Wednesday, October 21, 2009

An Ode to Kodachrome

Compared to the earth forms that you see in this picture of Southern Utah, a process of millions of years in formation and still changing, the life of the slide film Kodachrome was but a fleeting moment. It was developed by Eastman Kodak in 1935 and production was discontinued in 2009, a life-span of 74 years. Yet, in those fleeting seven decades and a few years, those of us who read books, magazines, or just love to look at pretty colored pictures, have had our perceptions of how things look defined and formed by that one incredible photographic product. If you, for example, had never been to the Grand Canyon or the national parks of Southern Utah, you would have been able to form some mental impression of how they looked – a mind’s image shaped by the photographers that went there for you and put their images in National Geographic, calendars, picture books, or postcards sent to you by a friend or family member who travelled there. And then, when you went there, you would have stood on an overlook, staring in awe at the scenery, and would have said, or thought that it looked just like it did in the pictures.

One company, Eastman Kodak, with one product, Kodachrome Film, was able to capture the reality of the colors and sights of the earth, far and wide, and implant those images into the minds of millions of people around the planet. For the first time in history, people did not need to be transported to the site, but rather, the site was brought to them. It freed millions, who never had the opportunity to travel to distant places whenever they wished, to participate, to sense, and to know that what they saw in a photograph was the way it really appeared. Although the images were not absolutely the same as they reality they captured, their rendering on film was so real and so subtle that those who saw the real physical scenes for the first time would never doubt that the pictures back home looked even slightly different. A deep level of trust in the integrity of a photographic product became the foundation of our faith in our knowledge of how the world looked. Our mind’s image of photographs became our mental image of the planet. We knew that we were correct, that we had not been deceived and that we would not be disappointed when we travelled to the site and saw the real thing.

Today, due to costs, lack of convenience compared to digital photography, and forever increasing human impatience, film photography has largely given way to the new format. To those who never loaded a camera with film, took the pictures and sent them off to be developed, very little has been lost. The real problem for the new generation of photographers is that the new formats are ephemeral and very easily altered by unscrupulous photographers. A few years ago, perhaps fifteen, everybody was waiting to buy a digital camera when the resolution reached one megapixel. Now people are discarding or giving away cameras because they want to trade up to ten or fourteen from six. This is not say that there will ever be anything wrong with one megapixel images. They are excellent if viewed in a smaller format like five-by-seven and will preserve the moment of family history, or whatever, that they captured. After all, the best photographs are those three-by-fives that you pull out of a shoebox and see things that were lovingly, but casually captured way back during World War II. So, in the end, the size of this image is not the problem.

The more important and threatening bugaboo with new digital formats is the mere storage of the pictures themselves. A 3-by-5 black and white photograph in a shoe box was forever unless your house burned down. But, something so simple and rational and permanent is not currently available. Now, in the course of a few years we have gone from storage on floppy discs to compact discs to flash drives and portable hard drives. Others use uploading to online storage, provided by companies that may not exist in two years, as their solution to the permanence issue. Only those who continually ride the crest of the current wave and convert their files from one form to another will be able to keep their photographs forever, if there is such a thing. As people age, this hassle becomes more and more of a problem and they simply give up. By the time their heirs discover that they had a treasury of accumulated images, there is no easy way to view them and they go into the dumper when the house is being cleaned out and prepared for sale . Grandma and Grandpa are gone and so are the family pictures.

The wonderful feature of Kodachrome slides was that they lasted for decades if kept in a dark place and away from temperature extremes – a pretty good bet for longevity in the closets of elderly people who had forgotten they were there. To view them, all one needed was some type of bright light, some lenses, and a screen – certainly a technology that will not become totally societially obsolete – we hope. Various types of scanners should always be able to shine some light through them and convert them to digital images if necessary for preservation and/or viewing. To this day, medical experts are using Kodachrome slides as a reference for comparing the colors of people with progressive skin conditions. Well preserved slides as old as fifty years still have exact color renditions that enable one to see how it really was way back then.

Now that Kodachrome, and colored photographic slides in general, are becoming a relic of the past, we need to be aware of the need to establish some permanent archival presentation method for our images. Other color reversal films, such as Ektachrome, are still on the market and well may be there for a few more years. They too capture fabulous images, are much simpler and less expensive to process, and may be around longer, but their days are undoubtedly numbered. And they do not have the same proven archival qualities as Kodachrome.

The outcry over the loss of Kodachrome will do not good. It is gone. The only thing you can do now is to preserve those you have. Keep them in a dark place, relatively cool, and at a low humidity to prevent their emulsions from being digested by mold and other nasty creatures. The challenge will be to establish some type of successful, trend-proof, type of image storage that will keep the current digital images from becoming obsolete as well as offer the Kodachrome aficionados a stable, long-term platform for image preservation. The images the ancients left behind carved or etched in rock were a pretty good method when you consider how long they lasted. Acid rain has taken its toll on them in the past century, but millions remain. Now that Kodachrome is gone, we need to find some new hammers, chisels and more workable stones to preserve our images. If not, a whole epoch of images may disappear from the earth. Our contemporary David might well become just a story about a handsome guy that is passed down from one generation to the next with no real idea of how he really appeared in the flesh. Michelangelo would have really loved Kodachrome and undoubtedly would have been quite upset right now.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Visitors Arrive in Grosse Pointe -- At Last!

The latest news is that after a long period with no visitors showing up in Michigan, Larry and Mariela Taddie of Salt Lake City arrived. They were here from September 23rd through Sept 30th when they drove a rental car to Batavia, New York to visit Larry’s uncle and aunt. They returned on October 9th, turned the rental car in, stayed overnight and then departed by plane for Salt Lake. At 12:30 a.m. that very night, Katya arrived from Salt Lake for a week of fall vacation from the University of Utah. It was a busy evening, night and morning to say the least, but fun was had by all.

It is so special to have friends and family visit you here in Southeast Michigan. Our area is not a magnet for tourists, tends not to be on the major flight paths around the U.S. and is generally an out-of-the-way place. Moreover, the only big city here is Detroit, a place that has turned into an urban nightmare and is now the bad example for everything. The recent Time Magazine cover story did not improve its image. So, we were especially delighted to have Larry and Mariela come here and devote a week to visiting us in our local environs, see how we live, and allow us to take them out and show them around – including the best and the worst of everything. It was as much fun for us as it was for them, just knowing that somebody had shown up at the door and gave us an excuse to get out and do some things that we like.

While they were here we went to the Henry Ford Museum, the Edsel and Eleanor Ford House, Eastern Market, the Fisher Building, Larry’s hometown of Lincoln Park, and other sites. We drove around and examined Detroit in all its splendor and chaos. They went on a long walk down Lakeshore Drive from Grosse Pointe Yacht Club back to our house. And naturally I took them out to see the schools where I taught during my 16-year career in Detroit Public Schools. One night we went to Rick and Margo’s house for dinner and had a good visit with them. It had been years since Larry and Mariela had seen them and during the intervening time, Rick and Margo have raised a family of four children ranging from two to eleven years old.

Packed into the week was a two-day trip by water to Harsen’s Island. It is the delta formed by the St. Clair River as it dumps into Lake St. Clair. This river comes south from Lake Huron bringing with it all the drainage from Lakes Huron, Michigan and Superior. It was a really nice trip with some variable weather, wildly variable sea conditions, and a constant sense of adventure and camaderie. We routinely took Dramamine to prevent sea sickness, ate a lot of good food cooked in the Baltika’s little galley, and saw a lot of open water, wilderness, and the old-world development on Harsen’s Island.

The two lower pictures (shown above) are Harsen's Island as photographed by Larry. The first one is the Old Club at just after the entrance to the South Channel. The one below it is Big Muscamoot Bar, just to the north of Harsen's Island.

Then the weather turned bad for a few days, the period when we saw the sites around Grosse Pointe and Detroit. We were able to get back on the water again Friday, the last day before they left for New York. We did an excursion, both sailing and motoring down the Detroit River. It included the straits between Detroit and Windsor, going under the Ambassador Bridge and the steel mill complex downriver from the bridge. That is where we turned around and headed back up the river for Lake St. Clair and Grosse Pointe.

Katya is now here and we are busy assisting her in getting caught up on home-cooked favorites and some shopping for clothing that she seriously needed to do while here. She and Perry went sailing the first day she was here and she is now using some of her days to get ahead on her studies so she will not be so stressed out when she returns to school. For medical students and people working towards a chemistry degree there are usually no true vacations. We admire her resolution.

The weather is often cool, cloudy and windy. So far we have not had any snow, but temperatures are dropping rapidly, especially at night. We still have the Baltika in the water and are sailing whenever the weather is reasonably good. There is very little competition for space on the lake this time of the year.