Short Cuts

Julian Stallabrass

The longest-lived of camera films has just ended its 75-year history. The only laboratory that still processed Kodachrome, the first commercially available colour slide film, stopped doing so at the end of last year. Kodak progressively withdrew the film from sale between 2002 and 2009, though many photographers loved it enough to buy large stocks to keep in their freezers. Amateurs cannot develop Kodachrome, which requires a large number of carefully controlled treatments, so, with the end of laboratory processing, the film is finished.

Kodachrome is made up of layers of black and white film, each of which responds differently to coloured light, and a series of filters. Only during processing are the appropriate dyes added to each layer to produce a colour transparency. Compared to other colour films, at least up until 1990 when Fuji introduced the garish Velvia, Kodachrome had unique advantages: its colours were rich and naturalistic, its blacks did not have the greyish cast of so many colour films, it had remarkable contrast, its greys were subtle, and the lack of colour couplers between its layers (which tend to diffuse light) gave the film extraordinary sharpness.

Getting my first yellow box of processed Kodachrome 25 through the post in 1982, and holding the cardboard-mounted slides up to the window, is an experience I won’t forget. I had no idea that a photograph could be so vivid, so rich in tonal range or so finely detailed. The mystery of these dark rectangles that sprang to life when backlit was further enhanced by the tiny and intricate engraving on their reverse side, visible when the slide was held in a raking light so that the contrasting lines of the image appeared in low relief.

‘25’ meant 25 ASA, a measurement of the film’s (low) sensitivity to light but also an indication of its resolution, since slow, insensitive films tend to have the smallest grain and thus the greatest ability to render detail. Most general purpose films are at least quadruple the speed of this slowest and finest of Kodachromes, which was meant for use in bright light. It was often used in the spot-lit or flash-lit studio, where its dark monochrome layer was banished by fields of flat, brilliant colour, but it was also used to record, under sun or leaden sky, in narrow bands of sharp focus and in muted colours, US farmers in the Great Depression, Nazi parades and the battlefields of World War Two.

Kodachrome was for decades the film in which the colours of commerce were written. It reproduced more beautifully than any other film, and was a mainstay of the great illustrated magazines which, before colour television, were the most advanced arena for the visual propagation of capitalist values. While it was best known as a 35mm film, used by amateurs and professionals alike, it was for a time available in medium and sheet film format, which opened it up to commercial use. The complexity of its processing, however, meant that commercial photographers tended to prefer films which could be processed more rapidly. Even so, it was the mainstay of many magazines. National Geographic, in particular, used Kodachrome to bring the world’s exotica to its readers in millions of living-rooms and waiting-rooms. Steve McCurry used Kodachrome for his famous (and in some circles, infamous) 1985 National Geographic cover photograph of a girl in Afghanistan with striking green eyes, and for most of his work over 35 years. He arranged to shoot the last roll of the film to come off Kodak’s production line and, piling elegy on elegy, used part of it to photograph members of a vanishing tribal people in Rajasthan.

Kodachrome, for a very long time the only colour film capable of retaining its colours across generations, is also, very largely, the surviving colour of interwar history. It was a demanding film to use, requiring precise exposures that could only be achieved with skill and a reasonably sophisticated camera. Kodak had good reason not to boast of Kodachrome’s durability, for fear questions would be asked about its other films. It kept the matter secret for 40 years, by which time it was plain for all to see in the faded, yellowing ruins of all other colour pictures, and the remaining brilliance of Kodachrome (provided it was stored in the dark). Other film manufacturers were complicit in this extraordinary act of corporate bad behaviour: all of them kept the ephemerality of their colour films secret.

When I started to use the film, its stability was well known (and still unique), and was a strong consideration in my choosing it: the little rectangles into which I poured such labour would still be readable in 50 or 100 years’ time. The commercial look of Kodachrome was also important for I was trying to turn the most advanced visual means of commerce against itself in recording the ruins of Thatcher’s first recession: the boarded-up shop fronts, derelict workplaces and unswept streets. Outdoors, under gloomy British skies, Kodachrome’s deep blacks – its shadow layer – became, with a touch of underexposure that also saturated the colours, wells of melancholy.

Should we mourn the passing of a commercial product, particularly one with such a mixed history? Most cultural works are made with such products. Duchamp pointed out that even paintings could be thought of as ‘ready made’, being mere reorganisations of material squeezed from off-the-shelf tubes. Just as it takes practice and time to learn how to use a camera or a lens, so it does to know how both will interact with a type of film. The technical conservatism of professional photographers is purposeful. They are defending their hard-won knowledge: in what circumstances is a film best used, how does it bear detail in highlight and shadow, how does it behave in different lighting conditions? So the end of Kodachrome may be regretted as an abrupt extinction of techniques, practices and knowledge.

Digital cameras are quite different, binding together the optics and mechanical elements of analogue cameras with a light-sensitive array which, alongside elaborate software processing, acts as a simulation of a remarkable range of film-like behaviour – fast and slow, warm and cool, colour and monochrome. Advanced cameras allow the user to precisely configure the colour temperature for which the virtual film is balanced along with the vividness of its colours and its sharpness. The effect is similar to the move to satellite and cable TV: much greater choice and with it a splintering of communities once formed by their shared consumption.