For one thing, the viewing process itself created a unique mood and environment. Plus, I can’t help but wonder what happens when we finally achieve perfection in our methods of recording the world accurately and in massive quantities. Sometimes the comfort of an old photograph is life saving, and I prefer mine to be considerably out of gamut and have the soft glow of better times.
I Thought I Knew You, What Did I Know?
The invention of Kodachrome, the first viable (and some would argue all-time best) color film to hit the market, is an unlikely story that challenges our notion of what scientists should be.
Leopold Godowsky, Jr., and Leopold Mannes were teenage friends who shared not just a first name, but a passion for violin, piano, and photography. Accomplished musicians, Mannes earned a Pulitzer Prize and a Guggenheim fellowship for composing, and Godowsky played first violin for the San Francisco and Los Angeles Symphonies. Throughout their friendship the two experimented with photography, determined to find a way to take color photographs. They first combined colored filters and multiple black and white exposures in 1916 in an attempt to break light down into red, blue, and yellow.
In the early 1930s, Godowsky and Mannes (who were referred to by colleagues as “God and Man”) developed a theory for manufacturing and processing film that, while difficult and time consuming, was unique in how it applied colored dyes to the final image. Eventually the two interested Eastman Kodak in the process and went to work with the company to develop the idea further. In 1935 Kodak introduced Kodachrome transparency film, which quickly became available in all common still and movie-camera formats.
The technical reasons why Kodachrome produces such distinct and fine-grain images with rich colors are somewhat beyond my comprehension, though I think I get the basics. In most color film processes, light travels through three layers of silver, one reacting to red, one to blue, and one to yellow. The actual capture of each color is simply a monotone image, pretty much the same as it would be for a black and white photo taken through a filter. During processing, colored dyes are released from the film that replace the appropriate silver halide particles in those three layers, which then combine to form a color image.
With Kodachrome there are no dyes in the film — those are added in the processing, which is done separately for each color. Thus, Kodachrome is easy to manufacture (it’s like three layers of standard black and white film, each sensitive to a different color), but requires multiple processing steps and precise control to add the color through a re-exposure process. The result is that more dye is able to transfer to the film and so colors tend to be better saturated and of finer grain than in those films that have the color dyes built in from the start. Kodachrome images have very rich blacks and unusually high contrast when exposed correctly. And as it turns out, this process is more stable over time — well-stored Kodachrome images do not fade and can last many, many times longer than other transparency types, and much longer than color negative film and prints. Sadly, even though Kodak eventually knew about this longevity from internal testing, they did not promote it as a feature because by then they were anxious to promote the new Ektachrome film, which was easier and more profitable to process.
An early Kodachrome test transparency from the excellent Spira Collection Web site of historical photography. Taken in 1939, this image was part of a comparison by Kodak researchers between Kodachrome and Dufaycolor, a competing color film based on Louis Dufay’s Dioptichrome process.
Mannes and Godowsky are being inducted this year into the Inventors Hall of Fame, and their photographic process still lives on in 35mm and larger movie-film sizes. But because of the difficult processing, there is only one lab left in the United States that processes Kodachrome, and a few others dotting the globe. Super 8mm was the logical first format to die, but it can’t be too much longer before other formats of Kodachrome become extinct too, replaced by the capable but clearly different Ektachrome, Fujichrome, and other easier-to-process films. And we all know that film of any type is doomed to a marginalized life. But for some reason I won’t miss any of the others.
The Inventors Hall of Fame photos of Leopold Godowsky, Jr. (left), and Leopold Mannes, inventors of Kodachrome. Despite their success in photography, both Leopolds considered themselves musicians first and inventors second. Below, Kodachrome packaging and an unexposed roll from 1945. Because of the difficult processing, Kodak was the exclusive processor of Kodachrome for several decades, and each roll included processing via small cotton bags, which were mailed to the closest Kodak facility.
In Utah, there is a popular state park named by the National Geographic Society as Kodachrome Basin due to the colorful rock formations and deep-blue sky. In many respects Kodachrome is the great American film — it was formulated to render Caucasian skin tones a satisfying pink, and turn blue skies into something best described as God-like. You could say that Kodachrome is like every other color film, only more so.
Because of its dominance of the photography industry, Eastman Kodak pretty much set the standards for consumer photography. Above, an early ad for Kodachrome transparency film, and below, a glimpse of products from a 1965 ad that featured pitches from Ed Sullivan and Ozzie and Harriet Nelson.
I’ve read many studies that conclude that most people prefer over-saturated colors to more realistic ones, even when they consciously know the colors are exaggerated. We want our world to be more colorful than it is, and Kodachrome certainly delivered on that front.
The effect of Kodachrome images could be seen everywhere, especially in commercial photography where it was, for many years, the professional’s choice. Above, a 1950s-era record album cover, and below, a picture postcard (which became referred to generically as “chromes”), of the fabulous and colorful Beatles. Due to the fine grain and high contrast, Kodachrome was well suited to making color separations for printing, thus it was used by most of the weekly picture magazines and other publishers.
You Were Above Me, But not Today
You can’t have a mass market for color transparencies like those produced in Kodachrome without a way to view them. So along with the rapid growth of Kodachrome film, Kodak and other equipment manufacturers saw a boom in the market for slide projectors.
Argus was an early manufacturer of automated slide projectors — above is a 1956 Model 300. In 1961 Kodak introduced the first version of its famous Carousel projector with a round tray (below). By using simply gravity as the main feed mechanism, Carousel projectors were less prone to jams, and the inexpensive trays made it possible to store completed slide shows for future viewing. 1961 also marked the introduction of Kodachrome II film, an improved version of the 1935 standard.
From simple, single-slide models that required hand operation to automated units with interchangeable trays, slide projectors became the most common way to view photographs, and they seemed especially suited to extremely long and boring presentations of people’s travels. Slide projectors required a running commentary to fill the dead air, which became even more repressive with the drapes drawn and the lights out. It was very easy to fall asleep undetected during slide presentations, at least until you started snoring or fell out of your chair. But this wasn’t the two Leopold’s fault. No amount of saturation can make the eightieth picture of Death Valley seem interesting.
Bausch & Lomb was the first slide projector manufacturer to offer automatic focus, and its Balomatic models (shown here in 1958) featured super-bright 500-watt lamps. I sat through a lot of slide shows in my youth, and I can’t say I ever saw my parents as excited as these couples, but then the lights were pretty dim.
Slide presentations could be much bigger than life if you had a long enough throw between the screen and the projector, so there was always a temptation to get theatrical. By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I had graduated from black-and-white darkroom work to multi-projector slide shows during school assemblies and special events. These were heavy, man, complete with anti-Vietnam War messages; Crosby, Stills, and Nash soundtracks; and the occasional disrespectful religious image. I was called into the principal’s office more than once, but it was hard for them to be too tough because I clearly meant well and put lots of time into my shows. Normal kids had sports equipment or clothing in their closets. I had boxes and boxes of round Kodak Carousel slide trays and several bottles of film cleaner. The best Christmas gift I ever received was a copy stand so I could take pictures of photo spreads from Life magazine.