February 04, 2011

Sun and Shadow: The Life and Death of Kodachrome K-14

For more than half a century the three main employers in Parsons, Kansas, were all in the chemicals business — the Army Ammunition Plant, Dwayne’s Photo, and the Parsons State Hospital.

Between 1942 and 2009 the Kansas AAP produced artillery and mortar shells for the bombardment of Germany, Italy, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, assorted Latin American republics, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The plant was slated for decommissioning in the Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) plan published by the Pentagon in 2005.

Just as the last munitions rolled off the line in 2009, Eastman Kodak announced that it was discontinuing Kodachrome 64 film and all Kodachrome K-14 chemistry. For years the employees at Dwayne’s Photo had watched their workforce shrink, in step with the steep decline of analog photography. The very first digital video horror “microfilm” — Zombiegeddon — was shot in Parsons in 2003. And it was to Parsons that Kodak’s last K-14 roll was taken for processing. Steve McCurry, representing National Geographic, and himself responsible for the most recognized of all their covers — the Afghan girl with the startling green eyes — personally handed over the roll to Dwayne’s Photo, the last certified K-14 processing facility in the world. He was joined in the final rush by Jim DeNike, a railroad worker and train buff, who spent $15,798 to have 50,000 slides (of locomotives) processed at Dwayne’s. He loaded them into his maroon Pontiac and headed back to Arkansas. The K-14 line in Parsons closed two weeks ago, on January 18, 2011.

The end of the 75-year history of Kodachrome has prompted a poignant elegy from the English photographer, curator, art critic, and historian Julian Stallabrass, based at the Courtauld in London but familiar to many in the Bay Area arts community since his time in the art history department at Berkeley [http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/people/stallabrass_julian/writings.shtml]. Stallabrass explains, in vivid and focused detail, why serious photographers became passionately attached to Kodachrome:

“It is made up of layers of black-and-white film which have sensitivity to different 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 with the introduction of Fuji’s 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, its greys were subtle, it had remarkable contrast, and the lack of colour couplers between its layers (which tend to diffuse light) gave the film extraordinary sharpness … ‘25’ meant 25 ASA — a measurement of the film’s 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. Kodachrome was often used in the spotlit 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, U.S. farmers in the Great Depression, Nazi parades, and the battlefields of World War II.”

Kodachrome was made possible by 19th-century discoveries in color science, especially the synthetic dyes and pigments made from azo and diazo organic compounds (that is, having a functional group of two linked nitrogen atoms). The miraculous transfiguration of coal tar created a dazzling chromatic palette, even if at the same time it was disastrous for the practitioners of the old crafts of cochineal and carmine production, not to mention life downwind and downstream from the factories of the new chemical industry. Eastman Kodak has been consistently ranked among the worst corporate polluters in the U.S., and in 2008 was rated by scorecard.org number one culprit in New York State.

Recently, taking advantage of the shift from pigment to pixel, Kodak has launched a campaign to change its spots. No Kodachrome necessary. Was there, one might ask, a major 20th-century corporation that did not use the services of Kodachrome for its self-imaging? As Stallabrass puts it, 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. National Geographic, in particular, used Kodachrome to bring the world’s exotica to its readers in millions of living rooms and waiting rooms.”

Kodachrome’s capacity for superb reproduction was matched by its archival stability; it was for a very long time, observes Stallabrass, “the only colour film capable of retaining its colours across generations. Kodachrome was a demanding film to use, requiring precise exposures that could only be achieved with a reasonably sophisticated camera and a skilled user. As Henry Wilhelm notes, Kodak, marketing more forgiving colour films to the mass market, had good reason not to boast of Kodachrome’s durability, lest questions were asked about its other films. It kept the matter secret for forty 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, if stored in the dark. This was an extraordinary act of corporate wrecking on the part of Kodak, in which other film manufacturers were complicit, since all kept the ephemerality of their colour films secret. The very point of photographs is as a visual peg against transience, so Kodak’s reticence was not only a vandalism of the historical record but a betrayal of the vast majority of its customers.”

At the end of his obituary of Kodachrome, Julian Stallabrass wonders whether one should mourn the death of any commercial product, “particularly one with such a mixed history.” He acknowledges that, on the one hand, it means the extinction of hard-earned craft knowledge within the guild of professional photographers. On the other hand, the equation Kodak=Kapital is true. True but partial. No technique, no instrumentality, is univocal, as Stallabrass found out from his own experience: “As I learned to use the film, Kodachrome’s impenetrable darks came to represent for me the shadow world of brightly hued commerce, and a metaphor for all that commerce hid behind its adverts and shop displays: from environmental devastation and child labour to the dissipation of human potential in mechanical tasks. The green eyes of Sharbat Gula that Kodachrome via McCurry rendered so strikingly, made the photographer rich and famous, as they stared out of the picture at its many viewers, as they continue to do. As she recalled the event years later, at the point of her ‘rediscovery’ by the photographer, it was the first time she had been photographed, and she looked at the intrusive camera in anger.”

Since the closing of the Kansas Army Ammunition Plant, the artillery and mortar shells that continue to bombard Sharbat Gula’s country are no longer made in Parsons. The State Hospital remains open, saved from closure by the new governor, though with reduced staffing and fewer beds for its disabled residents.

A suite of Julian Stallabrass’s 25 ASA photographs may be viewed at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/slowkodachrome/.

Comments (3)

  • Brecht Andersch says:

    Thanks for your reply, Iain. It should be noted that Eastman Kodak didn’t invent Kodachrome, but rather purchased it from two inventors who were professional musicians. The glories of the film stock could be said, therefore, to originate in passion and pluck and not Kodak’s monopolist/capitalist-über alles will to power, or the projection of capitalist values. And however it was used in the commercial world, it was first sold as an amateur/semi-professional 16mm film stock, and most people aware of Kodachrome became acquainted with it via their own households: it was their family’s home movie or slide film. For me, Kodachrome has a resolutely homey rather than commercial character — it was the “look” of the slides and 8mm movies shot by my father.

    At any rate, it seems misguided to me to blame a medium for the unfortunate ways it’s been put to use. Oil paints have been used to paint propagandistic portraits of dictators, and poems and songs have been written to sing their praises. Should paint, language, and music be seen as suspect, somehow guilty or complicit in the uses to which they’ve been put? Some would venture in this direction, but to me the puritanical character of this trajectory should call it into question.

    It might be no surprise to you, Iain, that Adorno’s attitude towards cinema and popular culture in general has prevented me from appreciating his work. Your generous and collegial response to my original comment puts me off from making any concerted attack on him, but I will say this: Adorno’s ideas re. poetry post-Auschwitz and black being the “only ethical color” after WW II have always struck me as a moral failure — an embrace of despair in the face of history’s most pressing call for the need to come to terms with the wellsprings of human nature. The immensity of human evil revealed by those calamitous events, as well as by so many others in the 20th c. cannot be explained by the workings of flitting ideologies, which are only the surface-level products of the immensely complex human psyche.

    My current project for Open Space explores a work by a contemporaneous Beat artist who was one of the first to plunge fully into the implications of a potentially even more calamitous product of WW II than the Holocaust: The Bomb. Christopher Maclaine, in his film The End, creates a cosmic Vision taking into account the horrific implications of The Bomb’s invention, but which ultimately is profoundly affirmative, not despairing — perhaps in part because it doesn’t relegate itself to the social/political plane. The End was a work made by an artist living in poverty (by American standards), and who hardly worked from the desire to support the status quo. Kodachrome was one of the major tools Maclaine used to suggest the hidden reality within us that social life serves to suppress.

    Iain, I have to tell you I got those last three rolls of Kodachrome 25 16mm back — some of the best rolls I’ve shot. If I hadn’t spent a lifetime already alienated by capitalism, I might be inclined to forgive it for producing such wondrous material; the stuff that dreams are made of. I’ve spent a lot of time being mad at Kodak for their disinterest in their customers who were loyal to a profitable, but not profitable enough film stock, but nevertheless, if Kodachrome were still around I’d continue to be one of their perfect victims. It was more than enough bread and circus for this working class hero.

  • I appreciate this impassioned response, Brecht. I actually believe that Stallabrass would agree with much of what you say, and I certainly had no intention of allowing the inference either that Julian’s obituary of Kodachrome was over-intellectualized (in fact, it is very much grounded in material practice), or that he dismisses beauty and transcendence (his own photographs are themselves things of beauty.) His derogatory remarks about Eastman Kodak were directed at the corporate silence about the known instability of their other film products and were not part of a case to rationalize obsolescence.

    Where I do perceive a real difference of view between Stallabrass and yourself is perhaps over the relations between Kodak and commerce. Or, as Stallabrass might put, between Kodachrome and the presentation of the object world of capital, the projection of its values. By extension, the argument would encompass the visual propagation of the various ideologies of domination central to 20th century history – fascism, stalinism, maoism, etc – and specifically the propagandist’s use of color. It is significant that Adorno felt not only that poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric but that the only ethical color in the aftermath of World War II was…black. But even given the mixed history of Kodachrome, Julian takes a dialectical view and his love of K-14 shines brightly through the kitsch.

    I should add that Stallabrass made no mention of Eastman Kodak’s atrocious environmental record – that was my contribution, which was prompted by an exchange with Steve Edwards, the historian of photography. And I quite agree with you, Brecht, that the computer’s reputation as a relatively ‘clean machine’ does not bear scrutiny.

  • Brecht Andersch says:

    Ah, you beat me to it, Iain! I’d been thinking of doing a post on my recent adventure of shooting 21 rolls of Kodachrome 25 16mm film, and getting them turned in to Dwayne’s before the Dec. 30th deadline — the last 3 of these are on their way to me as I type.

    I must say I can’t disagree more with Stallabrass: whatever use commercial photography has made of Kodachrome (and I don’t see why the commercial world has the moral imperative to be ugly) the stock has also been put to glorious use by amateur and art photographers, and — and even more dear to my heart — by film artists. Works by, among others, Brakhage, Baillie, Maclaine, Hindle, Dorsky, and my dear friend Timoleon Wilkins, owe much of their power to Kodachrome. The loss of this film stock for filmmakers is similar, in effect, to what it would be like for painters to have the finest oil paints removed from the market.

    Stallabrass’s logic seems part-and-parcel of the hyper-intellectualized contemporary art world dismissal of beauty and disrespect for the spiritual imperatives of art — attention by artists to these all-important areas connects us to our beings, and just simply gets us through the day.

    If issues of Kapital and the environment are so important to production of art and art thought, perhaps we should chuck computers? After all, they are far more tied into the machinations of the former, and much more detrimental to the latter than photochemistry — even that of Kodachrome — could ever be.

    Kodak’s greatest sin and foolishness in recent years has been in trying to stay big by competing with anybody who cares to join in the digital arena — the only model for them that could work in the long term is to shrink down to a boutique operation that could service and nurture the celluloid market as it evolves. However unfortunate it is that they kept it a secret, the production of a color film stock which doesn’t fade seems to me the least of their crimes. Those pristine (and often gorgeous) Kodachrome images from the 30’s one sees in TV documentaries will be around in their original form long after all of today’s pixel-based images have long-since been rendered unviewable by the regular shifts in computer technology. The loss of Kodachrome, regretted by many filmmakers, myself obviously included, will eventually be seen as a loss to the world of tragic proportions… Imagine, a whole way of viewing the world, the most beautiful color photography man has yet produced — POOF! Gone. It’s classic for people to rationalize the elimination of recently “outdated” technologies and forms, only for the value of what’s lost to be truly understood by later generations.

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