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Kodachrome fades into the sunset

Another victim of the digital age, but one whose memories live on in all those slides still holding their color.

Kodachrome, way back then.

Kodachrome, way back then. imamuseum.org

One of the most over-used cliches at any given time is, "the end of an era," and one must be careful in savoring this old chestnut. But for me, and many of the generation that grew up in the immediate post-World War II era, an era truly ended in late December when the last laboratory processing Kodachrome slide film closed its doors.

We knew it was coming, of course, as even the most devoted switched to digital cameras neatly carried in a pocket or purse and our 35 mm cameras found a spot in a bottom drawer, perhaps next to an 8-track tape player.

Kodachrome was simply magic in what had been, for the amateur at least, a world of black-and-white usually shot with Brownie cameras. When I first shot a roll of Kodachrome, it carried an asa rating of 10, very slow but also very rich reds and blues caught a world of sun and reflections of water and mountains, and we fell in love with the world it portrayed.

I learned black-and-white on a Rolleiflex camera on my first news job, in 1958; the Rollei was a twin-lens reflex camera that created a square-format negative that we processed and printed in a closet in the back of the newsroom. Just as I was getting comfortable with the awkward Rollei (granted, a step up from the famous Speed Graphic of 1930s movie fame), along came light and versatile 35 mm cameras at a price that even a cub reporter could afford. Professionals had been using them for years, but mass-produced 35 mm cameras ushered in the world of slide film for amateurs.

Slide shows were cheap and easy entertainment for young couples and, in an era before middle-class folks jetted off to Europe for holidays, slides of trips to exotic places were much in demand. Kodachrome soon faced competition from other brands, but it was always the top-quality film, even when it was slower than the new films. It also held up better over the years; we have 40 carousels of 140 slides each stored in a closet (wow, that's over 5,000 slides!). Nearly all still carry their color quite well, although some are half a century old.

We don't do slide shows for friends any longer, but the two of us crank up the projector every now and then to recall backpack trips and kids' soccer games when all of us were skinnier and more agile. Our old slides are most appreciated by grandchildren, who giggle and point when they see their parents looking foolish or accomplishing feats they no longer attempt on a giant (4'x4') screen. Even the crispest digital shots won't look great magnified to that level, nor carry those rich reds and blues.

Thank you Kodachrome, may you rest in full color.

Floyd J. McKay, professor of journalism emeritus at Western Washington University, was a print and broadcast journalist in Oregon for three decades. Recipient of a DuPont-Columbia Broadcast Award for documentaries, and a Nieman Fellowship at Harvard, he is also a historian and holds a Ph.D. from the University of Washington. He resides in Bellingham and can be reached at floydmckay@comcast.net.


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