The Last Roll of Kodachrome

The discontinuance of probably Kodak's most iconic film, Kodachrome, was announced in 2009. The first version of the film was released in 1935 and the last production of its final incantation occurred in 2010. The very last roll of Kodachrome made was given to renowned National Geographic photojournalist, Steve McCurry. Here's an excellent short film from National Geographic that illustrates McCurry's approach to making the images on that precious, last roll of Kodachrome film.

Most famous for his iconic image of Sharbat Gula, The Afghan Girl, McCurry is a legendary National Geographic photojournalist who's photographs record and preserve fleeting moments that underpin the more poetic nature of life. McCurry described Kodachrome as his "mainstay film", using it for 30 years and having "about 800,000 Kodachrome transparencies in my archive". McCurry first traveled to India in 1974 and his photos, on the very last roll of Kodachrome film manufactured, included images from India, as well as New York and Parsons, Kansas. 

Kodachrome was long favored by National Geographic as the film of choice for its photographers due to the film's longevity (i.e. long term keeping characteristics), particularly when stored under archival conditions. The film's excellent color, fine grain and high sharpness characteristics made it a staple of amateur and professional photographers alike. That is until significant advancements associated with image quality, long term storage and an explosion in the popularity of photo processing saw Kodachrome fall from grace and be replaced by color negative film. The advent of in-store, one-hour photo processing by camera stores and pharmacies further quicken its demise. Gone were the days of this legendary film and, with it, granddad's slideshow.

The story of the last roll of Kodachrome is a great story for me to have followed. As an ex-Kodak employee (January 1990-December 1997) and long-term user of Kodak products I felt a connection with the product. I started my photography career in 1979 and within a few years gravitated towards weddings and portraits, where the majority of work in my small country town was concentrated. As a result I worked almost entirely with color negative film. That was the easiest way my which I could supply the range of prints required by my customers for their wedding albums and framed portraits. My very first full-time job was in a busy camera store and, even then, Kodachrome sales were few and far between. I can remember a brick of 20 rolls of Kodachrome 25 film going out of date on the shelf.

Actually I probably only used Kodachrome film a couple of times in my life. I didn't really use much transparency film until 1986, when I enrolled in an undergraduate program in photography. During the first semester we had to use Agfachrome 100. In subsequent courses I dabbled with Kodak Ektachrome film for a variety of portfolios and assignments. However, most of my work, in camera and in the darkroom, was with Kodak T-Max 100 Professional black-and-white film and a range of color negative films from the Kodak Professional range.

After my time at Kodak I returned to the very first college at which I studied, this time as a tutor. It only seemed right that, if I was going to teach color transparency photography, that I dedicate myself to gaining a degree of expertise with the medium in question. For the same reason I undertook to produce my own range of portfolios and assignments, in much the same way that students I taught were required to. I've always believed that the best tutors are down there, in the trenches, with those for whom they are responsible. My deadlines would be the same as those for students I taught. I didn't make a big thing about it and didn't share the images I produced, except in the form of very handy and relevant teaching aids.

Over time I produced a fairly significant amount of 35mm transparencies, on Kodak Ektachrome Professional 100VS and Kodak Ektachrome Elite Extra Color 100 film, in addition to 120-format negatives which I used when making more formal portraits. I guess I have almost thirty (.e., 30) three ring binders full of images from that period, many of them travel based. It's a long term project to have them scanned and included, as portfolios and the basis for blog posts, on this site.

Interestingly, somewhere along the way, my absolute loyalty to the Kodak brand disappeared. It came about during a time when I made a lot of panoramic images with a Hasselblad X-PAN and X-PAN II cameras. To my mind Fuji Velvia 100F was, by far, the best transparency film for that sort of work. After using it I knew there was no coming back. My days with Kodak Ektachrome transparency film, at least for landscape photography, were gone.

HO! Ho! ho!

You may be interested to know that I have a range of panoramic greeting cards from those days which I'II be making available, through this site, over coming weeks. Just in time for Christmas!

Loyalty's a Funny Thing

During my time at Kodak, and for a few years afterwards, I used to feature often as a guest speaker and judge at camera clubs. Without fail the first question I'd receive was "is it true that Kodak is about to discontinue Kodachrome?" I would reply that sales had been dropping for many years and that, as it now represented probably only one or two percent of film sales (which excluded it's then dominance in the Motion Picture marketplace) that "it would likely die with it's users". They got the message. They were what remained of the film's once huge user base and, once they moved onto that great slideshow in the sky, the demand for this product would also die.

I would then ask how many of them still used Kodachrome regularly. Often none would raise their hand. "So, why the concern?" I would ask. "Because you're Kodak" they would reply. In fact, when asked to judge camera competitions, I was often amused at the age of the slides submitted. The rounded edges of the slide mounts, as much as the subject matter, suggested the images were made twenty to thirty years earlier. Now clearly cameras clubs did and still do contain very active members. But not all of them! Some are more a venue to socialize, which is fine. In fact it's important. But please, let's just keep things in perspective. Why get so caught up in a product that you and hardly anyone else still uses? An emotional bond to a product is wonderful, but it can also prove taxing on a company that continued to produce it decades after it began to decline in popularity. Despite this fact, the very notion that the possible discontinuous of Kodachrome brought on such outrage was, to my mind, problematic of Kodak's place in the photography industry.

Isn't Not Easy Being Yellow

Prior to my product management roll at Kodak I worked in the Kodak Information Centre (KIC) which contained the Kodak Photo Information Department and Kodak Pro Passport, supporting both our Consumer and Professional Imaging departments. In fact I think it's correct to say that the budget for our small group was around $1,000,000 per year. A substantial amount of money at the time, particularly given that we were a technically orientated support group that didn't directly generate income.

It's amazing how many calls and letters were received from people demanding assistance. While we were very glad to help, it needs to be said that a percentage of those enquiries came from folks who, strictly speaking, weren't even our customers. They were using, for example, Fuji film and Ilford paper but, nevertheless, came to us for assistance. When I asked why they would always answer "because you're Kodak." The expectations for service, at least in this part of the world, were so high despite the fact that many were not even using Kodak products was, at the same time, testament to the respect in which the Kodak brand was held and a realization that, perhaps, we were no longer producing the products that people wanted. There is a cost associated with the provision of customer service and, in this part of the world, Fuji and Agfa weren't required to play the game, at least not in the same way as old yellow

Part of our roll in KIC was to produce  a range of technical information pamphlets to support our broad range of products. I always made sure the ones I produced were written with the user in mind. Rather than loading up on features and benefits, they explained how to use the products to achieve the best possible results. I was, after all, a photographer and long term Kodak user. Perhaps where we really lost the war, before the days of digital, was our inability to market many of our products. Kodak Gold print film and Kodak Express laboratories were a major success, but so many of our other products remained largely unknown to emerging photographers. But we continued to manufacture and warehouse them. And our professional film and paper products were stored in a huge refrigerated warehouse.

Kodak's Loyalty to It's Customers

Yet Kodachrome hung on, not so much due to popularity (which remained largely with a mostly aging base of camera club members), but due to Kodak's loyalty to its history, its culture and its ever shrinking customer base. As a former Product Manager at Kodak (Australasia) Pty Ltd I have a fairly unique understanding of this situation. Indeed Kodak Australia was still selling, albeit in minuscule quantities, 127 and 620 roll film up to 75 years after the last box cameras, for which the film was produced, were discontinued. Photographers used to love beating up on Kodak, but you'd be hard pressed to find a more loyal company. Think about it! Tried buying tapes or getting customer service for that old Beta video machine? And despite the debacle Kodak made of the patent infringement brought on it by Polaroid, Kodak provided customers (including folks who were given or picked up old Kodak Instant Picture cameras in op shops) with new cameras or film, at no charge, for well over a decade after the case had been decided and settled.

I Remain a Romantic

No doubt my time at Kodak, as much as the rest of my career in photography, has impacted my opinion of the Kodak brand, and its legacy. While sentimental over the demise of Kodachrome I remain a realist. I was really happy to be able to purchase a few special T-Shirts that commemorated the product and the last roll exposed by legendary photographer Steve McCurry. That film was processed by Dwayne's Photo in Parsons, Kansas on December 30, 2010. The text on the T-Shirt reads as follows:

Kodachrome

Paul sang about it.

A state park was named after it.

National Geographic shot their most famous photos on it.

And we developed the last roll.

Dwayne’s Photo

We made history December 30, 2010.

and on the back:
— The back side of the T-shirt I bought from Dwayne's Photo, Parsons, Kansas
The best slide and movie film in history is now officially retired.

Kodachrome

1935-2010

Dwayne’s Photo

December 30, 2010
— The front side of the T-shirt I bought from Dwayne's Photo, Parsons, Kansas

The King is Dead! Long Live Kodachrome! 

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru