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Monday, August 23, 2010

Make History with Slide Film

Mamiya C220 TLR
© 2009 Simon Hucko

I read a comment in a forum somewhere in the past week that really got me thinking. Unfortunately, I have no idea where I read it so I can't give it proper credit, but it definitely inspired this post. Thanks, anonymous photographer, for your insight.

For Christmas this past year, my dad was able to grab two rolls of Kodachrome for me. I immediately stuck them in the fridge and began plotting what to do with those 72 precious frames. The Photographer (capital P) in me called out for beautifully lit, color rich photos that will fully take advantage of this legendary film. I've been hoarding the shots, and to date have only taken 9 frames or so that I felt were "worthy" of this mighty emulsion.

Then I read something that has completely changed my perspective on what to do with this film. I'm still saving it for special shots, but my definition of special has been tweaked a little. First, some background:

If you're not aware, Kodachome is slide film. Unlike regular film, which produces a negative when developed, slide film gets processed into a positive image. The beauty of this is that the image is entirely self-contained. Anyone, anywhere, any time can pick up a slide and see what was documented there, no computer or fancy equipment necessary (although a loupe is helpful). Combine that with Kodachrome's long lasting dye process, and you have an archival image that will stand the test of time.

Let me put it this way: in 100 years, someone can pull out a box of slides and see grandma and grandpa standing in front of their first house. No hard drives that can't be plugged in, no ancient image formats to decode, just a pure analog image of something that might otherwise be lost forever.

With that in mind, I've decided to re-purpose my Kodachrome into a photographic time capsule. The remaining 63 frames will be of people, places and things that are important to me. Once I get the mounted slides back from the lab, I'm going to sit and write the important who/what/when/where/why on every slide in archival ink, and store them in an appropriate container with a loupe. If I can find a nice enough container, maybe my wife will even let me keep them out on the coffee table ;) I hope to pass these slides on to my children some day, and for them to become a sort of family history from the year 2010 (a very firm deadline, since the only lab that still processes Kodachrome is shutting down the machine at the end of December). It's a somewhat weighty and ambitious plan, but I think it's a good project and a good historical use for my photography. There will be plenty of other opportunities for "pretty shots."

Unfortunately, Kodachrome is pretty much non-existent these days. You might be able to find some for ridiculous prices on ebay still, but I don't recommend it. If you're interested in a project like this, any slide film will do. Modern emulsions and processes don't have the staying power that Kodachome does, but they should last long enough for a few generations to enjoy. You don't even need a fancy camera for it - since your goal is more documentary in nature you don't have to worry about nailing exposure every time or super shallow depth of field. Find a used 35mm point n shoot if you have to and use that. Subject and composition are king, and if you concentrate on that you can't go wrong. Of course, if you have any interest in film, buying a film SLR that will take the same lenses as your DSLR isn't a bad idea... Ebay and Craigslist are great places to snap up old 35mm gear, or you can hit up a few garage/yard/estate sales for a real steal.

If you're just not into film, you can do a similar project with prints. Make sure you get archival quality prints and find a good way to store and present them that will last for a while. A lot of printers now offer special coatings that are supposed to resist fingerprints and extend the life of the image, which might be worth looking into.

So what do you think? Is this a project you're going to do? Or am I just being sentimental and a bit of a film nut? Your thoughts, questions, comments and concerns are always appreciated.


[title of blog] on flickr


  1. Haha, I take it your dad wasn't obsessed with slides growing up... My dad used to bust out his projector at least a couple times a year to show me slides of all the buildings he and his dad had worked on (they're architects), of family vacations (none of which I went on, b/c by the time I was born, we had switched to film), etc. Boy does that get old fast. :P

    BUT I like your idea of making a time capsule, and I can see the benefits of a non-tech dependent medium. It'd be neat to see (on this blog) what you come up with!

  2. @ Kristan - haha, I actually almost wrote something about being forced to sit through slide shows, but I decided against it. My dad wasn't that into slides, probably because he had more than enough of them at work, so I wasn't forced to sit though them as a kid. I'll definitely do a follow up on this once I get the slides back and start putting it together.

  3. Definitely an awesome project, and one very worthy of your last kodachrome frames.

    I don't much focus on taking pictures just for posterity - but it would probably behoove me to do that once in a while. I would get scans and make a book out of those 72 frames as well. Get a few copies, give one to each of the people that are featured (kids, wife, siblings). It'd probably make a fun xmas gift for your dad - show him what you did with the gift from last year!

    Love the image at the top of the post!

  4. @ Matt - great idea re: the book, I'll have to do that.

    Since I got "serious" about photography I've been pretty focused on making "art," and shying away from the "say cheese" kinda stuff. I think that's a mistake, and something I'm working on changing. This project is sort of the pent up result of that, but I'm also trying to take more documentary kind of stuff with my regular photography.

    Ah yes, the Mamiya. The photo club here at Cornell has one that they loan out. I shot two rolls through it and haven't gone back to it since. Maybe this fall I'll shoot another roll or two, I bet they still have the film I left with it.

  5. Wish I had some kodachrome lying around. I do have slide film though. That used to be the only way I shot when I did film. I somewhat miss those days...but I'm quite happy to have gone through my fair share of slide film in that era.

    Kodachrome - had a total of three rolls in my day. One was shot at Philmont Scout Preserve in New Mexico, one was shot at Niagra Falls and the last was shot Lake Placid. Kodachrome introduced me to a love for Landscape Photography.