You give us those nice bright colors
You give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day, oh yeah!
“Kodachrome” —Paul Simon
Kodachrome was a color reversal (slide) film manufactured by Eastman Kodak starting in 1935, until Kodak ceased production on June 22, 2009. Kodachrome film was manufactured in many different formats, not only for still cameras, but also for motion picture cameras. Over time, however, cheaper and simpler types of film development, as well as competitive products from Fuji, led to an erosion of market share, with digital photography reducing demand for all types of film. On January 18th, 2011, Dwayne’s Photo, an independent photo lab in Parsons, Kansas, developed the last roll of Kodachrome film.
I’m fascinated by the influence that photography has on how we remember, both our personal memory and our collective memory. When I visualize the the 19th century in my mind, it’s mostly black and white. Images from that time have conditioned me to “see” scenes that don’t exist in photographs in shades of gray. When I imagine 1880, it’s certainly not in color. The trenches of World War I, the “flappers” of the Roaring Twenties, migrant workers during the Great Depression, the storming of the beaches of Normandy, are etched in my consciousness by photographs. Because most of the images I’ve seen of these events are black and white, I often imagine the entire era to have existed as black and white, and that the people living at that time saw the world in gray tones. I have recently watched footage from World War II that seemed surreal to me because it was full of color. To many of us, anything before 1950 occurred in black and white.
The vast majority of family photographs created in the first half of the 20th century were black and white images. Slowly, black and white photography gave way to color photography, and Kodachrome became the go-to film for most professionals, and many hobbyists. Properly exposed, this film had a distinctive palette, not garish, but subtle, almost elegant. Yet, at the same time, the color can be saturated and infused with a subtle warmth. Reds can be vibrant and electric, while blue skies can be deep and intense.
My father bought his first camera in 1957, an Argus C-3 rangefinder, and started using Kodachrome slide film in his new camera. After exposure, Dad would place the film in a special mailer and send it to Kodak for development. Soon he would receive in the mail 36 small microseconds of our family history, meticulously framed in cardboard, all in a small yellow box. Later my mom and dad invested in a projector and screen so that those tiny little jewels could be shown larger than life in our dark family room. It was always a treat when our parents declared “picture night” at our house; my sister, brother and I (often in our pajamas, and with popcorn as well) would howl with laughter at some of the photos projected on that screen. Over time, the photos themselves became a part of our family story: we often would not remember the actual event, but the photo of the event. That memory is what would stay with me, so that I began to “see” many of my flashes of recollection simply as still images. I sometimes could not tell where “real” memory ended and “photo” memory began.
My recollections of early childhood are a series of hazy flashes, punctuated occasionally by a concrete memory. I can’t really explain why I retain the bits and pieces of images of that time: the way my mother gathered all of the pulled sheets to be washed in a pile in the hall; what the ceiling looked like as I lay on the floor in our living room; our front yard after dusk from the window of my bedroom; the afternoon light from the big picture window as it bathed the front room in our house. These aren’t memories of events, really, these are misty wisps of impressions that have accumulated in the bottom drawer of my consciousness. For some mysterious reason, they sit back there, waiting for some trigger, to come flooding back to the front of my mind for a brief second. As I get older, I try very hard to hold on to these images; I want to study them, savor them, but they soon go dark like fireflies on a late summer evening.
I’ve come to the conclusion that these little flashes of memory are “colored” by those slides I saw on that screen as a child; that I “see” these images that have never been captured in a photograph, in the color palette of Kodachrome. The tint of the shadows on my dad’s white shirt, the green grass of our yard in the summer, my mother’s red dress, all take on that distinctive Kodachrome hue. I think this is true for a great many people of a certain age. Not many use film any more, and I would guess that a tiny percentage of those used Kodachrome in it’s last days. I think that those lamenting the loss of Kodachrome may be grieving something else as well: the connection to the color of memory.
Sometimes at night when I’m in between awake and sleep, I remember an early fall day when I was about five years old. I see myself sitting on the floor of our living room, coloring a page in a coloring book. It’s late in the day, around 5 o’clock, and sunlight is streaming in the big window next to the front door, giving the room a golden tint. I hear my mother in the kitchen, the clatter of pots and pans tells me she’s in the middle of making dinner. A car door closes; soon my dad is walking up the front steps, home from work. He’s wearing a white, short-sleeved dress shirt, with his tie clipped to it, and a plastic badge attached to his front pocket. He opens the door to come inside, and the sky behind him is a deep Kodachrome blue.