National Geographic Photographer Steve McCurry Shoots the Very Last Roll of Kodachrome

Ask a pho­tog­ra­ph­er from the cen­tu­ry that just passed to name his or her favorite film, and the answer, very often, will be Kodachrome.

The crisp emul­sion, beau­ti­ful­ly sat­u­rat­ed col­ors and  archival sta­bil­i­ty of Kodachrome made it a sen­ti­men­tal favorite among pho­tog­ra­phers long after oth­er, more prac­ti­cal col­or films had all but pushed it out of the mar­ket­place. The prob­lem was, the very qual­i­ties that made the film spe­cial stemmed from a high­ly cum­ber­some tech­ni­cal process. Kodachrome was a “non-sub­stan­tive” film, mean­ing the dye cou­plers were not built into the emul­sion, as they are in oth­er col­or films, but had to be added dur­ing devel­op­ment. The process was com­plex, and few labs could afford to offer it. Even before the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion, Kodachrome was an endan­gered species.

So while it came as an emo­tion­al shock to many pho­tog­ra­phers, it was no real sur­prise when the East­man Kodak Com­pa­ny announced in 2009 that it was halt­ing pro­duc­tion of Kodachrome. One of the pho­tog­ra­phers who had long-since moved on to dig­i­tal imag­ing but who was sad­dened by the demise of Kodachrome was Steve McCur­ry, an award-win­ning pho­to­jour­nal­ist for Nation­al Geo­graph­ic who is best known for his haunt­ing 1984 image (shot on Kodachrome) of a 12-year-old Afghan refugee girl with pierc­ing green eyes. When McCur­ry heard the news, he arranged to obtain the very last roll of Kodachrome to come off the assem­bly line at the Kodak plant in Rochester, New York. The chal­lenge, then, was this: What do you do with the last 36 expo­sures of a leg­endary film?

The half-hour doc­u­men­tary above from Nation­al Geo­graph­ic tells the sto­ry of that roll and how McCur­ry used it. The film­mak­ers fol­lowed the pho­tog­ra­ph­er on an odyssey that began at the fac­to­ry in Rochester and end­ed at a lab­o­ra­to­ry (the last Kodachrome lab open) in a small town in Kansas. Over the course of about six weeks, from late May to ear­ly July, 2010, McCur­ry trav­eled halfway around the world to make those final 36 expo­sures. The result­ing pho­tographs iclude street scenes in New York and Kansas, por­traits of a movie star (Robert De Niro) in New York, intel­lec­tu­als and eth­nic tribes­men in India, col­leagues in Turkey and New York, and one of him­self. It’s a remark­able take. Although a few of the shots appear spon­ta­neous, most are the result of care­ful plan­ning. McCur­ry donat­ed all 36 slides to the George East­man House Inter­na­tion­al Muse­um of Pho­tog­ra­phy and Film, but you can see almost all of the pho­tos online at the Van­i­ty Fair Web site. As McCur­ry tells the mag­a­zine:

I’ve been shoot­ing dig­i­tal for years, but I don’t think you can make a bet­ter pho­to­graph under cer­tain con­di­tions than you can with Kodachrome. If you have good light and you’re at a fair­ly high shut­ter speed, it’s going to be a bril­liant col­or pho­to­graph. It had a great col­or palette. It was­n’t too gar­ish. Some films are like you’re on a drug or some­thing. Velvia made every­thing so sat­u­rat­ed and wild­ly over-the-top, too elec­tric. Kodachrome had more poet­ry in it, a soft­ness, an ele­gance. With dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy, you gain many ben­e­fits [but] you have to put in post-pro­duc­tion. [With Kodachrome] you take it out of the box and the pic­tures are already bril­liant.

Relat­ed con­tent:

How Film Was Made: A Kodak Nos­tal­gia Moment

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