Eastman Kodak Co. announced Monday that it's bidding farewell to Kodachrome, its oldest and the first commercially successful film. At first, it seemed like another moment to engage in brief, Pavlovian nostalgia of the rotary telephone or monophonic record album sort.
There were pro forma histories of the film and mention of its invention by two young musicians; its early use by Hollywood; how sales are just a smidgen of Kodak's total sales; and how it's so difficult to process that only one joint in Switzerland and one in Kansas handle the film.
Then I wondered: Might this be different? Is there be a reason to be sad, even in this wondrous digital age in which hacks like me can stumble onto a great image, perhaps quickly juice it up and, then, voila, send it to every village and hamlet on the globe (not to mention CNN or MSNBC)?
So I beckoned the smartest photography person I know, Mary Panzer, former curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington.
Mary, please, tell photo-ignorant me, who never graduated past his Instamatic, what to think.
"It's not like getting misty -eyed about mono records, rotary phones, or black and white television," she said. Indeed, we're losing two things.
First, there's the quality of Kodachrome images, whether in the form of Super 8 movies or 35mm slides. "Kodachrome delivers a very distinctive range of colors (intense, saturated, slightly tilted to red and green), and a smooth grainless surface that simply looks more luscious than real life. And all thanks to the fact that someone interrupted the seamless flow of time and sealed it onto a little square piece of plastic in a cardboard mount (or onto a roll of film in a little round can)."
"Kodachrome is like make-up for the world, lips are redder, and eyelashes blacker, trees are greener, and fall colors are best of all, but no one cares that it all doesn't look quite real, because everything and everyone looks so beautiful."
"It doesn't look real, but it definitely looks like Kodachrome."
So, if you're looking for hot and seductive, nothing beats it, she contends. Of course, it's not perfect. "Ektachrome give you the feeling of daylight, cool and quiet, a refreshing drink of water rather than a heady glass of champagne. And Ektachrome is still around, at least for the present."
So, I guess, we can root for Ektachrome; much as we do for some aging star athlete still capable of the occasional grand moment. But, quickly, back to Kodachrome.
"The more important loss has to do with film itself. The rolls of plastic sealed in little cans with the tab sticking out, cut with sprocket holes that you loaded into the back of the camera, and then shut the camera and kept it shut, until you finish the roll, rewind it, and send the film out to be developed," Panzer says.
" When the film comes back, little squares stacked in a bright yellow box, you see your pictures. Eventually gadgets and pre-loaded cassettes came along to prevent us from making mistakes, like opening the back and ruining everything, failing to wind the film through the camera, shooting one frame over and over, exposing frames twice (I'm dating myself to confess that I have done all of this more than once). But the essential process remained the same: when you shoot film you can't see what you've shot until you finish the roll, send it off, and get it back."
"To get the picture you want on film you have to concentrate, be quick, be patient, and trust your instincts. I saw a little movie about the photographer Henri Cartier Bresson, in which the filmmaker followed him down the street while he was working. (It was not clear whether HCB knew the camera was on, but even so the performance was convincing.) HCB was like a dancer, moving along the sidewalk, snapping the shutter with reflexes that were almost as quick as a bird of prey. The victim never knew he'd been shot. "
Now, Mary, Our Lady of the Holy Image, tell us about digital cameras.
"Today, shooting with a digital camera offers some advantages --- you never have to run out of film. And you can see what the picture looks right away, no waiting. But when you shoot, stop, look, and shoot again, a different rhythm sets in. No momentum builds up, and you never have to trust your judgment. "
"With film you never knew you'd lost that key moment until you found out what the film looked like. But now, you might lose it while inspecting the shot that didn't work."
"I know that digital images can travel around the world in astonishingly brief intervals of time, and that for many reasons time is now our most precious resource. But in exchange for speed it seems to me that we're losing the ability to concentrate, wait, and seize the chance."
And that, folks, is why one might get a bit misty-eyed.Very soon, you'll even have a hard time showing folks what they're missing since the whole shebang of a medium will be gone. Yes, you'll have the actual photos, slides and movies. But there won't really be anybody around who knows how to recreate them.
For the moment, just don't ask me to say, "Cheese!" This is reason to mourn.