Jack Delano's Kodachromes
In a message dated 2/4/2008 10:37:27 PM Eastern Standard Time,
John, it's well known by archivists that Ektachrome and
Kodachrome survive equivalently IF and ONLY IF they have equivalent
storage, meaning a cool, dark place. Ektachrome does fade more with
light exposure. The magenta cast is unequal fading of the dyes, unusual
in Kodachrome, but readily fixed in Photoshop, though the corrected
image will show some fading. The ones you can't save are the ones which
have become brownish. That means nearly ALL the color dyes have left
the building. They can sometimes be usable as B&W images, though even
there, contrast sometimes looks odd.
The sharpness goes with the color dies. If you have slides that are fading
or shifting in color -- scan 'em, copy 'em, do something to preserve what's
The E6 process films -- Ektachrome, Agfa, Ansco, et. al. -- of the 1950s and
'60s used organic materials as part of the color dye formulae
(formaldehyde), and so the images will ultimately fade, discolor and dissapear even in cool
dark storage over time. Freezing them will prolong the image indefinitely,
but that's impractical for big collections. The quality of the process
chemicals has a lot to do with longevity, and cool, dark storage helps a lot. I've
got a lot of experience with older slide collections, and there are many
cases where E6s have survived well. In many more cases they have not. There is
also bacteria common in carpets that thrives on slide emulsions. Those
little fuzz-balls in the sky are actually trails of poo left from the feeding
critters. (If you see this problem, old-fashioned camera stores sell film
cleaner. If you have darkroom experience in washing exposed films, you can simply
re-wash the film; photoflo is recommended.) Too, the E6 films use three
color layers on the film base, and in the early years the three stacked color
layers left an image that wasn't razor sharp.
Kodachrome uses a K-14 process; Kodachrome is basically a black-and-white
film and the colors are added during the processing. With a single layer
reacting to light, Kodachrome was capable of more sharpness than early E6 films.
The actual K-14 process is very complicated with many steps and critical
temperature control -- impressive that it was invented ca. 1937 after years of
tinkering before Kodak bought the process -- terrific story, it's invention. It
had a very slow emulsion, ASA 10 was commercially available by 1939 or soon
after. The Wizard of Oz is said to be the first feature film released on it.
The K-14 films are much more stable over time, and the brilliance of the
1940s and '50s Kodachromes bear that out. Kodachrome had a "brassy" look over
reality and was very contrasty -- blacks blocked up quickly, which was always
a trait, and highlights could be easily lost if overexposed. Kodachrome was
its best when the colors were saturated -- 3:00 p.m. spring or fall sunlight
over the photographer's shoulder was its best, and hardcore hobby shooters
would plan to shoot in that light, or the warmer later-afternoon light. Most
shooters would underexpose a third or a stop or so for added saturation.
It's not uncommon to see a magenta hue in the early Kodachromes. That was a
processing imbalance most often related to the age of the unexposed emulsion
and not a sign of improper storage or fading. Kodachrome emulsion tended to
want to be at least 18 months old for best overall rendition -- pros
wouldn't shoot Kodachrome unless it was within a year of its expiration date. Young
Kodachrome film had a greenish look after processing, and the outdated stuff
went magenta. (If unexposed film is kept in a warm or hot place, it's aging
is accelerated.) The Kodachrome "pallet" was slightly warm, whereas the
Ektachrome pallet was slightly cool, or blue-ish. Because E6 films are actually
exposing three layers of emulsion at once, long exposures would send the
color balance in various directions -- the skies and reflected light in E6 night
shots often looked much more exciting than the real scene as a result of this
reciprocity failure. Night or low-light scenes on Kodachrome films appeared
much more realistic. (Color negative film is also exposing three color
What happened to Kodachome in the late 1980s was the improvements in the E6
films. Fuji led the way with brighter and more colorful synthetic dyes, but
they exaggerated colors, Fuji's Velvia being the most popular. When
TheImageBank -- the largest stock photo house -- dropped Kodachrome 25 as its
standard film of choice in favor of Velvia 50 ca. 1990, the pros left Kodachrome in
droves. Newspapers were in E6 for years, having purchased the simpler
processing equipment that could turn film around in less than an hour. Big-city
news shooters had runners assigned to them that would literally run exposed
film from the news event back to the office for processing. Fuji's Provia 100F
is about the most real looking E6 slide film available, and it's very sharp.
Provia films are manufactured in Charleston, S.C. (Industry legend has it
that the basic Velvia / Provia films were invented in New England and Kodak
turned the inventors away knowing it was going digital.)
The Kodachrome process works best when the chemistry is constantly agitated.
Partially for cutbacks, Kodak's closing of many K-14 labs actually helped
the processing. Hardcore railfans stuck by Kodachrome, but by the 1990s it was
looking flat and K-14 slides were obvious among E6 slides in a presentation.
Kodachromes from the 1970s and early '80s looked fantastic in comparison.
Surprisingly, the K-14s are more prone to fading from light than today's E6
films. I remember reading that just four hours of bright illumination can
cause a big reduction in the density of the K-14 color dies. Four hours
sounds like a lot, but it adds up if a page of slides is forgotten and left out in
an office under fluorescent lights.
The trade rags say that today's E6 films are in the range of 75 years of
color stability in accelerated aging tests. While at Railfan & Railroad I
tested and compared all of the E6 films in preparation for an era without
Kodachrome. Fuji's Provia 100F looked the most real, like the Kodachrome 25s of the
1970s. I still shoot it, but film will be a novelty very soon.
Digital imaging can do so much more than film in terms or contrast and
ranges of highlight and shadow. No more are photographers subject to the
limitations of film. New shooters shoot, and can e-mail the images instantly, or hand
the memory card to an assistant for e-mailing while the photographer keeps
shooting. Image stability is a huge problem with digital, however. Books have
been written on that subject.
Lesson, grasshopper? Store slides properly and keep the storage boxes off
Mike Del Vecchio
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