Discontinued art

The slide carousel: Grandpa's iPhoto.

In 2009, Kodak stopped making their slide film, Kodachrome. All around the world, photo junkies scrambled for coveted last rolls and bemoaned the end of an era. Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” likely got more airplay in a single week than it had in the entire previous decade. Kodachrome photo essays appeared in national publications of all stripes.

Last month, a second, and more final marker passed in the death of Kodachrome, although with less fan fair: The last photo lab in America to process the film ceased offering its services. This means that while Kodachrome can still be used, there is no longer any place to have those images developed. Any pictures taken with Kodachrome from here on out will, therefore, never be seen by anyone.

For those who don’t know much about photography, or who’ve only gotten into photography in the digital age, let me back up the truck for a minute and explain what we’re talking about here. With regard to still cameras, there are two kinds of film: slide film and print film. If you shoot print film, what you end up with when you take the film to the lab is something you can put in a photo album or frame and hang on the wall. Print film remains pretty easy to come by since a lot of folks, even in this era of digital everything, still use film cameras. The other kind of film, slide film, results in slides (duh), which have to be projected onto something. They’re a lot more effort and because taking a digital photo and putting it into iPhoto is so so so much easier than shooting film, dealing with tiny individual slides, sorting them (upside-down) into a projection carousel, etc., this medium has pretty much been replaced. Hence Kodak’s decision to stop making Kodachrome.

It was a practical business move to be sure. But for a lot of people for years and years, Kodachrome was the vehicle that made their art possible. Kodachrome was the film of choice for many of the world’s top photographers for a longtime. And now that style of photography can never be practiced again. Granted, most serious photographers made the switch to digital quite sometime ago. And those who haven’t (like Clyde Butcher who shoots amazing black and white large format scenes of the American landscape) do their own film processing. Still, it’s interesting to think that an art form – a mode of creativity, a way of thinking about personal expression – can be discontinued.

Shooting with Kodachrome is very different than shooting digital. With a digital camera, you can see right a way if you got the shot you want. With Kodachrome (or any film), you have to wait until the film is developed to see what the picture looks like. This means the photographer has to be a lot more deliberate in his or her shooting. You have to bracket your shots, overexpose some slightly, underexpose others, in hopes of getting the light just right. You end up shooting the same picture a number of times. Or, if you can only shoot it once, you just have to hope it comes out.

This makes me wonder, what other forms of art have been radically altered, or ceased to exist entirely, do to changes in technology? Right off the bat, I think about the way Microsoft Word changed they way we write. (I don’t think I could do this if I had to use a typewriter.) What else?

9 Comments

  • John Sousa says:

    I bet you you could still write this with a typewriter, Leyna. What’s changed in that case is the distribution. You couldn’t instantaneously send it out to potentially millions of people. You’d have to correct it with whiteout, take it to a print shop, get a bunch of broadsides made, and go about stapling them all over the place and just hope people read it.

  • Mitch says:

    What a great article. You seem like a really cool and popular writer.

    I hear the argument you’ve made a lot, that digital photography has taken out the element of the unknown from photography. But that seems like an artificial limitation, one that’s very easy to replicate. Just drop a post-it note on the LCD screen. Don’t take it off until you get home. There, now you’re taking pictures old school.

    I’m not sure that slide-photography in general is an art form, as much as it is a way to share photos. I think John Sousa is correct. What you’re creating doesn’t change, just the way you distribute it. Showing slides to people was a minor act of hostage taking. Now you can share photos with anyone and let them view them in their own time. Isn’t that better?

  • Murray says:

    One of the “downsides” to the loss of film/Kodachrome is the loss of a craft that required the artist to understand both art and technology. As a former “Kodachromer,” there was a wonderful suspense regarding “did I get it” and the great anticipation of holding the tiny frames up to the light while sitting in the car outside the film lab, because I couldn’t wait to get home to see the slides.

    Digital is great, but that sense of wonder and accomplishment is surely missed. Oh, well.

  • Cathie Smathie says:

    This is both well-written and makes me feel a little dumb (in a good way!).

    Remember when I said I never felt “endangered” while in Oakland? Well, the Kodachromes never had that luxury. I feel bad for their now extinct state – may they rest in peace.

  • Leyna Krow says:

    Ooh, I dig the method change vs distribution change line of thought. Well played, Mitch & John.
    …I’m gonna go ahead and not put a post-it note over my LCD screen though. Because it turns out I like the instant gratification provided to me by my newfangled technology.

  • Dori says:

    As a former employee of a university slide library, I’m severely bummed about this. Indeed, I spent hours upon hours meticulously dusting film, masking it, taping it into place, and testing it out in the projector only to find that there was a huge dust splotch that I missed. However, there’s something nostalgic about the smell of a carousel in motion and the sound it makes when a slide slips into view. Another amazing thing we’ll lose with this announcement? Glorious naptime. Slideshows required the lights to be off, giving ample opportunity to fall asleep during a presentation. Computers can be used with the lights on, revealing the faces of bored disgust during a presentation while precluding those faces from restorative sleep. Just another way that Big Digital is taking away our personal freedoms, maaaaan.

  • Shawn Vestal says:

    There is no such thing as an equality among mediums — the tech dream that taking/viewing photos is the same whether it’s on film or digital or slide, that writing/reading are the same act and experience whether it’s on a kindle or on paper, that painting is the same whether it’s oil or watercolor or a computer program.

    The medium changes the experience. (Insert McLuhan quote here….)It changes the texture, the mood, the skill required to make the image, it changes the amount of time/patience/thought you must put in. Photos taken on Kodachrome and shown in a dimly lit room are not simply distributed differently than photos shot on a digital camera and viewed on a computer screen. They are different in tangible and intangible ways. Not better, though they may be nostalgic for some of us, but not just the same brew in a different bucket, either.

  • Tiffany says:

    My vote goes with Shawn, if we are taking any kind of poll. I can only speak from the experience of this art, and not from creation of it. I loved, as a child holding up the slides to the light and trying to guess what they would look like projected. I love the goofy randomness of that one photo that always gets put in upside down. And it is captivating, not for everyone in a bad way, to sit in the semi-dark while slides flip by. I went to an art museum last year that had a slide projector flipping through random family style pictures, and it was enchanting.

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