Mama, please take my Kodachrome away

[by Fritz] Last week online forums were bursting with sentiments about the end of Kodachrome and the shuttering of the last processing facility. Since 2009 Kodak stopped making their signature slide film. Yet, there was still a crush of exposed film arriving for a guy named Dwayne in Parsons, Kansas, before he closed the world’s last Kodachrome processor.

I don’t mourn the passage of Kodachrome and I definitely don’t miss film. However, reading about Kodachrome did send me digging in my archive for a favourite photo from Africa. In the summer of 1989 I was a wide-eyed zoology grad student working in Tanzania’s Serengeti. I had my own Land Rover and was free to explore the national park. Dreamy stuff. One of my most memorable experiences was following a pride of lions and photographing a resplendent male that we later darted and radio-tagged. He was a magnificent animal with a massive face and mane. I recall being struck by the size and weight of his tail, which I could barely circle with my two hands and had trouble lifting. My photos from the Serengeti evoke all kinds of memories: the smell of wildebeest dung, the night sounds of lions, strange encounters with army ants and porcupines. I had a Nikon F3 HP in Africa, and I happened to be shooting with Kodachrome.

Lion on the Serengeti.

Are people sentimental about Kodachrome, or are we sentimental about the experiences we photographed? I think we’re sad about the passage of time, and this is also a retrospective time of year. Images evoke memories, and we just happened to capture them on Kodachrome, then Fujichrome, and now the latest CMOS sensors. I think many people who are sentimental about Kodachome never used the stuff in a serious way. Professional photographers don’t seem to be filling online forums with Kodachrome nostalgia. The advantages of today’s professional digital cameras, compared to all of the constraints of the film world, are too numerous to count. We have almost grainless images at ISO 12,000, essentially unlimited number of frames, and instant feedback so we can learn from our mistakes as we go. We don’t have to worry about film damage or storage and can almost instantaneously distribute images to anyone anywhere through the Internet. Stills cameras make movies and movie cameras make stills. And we can emulate the look of Kodachrome with a few simple moves in Photoshop or the latest iPhone app. Why hang on to Kodachrome?

Kodachrome reigned during an era when good photographers were revered. They’d mastered a complex craft that was a culmination of 100 years of chemistry, mechanical apparatus and the unpredictability of light and art. Viewers still thought that photos represented the truth. But it never was: photographers and labs and editors were always capable of great manipulation. Digital technology broke that belief and people became wise to it, but images are no more or less truthful than they ever were. Back then there were relatively few photographers, and the images they made felt more precious. Today, everyone is a photographer and we’re awash in a sea of low-grade imagery. Still, profound images and memories are being made every day with digital cameras. The creative possibilities with today’s high-end cameras and the latest software are almost unlimited and we can also be more accurate with our photos than ever before.  I think there has never been a more exciting and challenging time to be a photographer.

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