Thoughts On The End of Kodachrome et al.

Dwayne’s Photo in Kansas is processing the last rolls of Kodachrome as I write this (nice article on NYT), so I thought it fitting to give my thoughts on the matter.  I’ll start by admitting something to you all and that’s that I’ve never shot a single frame of Kodachrome.  By the time I started into photography past Tri-X it was already largely too late. I started shooting mostly digital as it was cheaper in the long run and you could see what you were doing instantly as you worked. That said I’ll admit that it’s passing does upset me. Images shot on Kodachrome just look different. Paul Simon was right. There are those who are quick to point the finger at Kodak, but I certainly don’t. Just the same as Polaroid before them, it was the lack of users that caused the death of these products. They’re trying to run a business and it doesn’t add up on the ledger sheet I don’t expect them to lose money just to keep us photographers happy.

It is however one more nail in the proverbial coffin. I have a friend who just started taking pictures a couple years ago.  She was shooting only film, didn’t want to move to digital, even worked at one of the remaining major labs which many of the big-dog film shooters still go to do get their processing done.  She and other people like her act as if film really isn’t going anywhere, but they’re delusional. I’ve only been in the business for 4 years or so and I can tell you that there has been a huge shift even since then.

Back in late 2006 I was in London and brought some film I had shot to get processed. Among the standard b/w and c-41 color was a roll of Scala, which was a black and white slide film made by Agfa.  The guy at the lab told me they didn’t process Scala but that there was a lab down the street that did, but I better hurry since they were the last such lab in Europe and they were running their last batch ever through the machine the next day.  I still remember how I felt that day, probably much like the people standing in line at the counter at Dwayne’s Photo do today. I love Scala. There is something about how it renders grays that I haven't been able to replicate. It was like I was loosing a friend. One which in my case was a friend I had just made.

55StickerScala wouldn’t be the last for me. I had been shooting a series of studio portraits on Polaroid 55 positive/negative film in my 4x5” for a year when I received the next box in the mail with the dreaded “This product is being discontinued” sticker on it. I’ve still got a half box of maybe 8 frames of expired film in the closet that I’m miserly using.  The problem, of course, is that the candles burning at both ends. I don’t want to use it too quick, but it’s also deteriorating as we speak so I need to use it before it really goes to hell. I’ve got a couple rolls of Scala in the fridge as well. There’s still a lab in the US that processes it, at something like $25 a roll.  I should just bite the bullet and shoot them.

Another example is QuickLoad film for the 4x5. In the old days you had to manually load and unload reusable film holders in completely blacked out rooms.  I myself am a little too lazy for that, so I was using Fuji QuickLoad film which is basically a single slice of film with an integrated cardboard sleeve which acted as a dark slide when used with the correct film holder. Kodak make a similar system called ReadyLoad. I liked the Fuji because you could just use the old Polaroid 545 film holder instead.  Now both Kodak and Fuji have discontinued their products.

Between that and the death of 55 my 4x5 becomes much less useful to me and as much as I enjoyed it, it’ll probably sit in it’s box more often than not, which is very sad to me.

Some people are even delusional enough to think they’re going to bring this stuff back. They point to The Impossible Project which has started making Polaroid again, but as far as I’ve seen they’re all about the 600 series film for the little cameras that hipsters use at parties to be retro.  I’ve had a few friends who have shot a roll or two of this stuff with mediocre results. I know there is a page on their site about restarting the 8x10 sheets too, but for me it was about the oddball positive/negative films and I’m not about to hold my breathe.  As for Kodachrome, it wasn’t just that people weren’t using it, but also that it was a really complicated chemistry and from what I’ve heard, quite nasty to the environment too.

I may sound like a Debbie Downer, but these are just the facts.  Lots of stuff that you’ve loved in analog photography is going away.  Yes, I concede that there will probably always be boutique b/w films for people who want to process their own, but I don’t think it’ll be anything but a niche. Certainly not like the resurgence of LP records.  Do I like it?  No.  Is it sad? Yes.  But honestly, isn’t it inevitable?  The one good thing in all of this is that digital photography keeps getting better.  It keeps getting better at an alarming rate and it’s already pretty damn good.  If you’re a photographer who only shoots film, and you tried a digital camera 3-4 years ago and came away unimpressed with the image quality, go try one again.

In the meantime, I’m going to go pull those rolls of Scala out of my fridge and load my Hasselblad.