On January, the 19th, the Eastman Kodak Company officially filed for bankruptcy protection. The Rochester-based firme, which has suffured from the decline in sales of photographic film since the early 1990s, will remaind famous as a film pionnier and especially for the first 35mm color film ever commercialized: the Kodachrome.
Founded In 1889, the firme became first known for having invented the hand-held camera. Easy to carry, it was made for the very first dry, transparent and flexible photographic film ever produced. Meant to simplify photography and make it available to everyone, the “Kodak” camera entered the market using the rolled-film technology that George Eastman took a patent out for in 1883: the transparent nitrocellulose films with base perforations. Later, the brand name of Eastman’s cameras became so popular that the company name was eventually changed to “Eastman Kodak”.
After its innovations in transparent roll films and cheaper cameras in the early 1900s, the firme enjoyed huge profits in the next 30 years. George Eastman, who was one of the first American industrialists to employ a full-time research scientist, wisely plowed a lot of his money into research and development. This is how Leopold Godowsky and Leopold Mannes went to work with the company in the early 30s to develop their idea : manufacturing and processing a film that was unique in how it applied colored dyes to the final image. By 1935 the firme had developed Kodachrome, an instant hit as the first effectively rendering color film available for everyone.
Color photography had been already around in one form or another since the 1860s; the Kodakrome wasn’t the very first color film ever produced. The Autochrome (marketed in 1907 in France) and the Dufaycolor (invented in 1908 in Great Britain), had already allowed photographers to take color photographs; but the color elements were visible upon enlargement and very bright projection lamps were needed to avoid light absorbation. The color method from Godowsky and Mannes, called “subtractive”, avoided the disadvantages of the two earlier technics.
What was so special about those films?
With the “subtractive” method, the film had actually no dye added until the development process, while all color films had dyes printed directly onto the film stock. The Kodachrome was developed twice and this is only during the second development (to a positive image), that the colors of the original subject were transformed into the 3 complementary dyes (cyan, magenta, and yellow), which formed the final color image. The positive color image left was made up of only “subtractive” colored dyes. And because the Kodachrome had a thinner emulsion (since the 3 layers were coated on a single film base), it made possible the record of sharper images with high contrasts, a richness of color and a unique treatment of light.
The unique process allowed very good archival abilities, compared to other color films which fade over time. But it required multiple processing steps and precise control to add the color through the re-exposure process. Thus, every of the Kodachrome roll had to be sent to Kodak Laboratories for development. Later, In 1954, this control on all processing was declared a monopoly by the Department of Justice: Kodak allowed then other finishing plants to develop the film, which also made the film and development prices sank.
Kodachrome came in just about every format (8mm, 16mm, and 35mm, 120, 116, 828). It was first used as a 35mm movie film, then came the slide film for 35mm and 828 formats. And if in 1937 and 1938 the colors weren’t stable and accurate, the Kodachrome marketed in 1939 produced color images of remarkable precision.
The film was actively produced until the 1980s and then fell into disfavor. From mainstream to niche photography, it finally fell victim to the digital supremacy in the 2000s. In 2009, when the firme stopped the production, the sales of Kodachrome accounted for less than 1% of its revenue. Refocussing since then on digital technologies, the Kodak Compagny hasn’t managed to operate profit since 2007.
With the end of the Kodachrome ended a legacy that includes some of the most enduring images of 20th century America but also a popular technic that helped americans to record easily every single holiday, family vacation and birthday celebration, initiating at the same time the so-called “snap-shots” technic.