Ode to Kodachrome
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, December 1999

Regardless of recent innovations, Kodachrome is the color film of the century. Reigning supreme for more than five decades, it was so universally accepted that magazine guidelines would state: "submit only Kodachromes." The few living photographers who shot Kodachrome 8 x 10 sheet film during its brief manufacture after World War II speak in hushed reverence of its quality, archival stability, and an Ansel Adams image duped to 18 x 60 feet for Grand Central Station.

Kodachrome was the first truly effective commercial color process. All previous attempts were lusterless by comparison. For the first four decades of its reign, it remained the most saturated of all color reversal films, to the consternation of purists, who rejected its bright colors as unreal. While there was no denying that Kodachrome colors were richer than those of a test strip shot at close range in controlled lighting, nature is rarely like that. There's no precise way to measure a film's colors against distant landscapes shot in fleeting light, where even Kodachrome blues and greens pale into grayish-brown murk. Supposedly color-accurate films continue to perform much worse for scenics, because they lack the saturation to deliver the brighter colors our visual system constructs in our mind's eye through haze, shadow, and the mid-day blues.

Like most revolutionary discoveries, Kodachrome was more the brainchild of gifted individuals than of a broad R and D effort. Two professional classical musicians, Leopold Mannes and Leopold Godowsky, performed their original experiments in the bathrooms of their parents' New York apartments. After they patented a two-color process in 1924, Kodak lured them to Rochester to become involved with the Eastman School of Music as well as film research. Mannes had gone back to Harvard to study physics in order to perfect the first commercial three-color process. I've often wondered if his scientific background led him to suspect what physiologists only came to accept a half-century later--that the three different cones of the retina don't "see" color at all, but record separate gray scales that the brain constructs into the sensation of color.

Kodachrome was unique in not having its color dye couplers incorporated into the film emulsion. This created extremely fine grain, but at a price. The black-and-white emulsion has color dyes introduced into its layers during development by an expensive, complex, multi-stage technique. Later Agfachromes, Ektachromes and Fujichromes had color dye couplers incorporated into larger film grains. (My 1960s Kodachromes are less grainy than my 1999 Ektachrome 100VS images, though far less saturated.)

Kodak barely beat out Agfa to introduce the first practical subtractive three-color process on April 15, 1935. Agfacolor, the first dye-coupler incorporated film, came out the following year. Ektachrome was announced in 1949 after American troops in World War II had seized the Agfa plant near Leipzig, Germany, claiming patent rights to the closely guarded process as "war indemnity."

Common wisdom had it that Kodachrome would remain unchallenged for fineness, especially for 35mm work with considerable enlargement. The 1990 introduction of Velvia took everyone by surprise, including Fuji reps who were kept in the dark until days before the release of the impossible: a dye-coupler-incorporated film as fine grained as Kodachrome with better saturation and resolution.

Just as today's younger photographers don't recall the world before Velvia, most purists of Kodachrome's heyday were too young to recall the dull and blotchy Autochrome plates introduced by the Lumiere brothers in 1907. The truth is that a film can no more match the way our visual system constructs color than a silicon chip can match the way our carbon-based brain cells construct consciousness. A color-accurate film for textiles and flesh tones at close range will always look dull as death focused at distant infinity. A richer film designed to match the apparent saturation of broad landscapes (to which our brains assign known colors to known objects, such as green grass or red sandstone) will always make highly saturated reds and yellows shot in warm light at close range appear garish.

Kodachrome taught me a lot about how film records natural light. Had I simply gotten saturated greens and reds without effort, I wouldn't be the photographer I am today. Kodachrome never reproduced as green grass as I saw, as blue skies, or as neutral flesh tones. I had to use a polarizer at an angle to the sun to get a decent green and underexpose up to a full stop—not just the third of a stop I use with Velvia or E100VS today—to get a rich red.

A common shortcut to saturation was to seek out only yellows and reds in warm lighting, the secret of the early success of Arizona Highways, a magazine that attracted the masses but turned me off with one-dimensional sunsets, red rocks, and fall colors that seemed to assault my senses rather than visually interpret the natural world. I vowed to do something different and never sent them a submission, having heard from a pro that nature magazines that aren't publishing the kind of great work you believe you're doing aren't likely to become enlightened by your latest efforts. They've found a formula that works for them.

I realized that many of my own Kodachrome sunsets, shot with the best intentions of course, had much the same look as the images I reviled. How could I get rid of that phony appearance of rich oranges and reds that might or might not have been really there before my lens? The answer was to always include subject matter at the other end of the spectrum, however unsaturated it might appear. Thus I began including blue sky, blue water, snow in shadow, green grass, or neutral rocks in my compositions to give credibility to magnificent warm light for those who weren't there to see it.

When I came across the books and Life magazine work of Ernst Haas, who used a 35mm Leica to create images where color became the subject itself without the use of colored filters, I was deeply inspired. His 1950s images on ISO 12 Kodachrome appeared splendidly rich with a full range of hues, and I made up my mind to emulate his color palette in the Earth's wild places.

Shortly before his death in 1986, Ernst Haas attended a New York gallery opening of my work on Kodachrome. We chatted at length about the film. He confirmed the legend that he'd filled a freezer with ISO 12 Kodachrome when ISO 25 Kodachrome II came out, and added that he did it again in 1974 when the newer and duller K64 and K25 were announced. He wished he'd stockpiled more, because the new films had considerably less silver and color saturation than Kodachrome II, the culmination of Kodachrome quality. We reminisced over old KII (on which the image on the lead page was taken) and how Kodak introduced a more environmentally correct Kodachrome with far less of that polluting silver only after the Hunt Brothers had manipulated silver prices into the ozone.

Yes, my film freezer holds unopened bricks of 1980s Kodachrome 25, but instead of being purposely stored for future use, they are relics that reflect the sudden end of an era.

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