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Photographers bid Kodachrome goodbye

It ruled the world of colour pictures for 70 years. But Kodachrome, on which so much of history was recorded, will soon be history. Six star photographers share their memories of working with the iconic film. Film versus digital

books Updated: Jul 12, 2009 02:10 IST
Shalini Singh

Kodachrome wonders
Raghu Rai 1975

Lamas in prayer in Ladakh
Bye bye Kodachrome, Steve McCurry gets to shoot the last roll ever’, went a recent tweet by a photography enthusiast on his micro-blog.

The reference, to those who missed the news, is to Kodak’s recent announcement that it will phase out Kodachrome, the best-seller colour film the company developed in 1935, the one photographers of a certain generation (everyone who came in before the digital revolution) swore by for its sharpness, extraordinary colour palette and archival qualities. Remember the 1973 Paul Simon song named after the film that went…“Kodachrome, They give us those nice bright colours, They give us the greens of summers, Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day...” That about sums up Kodachrome.

Ask McCurry, one of it’s most famous users, about it and there’s a long pause — “It’s like a friend who moves out of the city or someone close, dies… then you reminisce all the wonderful times you spent together. I used Kodachrome for 30 years,” he says finally. “I still work with it. But I guess life changes, you accept it and move on.” McCurry’s ‘Afghan Girl’, perhaps the single most recognised portrait of recent times, was also shot on Kodachrome.

“When I went to Afghanistan initially,” reminisces the photojournalist on the phone from Paris, “I went without a passport because I was travelling with a bunch of ‘rebels’. When I came out of the country, I put a dummy roll in my camera to keep from being found out in case I got arrested.” And where was the real stuff, you ask. “That I stitched into my clothing!” McCurry chuckles.

Unrivalled beauty of Kodachrome
Steve McCurry 1995: Fishermen along the coast of Weligama in southern Sri Lanka
Marvelling at the "unrivalled" beauty of Kodachrome, McCurry says, "Your work from 30 years back still held up. It’s the best film made till date." No surprise then that McCurry is the one photographer assigned by Kodak to shoot one of the last rolls of this 35mm film. So what will he shoot with it? "It’ll be a tribute to the film, to cap my years of using it and to honour the history of the film being around for 70 years. I haven’t started but I plan to just go around the world with it as I travel."

“Kodachrome was the first chrome film in the world,” says Ravi Karamcheti, managing director of Kodak in India. “With time, the demand for it went down. We haven’t had Kodachrome in India for nearly two decades.”

From the 1950s to the 1970s, American companies like Kodak and Polaroid led innovations and the market in cameras and film. But, says Pablo Bartholomew (famous for his photographs of the Bhopal gas tragedy, among others), Kodak and Polaroid lost their edge to Japanese companies like Fuji, Nikon and Canon. “Now with Kodachrome gone, Kodak is reduced to being just another digital camera company.” Bartholomew is, however, all praise for Kodachrome. “I loved Kodachrome and it is/was truly a great film. Especially Kodachrome 25 and 64, which were the finest grain colour films ever made.”

Not all Bartholomew’s memories are pleasant though. “I had a tough time processing Kodachrome in India. Because of the proprietary method of processing, it could only be sent to the Kodak lab in Bombay. It was a terrible lab that scratched films, badly mounted them and, worst of all, gave the film back with magenta or green casts. Some of my important work was ruined and that left a permanently bad taste in my mouth. Later years, I sent Kodachrome abroad and the magazines I worked for or my agency handled the processing end of it in America.”

Steve McCurry
Afghan girl
Steve McCurry 1984: Afghan Girl, Sharbat Gula at Nasir Bagh refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan.
Madan Mahatta of the legendary Mahatta and Co photography store in Delhi says much the same. "Kodachrome was a fantastic emulsion but complicated to process. We stopped doing it and later Kodak after closing down its Bombay lab, sent Kodachrome out of India. In some cases, you never even saw it again! Later, Fuji’s Velvia, with its simpler processing, put Kodachrome out of business." Even so, Mahatta has fond memories of Kodachrome, especially of a picture he shot of Pandit Nehru’s funeral procession in 1964. "I clicked it from the top of India Gate," he smiles.

The late Raghubir Singh too mostly worked with Kodachrome, as did Raghu Rai in the early years. Rai, however, refuses to get nostalgic about Kodachrome, though he confesses skies captured on it were “magical”. “It was a flawless film in terms of colour quality, but very expensive. I stopped using it in the 1990s because Fujichrome was getting cheaper and easier to handle. You learn to move ahead with the times.”

For well-known photojournalist Prashant Panjiar, it was a “faithful and pure” film that worked well for large prints. “Magazines like National Geographic wouldn’t accept your work if it wasn’t on Kodachrome. But I used it sparingly since I couldn’t afford it.”

Dinesh Khanna, famous for his colour photographs capturing the vivid hues of India, has a more pragmatic take. “Everyone will say Kodachrome is good — which it was. But if you say bring it back, hardly anyone will agree.” Swapan Parekh, one of India’s leading photographers who won the prestigious World Press Photo Award in 1994, recalls many a Kodachrome from his father’s (Kishor Parekh, who worked with the Hindustan Times in the 1960s) archive, but says he himself didn’t go beyond experimenting with it in the 80s as a student. The reason — the processing got phased out of India.

For the first chrome film, it was the last nail.

Also read: Film versus digital