Before anyone had heard of a pixel, everyone knew about Kodachrome.
If they hadn’t seen its big, brilliant images projected onto a rec-room screen after a family vacation to Europe or Japan or Florida, they had surely heard about Kodak’s venerable film in Paul Simon’s pop hit of 1973.
Kodachrome, whose last processor in the world, Dwayne Steinle of Parsons, Kan., unplugged his machine for good on Thursday, worked its wonders inside the cameras of serious shutterbugs for decades after its 1935 debut.
It served as a kind of celluloid parchment for the baby-boom era, dutifully rendering some of the 20th century’s most memorable images: the Hindenburg airship disaster, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, the Afghan girl peering from the cover of National Geographic through those piercing green eyes. Abraham Zapruder used Kodachrome to shoot history’s most infamous home movie, the assassination of U.S. president John F. Kennedy in November of 1963.
Film photography has always been an act of risk and faith, leaving the photographer to wonder about the results while awaiting the outcome of its various chemical processes. Kodachrome, which was developed by mail order, framed in two-inch-square cardboard mounts and then returned to its owner in a gold box, made the wait even longer – and the payoff well worth it, if one was lucky.
Waiting no longer computes in a deletable, digital world that counts by zeroes and ones, not days and weeks.
“Film had forced a kind of discipline onto the practitioners,” said Edward Burtynsky, a Canadian known internationally for his large-format industrial landscapes. “With film that you didn’t get to see for a day or two or sometimes weeks, you had to trust that everything was working and that you understood your materials and understood what you were doing.”
Digital photography has changed things, but not necessarily for the worse, said Mr. Burtynsky, who shoots on film and digital media. The plastic, metals and chemicals of traditional photography are an environmental hazard, for instance.
Still, he said “it’s kind of sad” to see the end of Kodachrome, whose long shelf life and warm, rich tones owed much to a unique developing process, in which the colour was added to the film after exposure.
“With a good projector and a good screen, it was an experience,” Mr. Burtynsky said. “And vacation pictures never looked so good.”
Unlike other old methods brought out of extinction – daguerreotype imaging, for example – Kodachrome’s highly complex and specialized makeup will make it virtually impossible to revive.
“This isn’t something that you set up in your basement,” he said, “so when it goes, it’s gone, never to come back again.”
Kodak announced the end of Kodachrome sales on June 22, 2009, which led to Thursday’s logical conclusion: the decommissioning of the machine at Dwayne’s Photo Service in Kansas, the last of about two dozen that had operated around the world at Kodachrome’s peak.
The last roll of Kodachrome to roll off the Kodak line in 2009 went to Steve McCurry, the American photographer whose long-time work for National Geographic included his 1985 image of Sharbat Gula, an Afghan girl who had taken refuge in Pakistan.
To be safe, Mr. McCurry took the canister to Dwayne’s in person. He shot the last few frames in Parsons, not far from the photo lab.