You can’t always schedule the end of an era.
You can’t always schedule the end of an era.
A group of photography students from Webster University traveled from St. Louis to Parsons on Wednesday with 110 rolls of Kodachrome film to be processed Thursday, which was the last day that Dwayne’s Photo would be processing the unique film, which was the basis for modern color photography.
As Susan Stang, Webster photography professor, explained, the film would form the basis for “The Last Kodachrome Project,” with developed photos to be featured in an exhibit and a book published by the Webster University Press.
But, when the group arrived at the Parsons photo processing lab early Thursday morning, they heard surprising news. Because of the huge volume of Kodachrome film arriving at the lab — 750 rolls on Wednesday alone — processing would continue past Thursday, though it would still be the last day that film would be accepted.
“We had it worked out to be in the last two batches to be developed,” Stang said.
But the film, shot by around 60 Webster students, including some at the university’s international campuses, will still be among the last Kodachrome developed in the world.
And the small group from St. Louis received a personal tour through the processing plant, guided by Grant Steinle, vice president of Dwayne’s Photo and son of the owner, Dwayne Steinle. He also gave the students a lesson on the science behind Kodachrome film, which was invented in 1935.
“The dyes that form the image on the film are not incorporated into the film until it is developed, and that’s what gave Kodachrome its unique quality and sharp image,” Steinle said. “Other color dyes had the colors incorporated into them at the factory. The only dyes in Kodachrome are those necessary to form the image, so there are no other dyes to break down over time.”
This means that Kodachrome images should remain sharp and vivid for many years if properly archived. But there was a down side as well.
“The things that made Kodachrome unique also led to its demise,” Steinle said. “Kodak not only had to make the film but also the developing chemicals.”
Those chemicals were expensive, and the developing process complicated, not something that an amateur could do in his or her studio. Even many professional labs chose not to tackle the procedure.
As more and more photographers switched to digital cameras, there was less and less demand for Kodachrome film. After a time, Dwayne’s Lab was the only one left in the world that was certified to develop Kodachrome.
On June 22, 2009, Eastman Kodak announced that the company would stop production of the film and the associated chemicals.
This truly was the end of an era, Stang said.
“Kodachrome had a cult following,” the photography professor said. “In my photography classes, I always write ‘1935’ on my board at the beginning of class, because that marks the birth of modern color photography.”
Last year, at the final meeting of the color photography class, a friend of Bill Barrett, also a Webster professor, brought in some old boxes of Kodachrome. He thought the students might be interested in shooting with the film over the summer, and possibly have a show of their photos.
“The boxes were from 1981 and 1987, but they had been frozen and he thought the film was OK,” Stang said.
She wasn’t sure her students would be interested.
“Then they saw the boxes, and were saying, ‘Is that what I think it is? I never thought I’d get to shoot Kodachrome’,” Stang said.
The idea for the project came from student David Nash.
“I proposed the idea of having the film in the last batch,” he said. “I thought it would be great to be part of something bigger than just a show.”
“Susan left during class, looked up the phone number of Dwayne’s Photo and called,” added student Lisa Lauber.
Stang talked with Steinle, who agreed to the proposal. Also enthusiastic was Debra Carpenter, dean of the Webster University School of Communication. The former Debby Spruk, she graduated from Pittsburg High School in 1971 and attended Pittsburg State University for two years before transferring to the University of Kansas.
“I told Debra about it, and she said she would pay for developing the film,” Stang said. “I told her it would cost $10 a roll, or about $1,000 for the project, and she said she’d pay it.”
There will be an exhibit of the Kodachrome photos, and the book is in preparation, though there may be a change in deadline because of the delay in processing. Title will be “Kodachrome, End of the Run: Photos from the Final Batches.”
“The front end of the book is finished, and we’re just waiting on the photos now,” Stang said.
Steinle said the lab has been processing Kodachrome around the clock.
“We took half our people and put them on at night,” he said, adding that it wasn’t feasible to bring in and train new people for just a week’s work.
Steinle did stress that Dwayne’s Photo is not closing. In fact, he said that the lab is busy enough providing other services that he doubts any employees will have to be laid off.
“But Kodachrome is a wonderful film, and I am sorry it’s going away,” Steinle said.
“I don’t see any chance of it coming back.”
It’s sad, but Stang is pleased that students had a chance to be part of this historical moment.
“Students usually think that history is something that happens outside of them,” she said. “Our saying was, ‘We were not there for the start of this era but we are going to be part of its end’.”
Nash is pleased at the way his idea has worked out. “I’m proud to be part of this,” he said.