The Gadget We Miss: Kodachrome Color Slide Film

This color film defined the look of a generation and was used in many of the most iconic photos ever taken


When you look at your family slides from the 1960s and 1970s, they have a particular look, with rich, deep colors and sharp, clean details. But the colors had subtlety, looking bright and vivid without being garish. It’s an instantly recognizable look that comes from the film that was used to shoot the images: Kodak Kodachrome. Paul Simon probably put it best:

Kodachrome
You give us those nice bright colors
You give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day, oh yeah!
Kodachrome by Paul Simon / Youtube Vevo

Kodachrome was developed by two scientists working in the Kodak research lab early in the 20th century. Leopold Godowsky Jr. and Leopold Mannes saw a color movie produced by the US Navy in 1916, and were not impressed with the color rendition. They decided to produce a film chemistry that would produce more accurate color, and the result was Kodachrome, which was first sold in 1917. However, with a hefty cost of $3.50 a roll (about $60 at todays prices), the film was a niche product.

Over time, Kodak improved the film and lowered the cost, and it was used to record significant events. The aftermath of the Hindenburg disaster in 1937 was captured by Gerry Sheedy (a staff photographer for the New York Mirror newspaper) using a compact camera with Kodachrome film, as shown in this spread from the Sunday Mirror Magazine from 1937. These are the only color photos of the disaster: other photos were shot on black and white film and colorized afterwards.

Color photos of the Hindenburg disaster, shot on Kodachrome film / Airships.net

Kodachome was used extensively through the great depression, World War II and the 1950s, although the slow speed of the film (an ISO rating of 12) meant that it was mostly restricted to posed shots taken in good light. Hollywood loved the rich colors, and Kodachrome was extensively used in publicity shots for starts like Marilyn Monroe. Shorpy has an excellent selection of shots taken using the large format version of the transparency film. The Library of Congress has an excellent online exhibition called Bound For Glory that shows Kodachrome shots of the great depression taken by the Farm Security Administration to document their work in the Midwest.

Faro and Doris Caudill, homesteaders, Pie Town, New Mexico, 1940/ Lee Russell, Library of Congress
Marilyn Monroe publicity shot for the film Dial M for Murder / Shorpy

Kodachrome became a mainstream film in the early 1960s, when Kodak refined the development process to make it cheaper (called the K12 process). They also launched a revised version called Kodachome II that was faster, with the 35mm film version for consumer cameras, boosting the ISO to 25. That was still much slower than other films, but the home photographers of the 1960s couldn’t get enough of the vivid colors and sharp detail of this film for their holiday photos.

The frame used by Kodak to mount developed slides in the 1950s. Flickr user Nesster has a collection of the various Kodachrome mounts used by Kodak during the life of the film

The reason for this vivid color was the different approach of the film chemistry. Color films are made from multiple layers of black and white film that are sensitive to different colors of light. Each layer includes a chemical called a dye coupler. When the film is processed, the dye that represents that color is chemically attached to this dye coupler, creating the final color image.

Kodachrome advert from 1985 / Flickr user Nesster

Kodachrome is different, because the dye coupler is not added until the film is developed. This makes the film thinner (so you get better detail) and the dark areas of the image much deeper, producing the high contrast and vivid color that is the trademark of the film. Because the dye coupler is added during processing, it also makes the processing much more complicated, which is why Kodak was the only company that did it. Outside of the USA, Kodachrome was sold process paid: when you bought the film, you were paying for both the film and the processing. After shooting, you would post the film back to Kodak, who would then send you the developed slides. Kodak stopped doing this in the US after a 1955 anti-trust case over their Kodachrome and Kodacolor films went against them and stopped them from selling process-paid film. Luminous Lint has a section in their excellent history of photography that goes into more detail on Kodachrome and other unusual photo processes.

The K14 Kodachrome development process, which was used in the 1970s and which involves 10 different steps and numerous chemical processes / Kodak Technical Manual (PDF link)

Kodachrome continued to be popular through the 1960s and 1970s as a slide film. When combined with a cheap slide projector, it was the basis of one of the great american family rituals of the last century: the holiday photo slide show, a tradition gently mocked by comedians like Charles Phoenix.


A box of Kodachrome 64 from the 1980s / Flickr user Philip

The popularity of Kodachrome started to ebb in the 1980s, as new films with simpler processing (such as Fujichrome Velvia) became available, and the rise of the one-hour photo lab made slides less popular. Kodachrome remained popular for professional shooters and serious amateurs, though, until it was swept away in that great sea change for photography: digital.

The last Kodachrome film was made in 2009, and Kodak gave the last roll off the production line to National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry, who had shot the iconic Afghan Girl photo with the film. Kodak had closed their European processing lab in Lausanne, Switzerland in 2006, but continued to offer processing for Kodachrome films in the US. This was done by a small photo lab in Kansas call Dwayne’s Photo after Kodak themselves stopped processing the film. Dwayne’s continued processing films until 2010, when that last roll of film shot by the owner of Dwayne’s Photo was processed and they shut down the system. One of the last rolls to be processed was that final one given by Kodak to McCurry, who had used it to take photos in New York, India and Kansas. Appropriately, his last frame was of a funeral monument for a sailor, staring forlornly out to sea.

The last shot on the last roll of Kodachrome produced by Kodak / Steve McCurry

Kodachrome lives on in an odd way, though. Many digital imaging programs offer a filter that emulates the look and feel of Kodachrome, including ColorEfxPro from Nik Software. Google bought this company recently, and now offers a vintage filter for their online Google+ photo service. Many cameras also offer a Kodachrome mode, including the Canon 7D.

The Picture Style modes of the Canon 7D tested.

So although the film itself has gone, it still survives as a way of looking at the world, complete with those nice bright colors and the greens of summer that inspired Paul Simon.

Vanessa and Sunny 1976, by Flickr user Vanessa Pike-Russell, aka lilcrabbygal