7.02.2014

For the Love of Kodachrome.

I've had a resurgence of love for Kodachrome Slide film lately.

I've had a fondness for this now (sadly) discontinued emulsion for more than 20 years, but it has really surged lately in a new way.  I am missing my Kodachrome.  

I came across some slides taken by my Grandfather.  Many of these were from the 1970's and 1980's, but among these, there were a handful of much older ones, mounted in grey sleeves with red borders.  I scanned a few of them, and they were absolutely stunning with vividness.  A sample:




While the image certainly looked to date to the 1950's, I looked at a few online resources, and the style of the mounts date this image to between 1950 and 1955.  It looked far more vivid than most of the photos (both print and slide) I saw taken in the 1970's.  My intrigue had been stoked. 

However, only a small fraction of the slides I'd found had these signature red mounts, and my thirst for vintage photography had not been satiated, so I did a little exploring online, both in regards to the history of Kodachrome, as well as to see if some other affordable samples similar in nature to the one above could be found.

The history of Kodachrome is a somewhat unique one, having been developed by a most unlikely pair in the 1930's.  These were not chemists, nor were they photographers.  They were musicians.  The film they developed was essentially a multi-layered black and white film that would undergo a series of transformations in the development stage to leave a transparent color image.  A fortunate offset of this unique film stock is that when developed slides are stored in darkness, they exhibit a remarkable stability in the color dyes.  As a fortunate result, Kodachrome images taken in the 1940's regularly manage to exhibit significantly less fading than Ektachrome slides taken in the 1970's! 

The search for vintage "Red Border" Kodachromes is both an exciting and challenging adventure in my book.  The great news is that original Kodachromes in good condition can often be had for as little as $2-$3 per slide from various ebay sellers, and when bought in a set, may be had for an average of 30 cents or less!  The challenge for me, being a fan of street scene photography, is finding images that have subjects that are of interest to me.   

This is because in an era such as 1950, not everyone was walking around taking Kodachrome images of their daily lives the way that so many of us do today with our smart phones and digital cameras.  Photography by film was costly and was still very much a "pay as you go" endeavour.  A roll of Kodachrome cost $5.00 back in the 1940's, which for many people, was half a paycheck!  Looking at the selection of most images available at ebay, it seems that more than 90% of Red Border Kodachrome images are taken of family events and vacations in distant lands, leaving comparatively fewer "slice of life" photos of 1940-1960 America.  However, I have managed to acquire some great images, five of which are below.  For the fun of it, I'll even quiz you, the reader to guess in what year each was taken!




Image 1 - St. Louis
Was this taken in:
  • 1940 
  • 1950
  • 1960
This one is admittedly a little easy for the most part given the number of visual clues present in the image.  Upon looking up the cover of the Coronet Magazine featured on the newstand, I can determine that the answer is 1950.  Still, this image is incredibly impressive to me for how well the color dyes have held up for over 60 years!  This was an ebay find and was picked up for only $4.25.



Image 2 - Location Unknown
Was this taken in:
  • 1937
  • 1947
  • 1957
Now it gets a little tougher, though there are enough clues for the trained eye to be able to rule out the first option.  The answer winds up being 1947.  Again, the color fidelity of this image swayed me into pulling the trigger.  The $3.50 purchase price didn't hurt!




 Image 3 - Montana
Was this taken in: 
  • 1942
  • 1952
  • 1962

This image really seems to bely its date.  This proud shining image of a nearly new 1940 Buick was taken just as America was beginning its plunge into World War II.  The photo was taken on May 9, 1942.  A really fun 70+ year old ebay find for only $2.99! 


Image 4 - Montana
Was this taken in:
  • 1939
  • 1949
  • 1959

A much greater challenge to date given the composition, but this photo is dated for May 28, 1939.  Had it been taken in the 1950's, I would have opted to pass on purchasing this, but given that it was about the OLDEST Kodachrome I had found on ebay, I just could not resist being able to be the owner of a piece of 1930's photo memorabilia given that it was just $2.99. 

Image 5 - Maryland
Was this taken in:
  • 1938
  • 1948
  • 1958
Thoughts?  Clues are really scant on this one.

Ok, for this one, maybe an additional hint would be helpful.  How about another image taken the same day from a slightly different and wider perspective:




Ouch, dirty trick!  Sorry, I couldn't resist.  As you may recall from earlier in the post, I'm missing my Kodachrome, so I set about trying to see what I could do in order to emulate the look of an early era Kodachrome.   This took a little bit of planning.

First and foremost, I had to find a composition free of period incongruities.  The scenic farm in the image above is one I pass almost daily and always strikes me for its timelessness.  Even still, there are a few visual clues in the first image that preclude from being a truly vintage one, most notably that "box" suspended from the lowest wire leading across the center of the image.  Still, when dialed back, the second image shows a host of other misfits from a 1940's image, such as the style of street signs, signals, and of course that truck!  

I shot the image using an Olympus PEN Digital camera mounting a 1963 vintage Olympus PEN FT lens, a 38mm f/1.8.  I deliberately shot the lens wide open to minimize both depth of field and sharpness, as this lens gives off a dreamy look at the edges when shot wide open.  As a result, I had to hand hold TWO Polarizing filters in front of the lens to act as an impromptu ND filter just to get a shutter speed reading under the minimum of 1/4000 at 200 speed!  

After taking the image, it was time to play with post processing to experiment to get that Kodachrome look.  While there is software in the market called "Alien Skin Exposure" that has filters to replicate the look of Kodachrome, I was unable to get the trial installation to work in Photoshop.   Thus, I was left to tinkering with the image using the sliders in the raw image import to try to get a suitable result.  

While I don't recall everything that I did, I do recall pushing the red saturation full, while dialing back the blue and green saturation.  I decreased contrast somewhat, but also tried to blow out the highlights a bit.  The entire image got a slight cyan cast to simulate some modest fading, while a smooth grain pattern was added, in addition to a "Dust and Scratches" filter.  Finally, I gave a slight vignette to the image to make the corners a little dark.

Overall, I'm rather pleased with these initial results, though I know I'd like to do a few more examples when I find the time.  I do know I need to find a way to punch up the red even more to make it intense as a Kodachrome red.  All in time, and all in the line of thinking of a quirky guy with a camera!  

Stay tuned, there will be more to come about vintage Kodachrome collecting, as well as replicating the look of vintage Kodachrome shots with modern day equipment!