Commentary by Ward Degler
My wife and I watched a rather moving film the other night. “Kodachrome” stars Ed Harris as a famous photographer who is dying of cancer. He convinces his estranged son to drive him across country to the last Kodachrome processing plant so he can get four forgotten rolls of film processed before the plant shuts down forever.
Kodachrome film was a highly stable color reversal film that produced slides with vivid color and accurate images. It was introduced by Eastman Kodak in 1935 and was universally considered the best film for four-color magazine production. It was the only film used by National Geographic photographers.
Kodak stopped producing Kodachrome in 2009, and the last processing plant shut down in 2010 after years of waning sales and the exponential rise of digital cameras. Kodak continued to manufacture Kodacolor, a color negative film most recently popular in instamatic throw-away cameras.
We used both Kodachrome and Kodacolor at the Naval Photographic Center when I was there in the early 1960s. We processed our own Kodacolor, but farmed out our Kodachrome processing. I understood why when I saw the processing equipment used for Kodachrome. Let’s just say it was enormous and complex, and the chemistry was strictly Ph.D. stuff.
Our navy photographers and lab technicians were trained at the Eastman Technical Center in Rochester, N.Y., — a part of Kodak — and some of them earned Kodachrome credentials. We studied the feasibility of adding Kodachrome to our menu of services but concluded the process too rich for our military blood.
I studied photography along with other trappings of journalism at the University of Missouri. Even though I had been shooting pictures and processing film since I was a teenager, I opted for newspapers instead of photography.
It was a decision made after watching the photo students routinely spend all day shooting pictures and all night processing film. Later, I did the same thing in the Navy where, after spending 10 hours shooting pictures in the field, I would emerge from the processing lab at 3 a.m., bleary-eyed and exhausted.
A buddy in journalism school took the photo route and went to work for National Geographic. Years later he told me he spent so much time working that he didn’t know his wife had left him until she had already been gone for three months.
At the end of the movie, the dying photographer made a profound observation. He said photographers become photographers to stop time. “We are preservationists who commit moments to eternity … human nature made tangible.”
Images caught on film will endure forever. Something digital photos, unfortunately, can never do.