Essay – Kodachrome and the rural Post Office

‘They give us those nice bright colours
They give us the greens of summers
It makes you think all the world’s a sunny day…

So Mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away.’

                        Paul Simon, lyrics ’Kodachrome.

It was an event for the Sri Lankan village post office staff. A red-headed and bearded Irishman presenting a large envelope of films destined for Europe was worthy of all of the postal hierarchy’s attention. Each person, in turn, examined the package, feeling for the declared film cassettes and placing it on the weighing scales, called a superior. An audience was gathering behind with friendly curiosity. Finally, after each had called his supervisor, the top man was summoned. He looked at me, picked up the package and inhaled deeply. Finally, with a perfect pause, he issued the command to proceed. Now the forms and loud stamping, postage stamps and payment went into action, the business of getting the package on its way complete.

Kodachrome was a film first manufactured by the Eastman Kodak company in 1935. Up to then, colour photography had proved technically elusive until the unlikely alliance of two professional musicians, Leopold Godowsky Jr. and Leopold Mannes. The duo, who were also university-trained scientists, took an interest, having agreed that colour movies up to then were terrible. After many years of experimenting with colour couplers and dyes, they were introduced to Kodak’s chief scientist, Kenneth Mees and eventually worked for the company, bringing a novel three-colour material to market. It would be a mainstay and iconic film emulsion for the next 74 years.

The process of developing the film was complex. So much so that Kodak decided that it could be the only one to undertake it, meaning every roll had to make the round trip from manufacture to finished colour slide. The chemistry of the layers that made up the finished photograph is what gave Kodachrome its unique palette. Favoured by cinematographers and photographers alike, National Geographic photographers particularly championed it in the first decades that the magazine printed in colour.

I had shot my 35mm rolls in the previous days in Sri Lanka’s central highlands. It was early 1989, and I was en route by sailing ship from Brisbane, Australia, to Marmaris in southern Turkey. We had stopped for rest and provisions in the port town of Galle. Having been at sea for some time with my fellow crewmates, I was keen for a change of scene and rented a motorbike, loaded my Nikon camera and hit the road. I had a handful of photocopied pages from a Lonely Planet’ Shoestring Guide’ and some local advice not to venture too far north as the Sri Lankan civil war was active at the time. Now back at the post office in Galle, my adventures and acquaintances committed to film were on an uncertain journey. 

In today’s mass photography world, this seems like something from a bygone age. The generation of photographers who have made the transition from working with film to digital media straddles a unique juncture in the craft’s history, and this film emulsion occupies a particular part in that story. After the initial success of Kodachrome for its parent, competing films with simpler processing forced stiff competition, but many creators stayed with Kodachrome for its unique drawing quality. The newer films, particularly those from Fujifilm in Japan, had a garish look to seasoned photographers and lacked the subtle nuances of the Kodak material. 

As the film and subsequent developing were combined, the initial outlay to buy Kodachrome was high. It also had other practical drawbacks – its sensitivity to light was low, requiring a tripod or a steady hand to avoid blurred shots, and a narrow exposure range, meaning it was unforgiving of poor technique. The photographs could easily be too dark or too bright to be useable. The finished product was a colour transparency or slide, which had to be projected to be viewed properly or printed by a specialist photo finishing laboratory. 

Part of the mystique of shooting film is the uncertainty of the images made at the time of exposure. With practice, the experienced photographer learned to use the proper camera settings to achieve the desired outcome. Still, once she tripped the shutter, it merely created a latent image that could only be realised later, in the darkroom. This requirement to return the film to Kodak in the neatly rolled envelope that came with the film added time between shooting the film and seeing the anticipated results. This exercise in patience and delayed gratification did little to build photographic skills unless you made notes in the field. It did, however, add immensely to the joy of seeing projected images come to life later.

Three months after handing over the films in the Sri Lankan post office, I arrived home. A lot had happened in the preceding months. One hundred and twelve days at sea, punctuated with short stops like Sri Lanka, saw the tall ship ’Amorina’, tied up in her new home in Turkey. The crew that had sailed her twelve thousand miles from the southern ocean had dispersed across the world. 

On reaching home, a neat row of yellow boxes of slides awaited me on the hall table. The excitement of realising that the film had not only made it to the Kodak laboratory in Switzerland but the finished photographs were now here, waiting to be opened. It was hard to know which one to pick first, as all were identical. I made a random choice and started to peel off the carefully applied tape that held the white lid with ’Kodak’ imprinted on it. In two neat rows, there lay thirty-six possibilities, each a piece of 35mm film encased in a thin card mount. Lifting out the first one and holding it up to the light, I could see the bright reds and warm evening light of a street scene in an unknown Sri Lankan village. I was transported to a moment that had passed quickly and only had two hastily made frames of film exposed at the time. I relied on experience and instinct and hoped to get the focus and camera settings right. 

There was a celebration of some kind happening in the village. I stopped at the roadside and switched off the engine, staying straddled on the bike. I took the camera out of its bag then looked up. It felt like everyone on the street had seen the foreigner at the same time, windswept and filthy from the road, a stark contrast to everyone’s neat and gleaming white clothes. A young stilt walker in a vibrant costume approached, shadowed by her drum-beating parent. She danced gracefully to the rhythm while a tractor and trailer of spectators slowed to see what was going on. The moment had lasted only seconds, but now, looking at it on a thin slice of film, it felt immortal.

Later that evening, I set up the projector and transferred each slide to a slot in the carousel, making sure to orient them the right way round and upside down to allow for the reversal of the projection lens. Places were taken on the couch, the lights switched off, and the first click-clunk of a slide being slotted into place was the only sound above the hum of the projector’s cooling fan. The bright light created a dust-filled beam, a trailer for the upcoming slide show. 

Projecting these slides now, over 30 years later, they come to life on the widescreen in a timeless way. I can see now why the passing of Kodachrome was mourned by photographers when it eventually succumbed to change. The last roll manufactured in 2009 was given to National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry, whose photograph ’Afghan girl’ is one of photography’s most famous. A year later, the last remaining facility that processed Kodachrome, Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas, processed that final roll. The thirty-six slides are preserved in George Eastman House, the world’s oldest museum of photography. The story of those last days of Kodachrome was the subject of a feature-length fictional film of the same name, screened on Netflix. It tells the story of a dying photographer making the road trip to Dwayne’s with his estranged son to develop his last rolls.

If there can be a single word to encapsulate the character of Kodachrome, it is cinematic. Crystallised instants of light and time brought to a present moment in a way that feels timeless. People seem alive in light of enduring quality. 

‘So Mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away…’

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