Film Photography

We were fortunate to have Kodachrome

Not long ago fellow photoblogger Andrew Morang shared some images he made on the beaches of Rhode Island in 1976 and 1977. He had been hired to make beach profile surveys, and he brought his Nikon Nikkormat FTn and Leica IIIC along, loaded with Kodachrome 25 or 64. Even though the images he shared were made more than 45 years ago, they look like they were made just the other day. That’s because he made them on Kodachrome!

In the era when film was the only photographic option, I know of no other film that captured images that looked this good, and lasted. Kodachrome’s color may have been a little richer than real life — some color slide films may have had a more natural look. But all other slide films faded with time. Color negative films, especially early ones, tended to have unique looks one to another that today makes the images made on them look like period pieces.

My mother-in-law made hundreds of Kodachrome images from the time she was in college in the late 1940s through about 1960 when her oldest children were small. I shared some of those slides here, here, and here. I shared those images pretty much straight off my flatbed scanner. But check out this image from my mother-in-law’s collection that I freshened up in Photoshop. Click on it to see it at full scan size. The only things that date this image are the 1954 Mercury Monterey two-door sedan into which these fellows are feeding gasoline, and perhaps the style of those fellows’ clothes. Otherwise, this looks like it could have been taken the other day.

My mother-in-law wasn’t using a fancy camera to make her Kodachromes. About half of them are in 35mm film’s 36x24mm size, and the other half are in 828 film’s 40x28mm size. In the box with her Kodachromes was a Kodak Pony 828, which had to be one of the cameras she used to make these slides. It has the same lens as the similar 35mm Kodak Pony 135 camera that I reviewed here. That lens is surprisingly sharp for being as simple of a design as it is, but it’s hardly Leica quality. You’re seeing Kodachrome shine through in this image.

I follow a terrific site called Shorpy, which shares vintage images from the 1850s on, in high definition. Kodachrome shows up a lot on Shorpy — this link takes you to the Kodachrome collection on their site. Enjoy looking back through the second half of the 20th century with color as true to life as was possible then.

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23 thoughts on “We were fortunate to have Kodachrome

  1. I have hundreds of Kodachromes my Dad shot. Almost all of them look as good as the day they came back from the lab. Some are more than 60 years old. I wonder if digital images will hang around that long.

  2. Andy Umbo says:

    Gotta say, Kodachrome II (1961-1974) was one of the most beautiful films I’ve ever shot, well and truely missed. Not accurate, but beautiful.

    The story was Kodak was forced by the government to clean up the manufacturing of the film and the extremely dirty processing of it, resulting in Kodachrome 25 and 64, post 1974. Films that were not even close to Kodachrome II. That’s where the “cross-over” problems started to happen, i.e. magenta highlights and green shadows, so you couldn’t filter to correct. It also got contrasty and even the 25 could never seem to handle the scale that the old Kodachrome II did.

    There were rumors that Kodachrome was one of those films that Kodak gave the most accurate tested emulsions to major market cities (where the “pros” were), and emulsions that were “within tolerance” (but not perfect), to the rest of the country. There were still professional magazine shooters users lauding at least the 25, way into it’s life, but I never got anything out of it anywhere near the old Kodachrome II. I will say this, Kodak tried to roll out 120 Kodachrome for professionals in the 80’s when I had my studio, and the 64 version was pretty nice when I tested it, and more like Kodachrome II to me, than any of the 25 or 64 emulsions I ever tried, but alas, the turn-around time was not going to be useful to professional users.

    Kodaks mismanagement of the Ektachrome world had already driven a lot of pros into the Fuji market, and using Velvia and other slow speed “vivid” color films were a no-brainer, especially siince they were all processable by your local E-6 pro labs and generally returned in 90 minutes (altho I would never say Velvia was anywhere near the old Kodakchrome II). Kodak finally fixed their Ektachrome problems with the beautiful, late, lamented E-100, but it was already on the cusp of digital.

    I’ll also say, that professinally, there was “Ektachome” and “Kodakchrome”, and the materials were mostly not transfer-able, i.e. when making photographic color internegs of Ektachrme film for professional prints, the materials were made for Ektachrome,and that’s where yo got your best results. Using interneg material to make internegs of Kodachrome never looked right, and when I saw digitally scanned and printed FSA Kodachromes at the Library of Congress, in the early 2000’s, I was stunned by the accuracy for the first time! Kodachrome as printed digitally has certainly come into it’s own!

  3. One of the great mysteries of clearing up my Dad’s estate was that thousands of slides from the 50’s and 60’s (some on experimental Kodak film) seemed to have disappeared. My sister and I hunted through the house looking for them, to no avail. To this day I wonder if we missed them or for some reason he had disposed of them, which would be odd as he never tossed anything else as far as we could see. C’est la vie.

  4. My parents shot six rolls of Kodachrome on a road trip they took with my aunt and uncle in 1940, following Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica. The glass mounted slides look very good when projected, but scanning results are mixed with the six reflective surfaces.

    One item on my very long list to things to make and do is to try remounting some samples in cardboard mounts. But I was cautioned by a professional preservationist to be very careful removing them from the glass mounts as he has seen some slides adhering to the glass and ruined in the process.

    • Ah, I can see how the glass mounts would make scanning difficult. Good luck figuring that out. I can see how the glass mount might damage the slide if you try to dismantle them.

    • Andy Umbo says:

      Doug, I found a cache of 120 kodachrome transparencies from a photographer who shot them in the 50’s, all individually mounted between glass. It’s a “devils deal” with this, as the most terrible thing you can do is really put transparencies between glass. Film is a living organism, and glass mounted transparencies were lucky not to grow fungus in there within a few years. The professional reason for doing it was to keep the image in an exact focal plane during prolonged projection during AV shows. This was sort of solved by hinged, very thin plastic pin-registered film mounts with anti-newton glass that came into use late in the AV era. I decided to take a chance with the film being stuck to the glass, and put the box in the driest place I could find for a few weeks, then took them apart, actually zero problem, but I’d certainly try it with the most expendable film!

      Your idea to take them apart is the way to go, if you can, but I wouldn’t subject old film to any proximity of heat, and look for some user serviceable plastic hinged mounts.

  5. Thanks for reminding me about Shorpy, Jim. I’ve visited it in the past and ejoyed browsing the pictures, but it had slipped my mind until now. Even better, I can add it to my feed reader!

  6. My Dad shot Kodachrome when he first moved to 35mm at the end of his tour of duty in Korea, 1952. He was quite a keen amateur photographer, but with limited funds to pursue his hobby, especially once we arrived on the scene.
    As other emulsions became available he shot them, probably because they were cheaper. I have scanned his shots from Korea, and the first few years after that, all Kodachrome, and most look like they were shot yesterday.
    With scanning my own transparencies, starting in the mid ’70s, I have also found that the Kodak ones, both Kodachrome and Ektachrome have lasted well, but Fuji and Agfa slides deteriorated quite badly. Not that any of them were stored well….so you are right, we are indeed lucky to have had Kodachrome.

    • tbm3fan says:

      You are correct about those other slide emulsions. Every once in a great while I experimented with Agfa color slide film in the 70’s. They have faded quite noticeably over time much like the McFly family in the picture Marty held. Kodachrome solid as a brick.

    • I wish I had tried it too. When I first shot film in the 70s-90s it was too exotic and expensive for me. When I returned to film in 2006 I had it in the back of my mind to try it someday, but I didn’t get to it in time.

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