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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