Wednesday, April 30, 2014

A Brief History of Kodak Kodachrome Film

Image © Michael L. Raso

Kodachrome is a brand name for a non-substantive, color reversal film introduced by Eastman Kodak in 1935. It was one of the first successful color materials and was used for both cinematography and still photography.

Before Kodachrome film was marketed, color photography had been achieved using additive methods and materials such as Autochrome and Dufaycolor, which were the first practical color processes. These had several disadvantages because they used a réseau filter made from discrete color elements that were visible upon enlargement. The finished transparencies absorbed between 70% and 80% of light upon projection, requiring very bright projection lamps, especially for large projections. Using the subtractive method, these disadvantages could be avoided.

The first, commercially unsuccessful, Kodak product called Kodachrome was invented by John Capstaff. Capstaff, a former portrait photographer and physics and engineering student, had already worked on colour photography before he joined C.K. Mees and other former Wratten and Wainright employees in their move to Rochester in 1912 - 1913, after Eastman had bought that company to persuade Mees to come and work for him. Capstaff's Kodachrome film was a subtractive colour transparency that only used two colours: green and red. It combined two negatives, one exposed through a red filter, the other through a green filter. After processing, the silver images were bleached and the bleached part of the gelatin hardened. The negative exposed through the green filter was then dyed red-orange, the red exposed negative was dyed blue-green. The dyes would soak into the unhardened part of the gelatin, producing a positive image. They were then combined on a glass plate, producing a transparency that did show a surprisingly good (for a two colour process) colour rendition in portraits. Capstaff's Kodachrome was made commercially available in 1915. It was also adapted for use as a movie film. Today, this first version of Kodachrome is mostly forgotten, completely overshadowed by the next Kodak product bearing the name Kodachrome.

The next, and famous, version of Kodachrome was invented in the early 1930s by two professional musicians, Leopold Godowsky, Jr. and Leopold Mannes, who were also university-trained scientists.

Kodachrome photo by Chalmers Butterfield of Shaftesbury
Avenue from Piccadilly Circus, in the West End of London,
c. 1949. (via Wikipedia)
Mannes and Godowsky first took an interest in colour photography when in 1917, still highschool pupils at the time, they saw a movie called Our Navy, a movie made using a four colour additive process. Both agreed the colour was terrible. After reading up on the subject in the library they started to experiment with additive colour processes. Their experiments were continued during their college years, eventually producing a camera having two lenses that project images side by side on a single strip of film. The colour rendition of this additive two-colour process was not too bad, but aligning the two lenses of the projector needed was too difficult.

Their experiments, which continued after they finished college, turned from multiple lenses that produce multiple, differently coloured images that had to be combined to form the final transparency, to multiple layered film in which the different colour images were already combined, perfectly aligned. Such a multi-layered film had already been invented and patented in 1912 by the German inventor Rudolph Fischer. Each of the three layers in the proposed film would be sensitive to one of the three primary colours, and each of the three layers would have substances (called "colour couplers") embedded in them that would form a dye of the required colour when combined with the by-products of the developing silver image. When the silver images are bleached away, the three colour dye image would remain. Fischer himself did not find a way to stop the colour couplers and colour sensitizing dyes from wandering from one layer into the other, where they would produce unwanted colours.

Mannes and Godowsky followed that route, started experimenting with colour couplers, but their experiments were hindered by a lack of money, supplies and facilities. In 1922 Robert Wood, a friend of Mannes, wrote a letter to Kodak's chief scientist Mees, introducing Mannes and Godowksy and their experiments, and asking if Mees could let them use the Kodak facilities for a few days. Mees offered to help, and after meeting with Mannes and Godowsky agreed to supply them with multi-layer emulsions made to Mannes and Godowsky's specifications. Financial aid, in the form of a $20,000 loan, was supplied by the investement firm Kuhn, Loeb and Company, who had Mannes and Godowsky's experiments brought to their attention by a secretary working for that firm Mannes had acquainted.

By 1924 they were able to patent a two-colour process. The important part of that patented process was a process called controlled diffusion. By timing how long it took for an image to form in the top layer, but not yet in the next layer beneath that one, they began to solve the problem that Fischer could not. Using this time-controlled way of processing one layer at a time, they could create the dye image of the required colour in only that layer in which it is required. Some three years later they were still experimenting using this controlled diffusion method of separating the colours in the multi-layer emulsion, but by then they had decided that instead of incorporating the colour couplers into the emulsion layers themselves, they could be added to the developing chemicals, solving the problem of wandering colour couplers. The only part left of Fischer's original problem with a multi-layer emulsion were the wandering sensitizing dyes.

In 1929 money ran out, and Mees decided to help them once more. Mees knew that the solution to the problem of the wandering dyes had already been found by one of Kodak's own scientists, Leslie Brooker. So he gave Mannes and Godowsky enough money to pay off the loan Kuhn Loeb had supplied and offered them a yearly salary. He also gave them a three-year deadline to come up with a finished and commercially viable product.

Afghan Girl. The famous Steve McCurry's
photograph was shot in December 1984 by
Kodachrome. (via Wikipedia)
Not long before the three-year period would expire, at the end of 1933, Mannes and Godowsky still had not managed to come up with anything usable, and thought their experiments would be terminated by Kodak. Their only chance for survival was to invent something in a hurry. Something that the company could put into production and capitalise. Mees however granted them a one year extension, and still not having solved all the technical challenges they had to solve, they eventually presented Mees with a two-colour movie process in 1934. Two-colour, it must be noted, as was the original Kodachrome invented by John Capstaff some 20 years earlier.

Mees immediately set things in motion to produce and market this film, but just before Kodak was about to introduce the two-colour film in 1935, Mannes and Godowsky completed work on the long awaited but no longer expected, much better, three colour version. On April 15, 1935, this new film, borrowing the name from Capstaff's process, was formally announced.

It was first sold in 1935 as 16 mm movie film. and the following year it was made available in 8 mm movie film, and in 35mm and 828 formats for stills cameras. In later years, Kodachrome was produced in a wide variety of film formats including 120 and 4x5, and in ISO/ASA values ranging from 8 to 200.

Until its manufacturers were taken over by rival film manufacturer GAF view-master stereo reels used Kodachrome films.

Competing transparency films, such as Fujifilm Fujichrome and Kodak Ektachrome use the simpler, quicker, and more accessible E-6 process. This eroded Kodachrome's market share, as the quality of competing films improved during the 1980s and 1990s. As digital photography reduced the demand for all film after 2000, Kodachrome sales further declined. On June 22, 2009, Kodak announced it would no longer manufacture Kodachrome film and cited declining demand. During its heyday, many Kodak and independent laboratories processed Kodachrome, but by 2010, one Kodak-certified facility remained: Dwayne's Photo in Parsons, Kansas. On July 14, 2010, it was announced that the last roll of Kodachrome manufactured had been developed by Dwayne's for photographer Steve McCurry on assignment for National Geographic. Although McCurry retains ownership of the slides, prints of the 36 slides are permanently housed at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York and most of the pictures have been published on the Internet by Vanity Fair magazine.

Image © Gary Grossman

Kodachrome was the subject of Paul Simon's song "Kodachrome", and Kodachrome Basin State Park in Utah was named after it, becoming the only park named for a brand of film.

(via Wikipedia)

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