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.
In its heyday, Kodak sold over 300,000 slide projectors a year. By 2003 that number had dwindled to less than 20,000, and the decline was rapid enough for Kodak to get out of the business entirely. Slide shows are considered campy these days, replaced by PowerPoint presentations and digital projectors, which are still just as boring, only now you can’t fall asleep as easily because the lights don’t have to be dimmed as much.
Graphic artists have always known that color photographs seem to reproduce better from transparencies than prints, and I suspect most will now confess that digital images are even more accurate and certainly easier to deal with. The new camera raw format takes the limits of the equipment out of the equation even more, and though we can certainly re-create the flaws that made a Kodachrome image so great, those images will never look quite the same without a bright light passing through the film’s emulsion and up to the screen or living room wall. Part of the memory of slide shows gone by is that of cigarette smoke or dust particles dancing in the projector’s beam.
You can still find plenty of Kodak Carousel and Ektagraphic projectors on eBay and at garage sales, right alongside the Salton yogurt makers and (more recently) George Foreman Grills. I still have several myself. But honesty requires that I admit I haven’t dragged out those projectors in years, and I much prefer to fire up the slideshow feature of iPhoto. We are willing to give up quite a bit in the quest for convenience, so I can’t place any blame on Kodak. I was actually surprised to discover they could still sell almost 20,000 projectors (probably all replacements) a year. But I strongly reserve the right to act indignant at the news of the slide projector’s death.
Your Lips are Moving. I Cannot Hear
George Eastman, the founder of Kodak, died in 1932, the same year the company introduced the first 8mm home-movie camera and film. For the next fifty years, some form of 8mm movie film recorded the silent lives of millions of children and adults, and the ritual of setting up a projector and screen was either much anticipated or much feared. For the first few years these records were limited to black and white, but with the release of Kodachrome movie film in 1936, memories came in vivid colors, as well.
Kodak introduced home-movie cameras and projectors as early as 1923 (when this ad appeared), but they were the larger 16mm format. It wasn’t until Kodachrome and the 8mm film format hit the market that home movie-making really took off.
Two images from the Kodak publication “How to Make Good Movies.” Above, movie viewers are clearly impressed and filmmakers satisfied (and not completely surprised) by the special effects described in the book. And while very few people had media rooms in those days, some, like Mrs. R.C. Surridge of Baltimore, Maryland, had home theater set-ups nonetheless (below).
My dad was quite the movie buff, so we endured our share of standing at rigid attention while facing directly into the sun as he panned back and forth, recording us much like you would if documenting our existence for an insurance company. Of course we stood in age order, which, fortunately, was also size order. By the time I eclipsed my sister’s in height, my dad had lost interest in home movies, so we never had to make the difficult choice between lining up chronologically or by size.
I don’t remember watching movies on Christmas night, but I take it on faith that many families did. Instead, we used Christmas as a filming opportunity and an excuse to break out the high-intensity movie lights. It was hard to show the proper enthusiasm when opening a gift, however, due to the temporary blindness.
The relatively low speed of Kodachrome (ASA 25 for most of its life) assured that home movies either took place in the bright noonday sun or with the aid of a blinding set of photo-flood lamps that were powerful enough to land an aircraft. The arrival of Santa is hardly a spontaneous moment for a five-year-old when he is temporarily blinded and the adults are all shouting to either look at Santa, look at the camera, or look “natural.” It’s no surprise so many home movies turned out to document a small child’s crying jag, which, on subsequent viewings seemed to be amusing to the adults.
Unlike video, which can be easily rewound and recorded over, movie film was unforgiving. Getting Junior to look at the camera and do something cute was no small feat, and a half a roll of unusable footage was not uncommon. Editing home movies is a story in itself and somewhat comparable to paste-up, only with really toxic glue and at a much smaller scale.
My favorite part of the home-movie era, of course, was setting up the projector and screen, which in most houses lived in a rarely used closet alongside the folding card table and Carrom board (if you were lucky). Home-movie screens were designed like props from an episode of “I Love Lucy” or the Pink Panther movies — it was easy to get either hurt by them or have them spectacularly collapse mid-way through the show. And even with a really bright bulb in the projector paired with a Day-Lite glass-beaded screen, the luminosity of your average home movie was pretty grim.
Part of the fun of home movies (which is lost with video recording) was the delay between shooting and viewing. Sometimes a roll of film would sit in a camera for months or even years before being processed. Projecting the results for the first time was always a surprise, and it was considered a win if the exposure was even close to correct. Threading 8mm film through the camera and the projector was tricky and often lead to bizarre mis-feeds that sent Dad running to the projector and Mom running to the light switch.
I don’t know if people have “video parties” these days, but sitting through someone’s home movies after dinner was a common occurrence and often led to embarrassing moments when guests were caught sleeping. The cartoon (above) is from a 1968 ad for Bauer cameras, which were guaranteed to make your home movies more exciting. It’s not clear if pictures of your kids tossing a beach ball (below) would keep the guests awake.
But 8mm home movies elevated everyone into the big leagues of motion pictures, and you could ham it up all you wanted, get pretty deep into things like titles and fancy transitions, and if you were my father, you could slow down the most humiliating scenes to a painful crawl. Or run the projector backwards for some real laughs.
The popularity of home movies hit a peak in the 1960s as 8mm automatic exposure cameras became more common. Here are examples of both Honeywell and Bell and Howell targeting women in their 1964 advertising. A year later, in 1965, Kodak introduced Super 8 Kodachrome film, which came in handy cartridges and boosted image size by almost 50% over standard 8mm film.
8mm movies grew up, I think, when the Kodachrome Zapruder film of the Kennedy assassination was finally released several years after his death. There, in the same colors that defined our childhoods, our important milestones, and the good times of our lives, were images of someone getting his head blown apart in front of his terrified wife. If you can imagine, Time/Life bought the film so it could not be shown, and it was reasonable at that time that such horrifying images would never be broadcast. When it did finally air, that two minutes of Kodachrome signaled the beginning of a world where everything, good and bad, is recorded in living color and available to view should you have the stomach for it.
Two images from the terrific book Kodachrome, the American Invention of our World by Els Rijper. Above is an International News staff photograph of Jane Withers and friends at a Halloween party, 1946. Below, a 1953 picture of Senator John Kennedy and his fiancée Jacqueline Bouvier. Kodachrome certainly contributed to the Camelot image of the Kennedy era, but it also signaled the end of it when Abraham Zapruder used 8 mm Kodachrome movie film to capture his famous footage of the young president’s assassination.
You Don’t Look Different, But You Have Changed
I can’t tell you exactly what it is about Kodachrome images that I’ll miss. It could be the film, it could be the reproduction methods that paralleled the product’s popularity, or it could be that I simply prefer to look back more than forward. And it may be that my memories of the mechanical things, like threading the 8mm film through the projector, or remembering to place the slides in the trays upside down and emulsion out (or was it in?), have tainted my recollections.
But color plays an important role in my memories — right up there with smell and taste. All of those senses become clouded over time, I know, and our memories are romanticized. When I eat a Zagnut candy bar as an adult, it seems way too sweet and brings little of the pleasure it did when I was seven. And so it should go with old pictures and home movies. But for some reason, the opposite happens. I end up preferring the extra-sweet version of life to the one I know to be true.
Thank you, Leopold Godowsky, Jr., and Leopold Mannes, for providing the color palette for my life. When I think of a visit from Santa or see myself in a cap and gown or at a birthday picnic, it’s through your considerable filter.
And thank you, God, for getting me through this entire column without making any references to Paul Simon’s song.
Read more by Gene Gable.