Steve Goble

Choose life. (Deuteronomy 30:19)


In 1935 Kodak launched what was to emerge as the most iconic stock in the entire history of film:


Initially it was only available as 16mm movie film, but although for the next three-quarters of a century various other gauges would come and go, 16mm pretty well stayed until the end.

For, broadly speaking, last year - 2011 - Kodachrome officially breathed its last, when the final lab on the planet to process it in colour, discontinued the service.

It's hard to define just why this particular type of reversal film had so many of us photographers going a bit teary-eyed over those last couple of months. I lack the technical vocabulary to explain either how or why Kodachrome looks so different to other filmstocks, I only know that I think it does.

The fine grain? The colours that are a bit more vivid - like when your eyes are still young - but not contrasty enough to look unreal? Or just its whole retro feel, which really got going after the advent of digital photography?

Well, all of those, but if I'm honest, it's that last one which really swings it. I mean, when you're young, you dream of becoming an adult in the only world you have ever known, not one which has moved on and changed. So when I was a kid, I expected to grow up to shoot on film, not a phone.

Kodachrome - and reversal film in general - doesn't produce a negative. The film in the camera is the same physical film that, after processing, you then load into a slide or movie projector to shine a bright light through and view, usually on some sort of a screen.

When I was a kid, my dad used to take slide photographs. Those nights when he'd set up the projector were ones that I routinely badgered him for. There's just nothing like sitting in a darkened room scrutinising a giant silent image, especially when it can't scrutinise you back. Today digital projectors have a go at this, but scrutiny will reveal its composure of man-made pixels. You can look at digital, but you can't yet scrutinise it.

Despite the topic of this post being Kodachrome, there are no attempts here to convey its quality in pixels.

In the 1990s I got into taking my own slides, using various emulsions, however the real reason why the word 'Kodachrome' holds such fondness for me is because it was also available as 8mm movie film.

Around 1985 I began getting friends like Alistair together to shoot movies in Kodachrome, first on Standard 8, and then later on Super.

Even though 25 years have now passed, I'm still doing it. And yes, Alistair still sometimes helps me, when he's not too tied up being a parent.

But no longer on Kodachrome. The final deadline at the last commercial lab in the world to process it in colour was December 30th 2010, and there was no way I was going to risk missing that.

So sixteen mornings beforehand, having been up all night for several nights in a row, setting up and shooting various shots that I still wanted to get in the can, I took my movie camera out into the back garden to enjoy Kodachrome home movie making for one last time.

Films of other people's cats are boring. Films of one's own cats are great. So I spent that final morning vernacular filming our three cats - Seven, Pompey and Erik. Then I went to the post office to send the last two rolls off by first class air mail to the lab in Kansas, together with another roll belonging to a friend, and a mysterious half-used slide film that I'd discovered languishing unfinished in my late father's old camera. Wow - what images could possibly be on there?

23 days of snowbound airports later, they finally crawled up at the lab, on January 6th 2011, in the wrong year, and a week too late.

I had no back up plan.

I couldn't believe it. In fact, I literally couldn't believe it. Call it faith, denial or whatever, but I just couldn't believe that everything had lined up so well, only to go so wrong at the very last, and because of a worldwide phenomenon called snow at that. (snow is only supposed to be a problem with video images)

Worse, the rest of the world had been inundating the same lab with their old rolls of the stuff too. If their cartridges had been delayed by snowbound flights across the US as well, then were we actually facing a great worldwide disappointment here? Did enough chemicals even exist to process so much rare outdated film?

So I prayed. Despite all the infuriatingly simplified news reports to the contrary, I prayed that the lab had carried on processing beyond their self-imposed deadline anyway. I prayed that they wouldn't run out of dye. I prayed that everyone else's late-arriving films would get processed too.

Reversal film principally exists to make people happy, and if that's also a purpose of my life, then I felt I had a duty to pray for that.

But, still, weeks and weeks went by, and the lab still hadn't even taken their payment out of my bank account. Ooh, that so didn't bode well. Forget my own movies - might I never find out what images my late father had taken on his final roll of slide film?

Come February however, all that changed. I discovered that an appropriate portion of my bank balance was no longer available to be withdrawn. Then I received a notification that there was a package on its way to me via USPS. However I still wouldn't relax until I was holding those reels and slides safely in my own hands.

Finally, 68 days after I had sent them off, I found myself once more going through the time-honoured ceremony of opening an envelope, unspooling the first couple of feet of movie film, and holding them up to the light to squint at whatever column of tiny pictures were on them. Hm, an overexposed dustbin, and myself next to an aerial dish. Yep, they looked about normal. BIG relief!

Both my friend's film and my dad's slides are very old and faded, but they still contain enough of an image to gaze at. In my dad's case, they seemed to be of his and my mum's holiday to Austria in 1996. It's so nice to make some sort of connection with him again.

Apparently my own films had been processed on the very final day - January 18th. Full marks then to the lab, for not only processing the enormous backlog of films that they had received towards the end of the year, but also turning that to everyone's advantage by continuing to put through every last roll that made it in late, but before the backlog had been cleared. From me and thousands of others, thank you so very very much.

But not everyone else had been so fortunate. Presently, horror stories began to emerge on internet forums from people who for one reason or another had had their films returned unprocessed. They were now facing the depressing decision of whether to send them onto a black-and-white only lab, or bury them in the freezer in the hope that one day someone, somewhere, will bring back the complicated procedure for processing their shots in colour.

I haven't forgotten to say a few more prayers. That was nearly me.

Anyhow, I plugged in my dad's old slide projector, and wouldn't you know it, but the ancient bulb blew.

It's since taken me about another 18 months, but this week I've finally had a new bulb ordered and fitted. Tonight therefore, I set up my projection screen, turned around the armchairs, plugged the projector in again, turned off the lights, and slid in the brand new slides that my dad had taken.

They were pretty faded. Over 14 years had passed between exposure and processing, so some of them came up completely blank.

But not all.

There were a few buildings, and roads, and expanses of water. And views. It was lovely to realise that one day, not so very long ago, my dad had stood on a particular spot in Austria, and gazed at these same images in much greater detail, and found them worthy of being saved. They may have appeared dark and faded to us, but boy did we enjoy scrutinising them.

Kodak - the world leaders in all matters filmic - have done an outstanding job over the last decade of rebirthing themselves despite the impending death of their livelihood. They've cleverly changed their type of business from film to electronics. It's very hard to buy any digital camera now that doesn't contain something once patented by the yellow giant.

And yet, I think it is a real shame to witness them lose a 76-year-old skill. Time was when everyone assumed that Kodak could do anything at all that was possible with film. Kodak were the world-renowned gurus.

As of January 18th last year though, Kodak has chosen to become a little less of an expert in film. I can't help but connect that choice with the company's financial straits later that year.

Farewell, beautiful Kodachrome. We'll always remember you, because now the future looks kind of pixelly, and just a little less colourful.

Available... oh. :(


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