Larry McNeil's Last Roll of Koachrome

Kodachrome Fade to Black The life & times of the best color film in the universe

Larry McNeil's last roll of Kodachrome. Himiona Grace provided the captivating guitar accompaniment. I know, a traitorous Fuji camera was used to shoot my last roll of Kodachrome. Sorry. But it's only too perfect for Kodachrome, so there.


I am a long-time photographer who has more than a technical attachment to Kodachrome. It was my livelihood for a couple decades, it paid the mortgage and made beautiful photographs that digital cameras could only dream about.

A part of our photographic spectrum fades with the demise of Kodachrome today, December 30th. Dang.

You had until noon today to jam your film on over to Dwayne's lab in Kansas, the last place in the universe to process Kodachrome, which was discontinued by our friends at Kodak back in June of 2009. A phenomenal 75-year chapter in the history of photography fades to black.

Why was this film so enduring? We're talking from 1935 to 2010, a seventy-five year run for a photography product, which was nearly unprecedented for any consumer item, let alone a film. When Kodak announced that Kodachrome was being discontinued in 2009, I dropped everything, logged on to the B&H Photo store and ordered around 40 rolls. It was a good thing too, because by that afternoon none was to be found. After that, the only place left to score Kodachrome was from a bunch of ebay pirates where they were going for twice the price. They saw Kodachrome as a commodity and kept real photographers from getting in on the last few precious rolls. Those bums.

Brief History of Kodachrome & insight on why Kodachrome looks the way it does

If you were to sneak into my time machine, you'd have seen that back in 1935 Elvis arrived sans blue suede shoes, which was so fitting, because like Kodachrome, he got us all shook up and the paradigm shifted, like a force of nature. The Great Depression was still in full swing, German psychopaths were coming into power and darkness fell as they built up their war machinery, the first synthetic fiber was invented (nylon), cars were becoming more common and the world was generally in a modernist machine age with new electrical power plants being built for newfangled electrical appliances. There were still no interstate highways, and the most common mode of travel across the country was by train. Photography was popular with over 18 million people using cameras on a regular basis, so there was a ready market for a good color film, even in those tough times.

I think it's cool that Kodak targeted specific cameras for their film, as you can see on the above Kodachrome box on the left. They were very excited about the prospect of various camera manufacturers releasing new miniature cameras that could optimize what the smaller film had to offer. Some of my last rolls of Kodachrome were shot with my classic rangefinder Leica camera.

Photography was being used by amateurs to make family mugshots and such, but they were in black & white. Color was much too sophisticated to both use and process for the generally clueless amateurs who didn't want anything to do with messing around with chemicals, all they wanted were photos of the new baby, or other family events. Kodak targeted amateurs with small cameras loaded with Kodachrome. They envisioned everyday people with small cameras being able to easily make photos to share with friends and family. They hit the proverbial jackpot with how Kodachrome rendered scenes.

Unlike just about every other color film of the day, Kodachrome rendered colors with a rich palette and the world seemed to be enhanced rather than merely photographed. The switch from black & white to color was nothing less than revolutionary. Photography was already about realism, but Kodachrome rendered the world to an almost hyper-reality where colors were vibrant and subtle where need be, such as Adams' blue sky, beat up red truck, and silver tanks in the photo below. With color photography the past seems more contemporary because of the realism conveyed, whereas black and white infers a moment in the past because of it's monochromatic tones that replaces colors.

Ansel Adams' 4x5 Kodachrome photograph from 1945. Notice the code notches on the bottom left-- code notches on sheet film were so that you could tell what film you were loading in complete darkness. Each film had a different code notch and it also allowed you to tell which side was the emulsion side by feel, because you were essentially blind while loading your film into the film holders. Photograph from the Fortune collection Kodachromes made by various photographers through the decades.

Kodachrome thrived throughout the 50's, 60's, 70's and 80's, which also coincided with the prime baby boom years. Magazines like National Geographic epitomized what Kodachrome had to offer popular culture; beautifully photographed scenes with rich colors and saturation with subtle detail. Kodachrome was the best color film available with no pretenders daring to step up to emulate it, let alone try something as audacious as dethroning it. During these decades, color dominated how photography was represented in popular culture, including not only consumer photography, but also commercial endeavors like publishing, advertising, films being made by the big Hollywood studios, and so on (many of the films were shot on negative film stock). The world was being reproduced in color.

These were the peak Kodachrome years with pros fully embracing it as the film of choice and amateurs buying millions of rolls of film annually. For an example, as a pro in the 1980's I'd use well over 500 rolls a year, which was likely average for professional use. It was and still is one of the most archivally durable films made, and some Kodachrome film from the 1930's still look as vibrant today as the day they were processed.

From a technical standpoint, Kodachrome was one of the most difficult films to process and you needed specialized equipment, a ready supply of Kodak chemicals with trained professionals keeping it humming properly. It has thinner layers of light sensitive emulsions that didn't require dye couplers, which caused less light scattering, which resulted in noticeably sharper images. If you look at the emulsion side of the film, you can actually see the various physical layers that almost takes on the appearance of a tiny 3-D topographical map with hills and valleys; the images are in physical relief. This sometimes makes the image take on an almost 3-D appearance with real depth.

In this sense, Kodachrome does have three dimensions, height, width and depth. Even if the depth is only as thick as the film itself, it is a measurable thickness with variable contours, depending on what was photographed. This depth helped give the film a heightened sense of reality and a rarefied luminosity that was enhanced by the fact it was a positive film, and was commonly viewed on a light table or projected via a slide projector. It meant that this film was meant to be viewed with being lit from behind, which also meant that since the image was often projected upon a screen, it had to have rich colors so that they would not appear faded or diluted on the screen.

The tonal separation with Kodachrome was impeccable with razor sharp edges and subtle gradations of color, a characteristic that is extremely difficult to match with pixels and digital technology. A key difference between the Kodachrome film grain and digital pixels is that the film grain is much smaller than even the smallest pixels. This translates to a photographic image that has significantly finer and smaller details and is obviously digital noise free. One of the most blatant shortcomings with digital photography is the noise that appears when you photograph in either low-light or tricky lighting.

This means that digital photographers are generally required to do a notable amount of what is called postprocessing, or correcting the digital shortcomings on a computer after the photograph is made. Many photographers become virtual slaves to digital postprocessing, and ironically enough, many digital photographers love this aspect more than actually shooting photographs and spend most of their photography time in front of a computer instead of doing the actual photography. Go figure.

First Nails in the Kodachrome Coffin (How dare they!)

The first few nails in Kodachrome's coffin had to be courtesy of our friends at Fuji film in the mid-1980's. Up until now, E-6 film generally sucked with only average results. For the first time, a company made a beautiful E-6 positive film that could rival Kodachrome. There was a large swing over to Fuji film, because the processing was dramatically easier, cheaper and faster. You could get same-day processing and not have to wait a week to get your film back from the lab (since I lived on the West coast, mine went to the big Kodak lab in Palo Alto). I must confess that I shot a lot of Fuji film. Dang, sorry Kodachrome.

A really cool thing was happening with 35mm film cameras at this time, however. They were going electronic, making exposures way more precise and auto-focus cameras were just over the horizon.

Second Round of Nails in the Coffin (Ouch)

The advent of the 1990's saw the dawn of digital photography rising on the horizon. Desktop publishing got it going with Apple computers in conjunction with a number of digital image editing programs. Adobe Photoshop was one of many players, and has been the one that has dominated the digital photography scene up to today. Back in 1994 I was setting up a home darkroom with my enlarger of choice, a Chromega D5 XL. I had also recently set up a digital workstation for digital photography, having learned the basics at Kodak's cutting edge Center for Creative Imaging in Maine in 1993. Kodak was taking the lead with digital technology and invested heavily.

I noticed that enlargers were selling inordinately cheaply and were the first photographic casualties of the digital revolution in the mid-1990's. By 1996 I and most other photographers were still shooting primarily film, but the evolutionary change was that darkrooms were being eliminated with the advent of high quality film scanners being produced. The pro camera bodies of the mid-90's were really hybrid film cameras with digital components nearly nailed to them, and costed upwards of $20,000.00 for marginal quality photos. These first digital slr's were used mostly by large news organizations that could afford them, and the average pro photographers were still shooting film and scanning the photographs with more affordable scanners. At this time, scanned film made dramatically better photographs than images from even the best digital cameras, but the writing was on the wall about better digital cameras to come.

Third Round of Machine-gun Nails in the Kodachrome casket (Adding insult to injury- digital nails)

By the late 90's and first half of the 2010 decade, amateur digital cameras were starting to become commonplace. They were way smaller than this clunky Chinon (that looked ridiculously like a pair of binoculars with one lens) and made dramatically better images. Autofocus was also commonplace by this time and this generation of digital cameras for amateurs were nearly totally automated, so all the user had to do was point and shoot, which is how the term was coined. It was as if George Eastman's dream for photography from the 1880's was finally realized. These new small digital cameras made fairly good photos, but were still only generally from 2-4 megapixels up until around 2000. They made nicely rendered 4x6 prints that could be made from places like Costco or Walmart. This is what finally caused the demise of not only Kodachrome, but nearly all amateur film and film cameras.

Why shoot with expensive and fussy film that doesn't always work for amateurs if they can shoot digitally for less money and get more reliable results? This more than anything else is what doomed Kodachrome; it was the analog equivalent of a typewriter in the computer age. It was still very reliable, worked well and made beautiful images, but who cares? It is the same reason why we don't use typewriters today, it simply doesn't make much sense.

On the professional end of digital photography, high-end single lens reflex cameras were finally coming down in price to be affordable to the average pro and amateur enthusiast. Nikon released an affordable high-end DSLR, and the floodgates opened for digital photography.

The next thing to happen was that literally dozens of manufacturers were making high quality inexpensive digital cameras by the second half of the 2010 decade. Online computing was also becoming a phenomenon and amateur photographers essentially stopped making prints altogether and instead shared photos online via email, portfolio sites and finally social networking sites such as Facebook.

Final ferocious flurry of nails in the Kodachrome coffin... Done in by phones? What the?

The final nail had to be cell phones with better quality built-in cameras. Some people are even forgoing their digital cameras and use their cell phone cameras most of the time. For an example, the iPhone has a 5 meagapixel camera that auto-focuses, makes decent photos, and as a bonus, can easily email and post photos right from the phone without having to bother with memory cards to plug into the computer. Not only is film nearly completely archaic, but so are a lot of other digital cameras.

Scanning Kodachrome is always a challenge, especially these double wide frames of 35mm film. I special ordered some anti-newton glass that works great. Sir Isaac Newton discovered that if you put a fig newton cookie on glass it causes unsightly rings. Wait a minute, that's not right. He discovered that if two sheets of glass are pressed together, you can see concentric colored rings in the glass. The rings appear because there is a small amount of air between the glass and light waves encounter interference. The anti-newton glass is slightly roughened, which simply prevents the rings from forming. This is one of the most common problems with scanning film. Be sure to have canned air to blow away all those cookie crumbs.

By the way, I never cared for Paul Simon's Pop Kodachrome song. It seems too whiney and shallow, nearly delivered with a whimper, not befitting anything as subtle or sophisticated as Kodachrome. If it were to have a theme song, I'd pick something with vibrancy and verve, like Gato Barbieri's Encuentros, or if from mainstream Pop, the Door's Light My Fire. Screw that milquetoast stuff, pass the passion, deliver it with heat, man.

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