Photographs by Steve McCurry.
Two years ago, photographer Steve McCurry heard the whispers. Due to the digital-photography revolution, Kodak was considering discontinuing one of the most legendary film stocks of all time: Kodachrome, a film which was to color slides what the saxophone was to jazz. McCurry spoke with Kodak’s worldwide-marketing wizard Audrey Jonckheer, hoping to persuade Kodak to bequeath him the very last roll that came off the assembly line in Rochester, New York. They readily agreed. And recently, McCurry—most famous for his National Geographic cover of an Afghan girl in a refugee camp, shot on Kodachrome loaded his Nikon F6 with the 36 exposure spool and headed east, intending to concentrate on visual artists like himself, relying on his typical mix of portraiture, photojournalism, and street photography.
Herewith, presented for the first time in their entirety, are the frames from that historic final roll, which accompanied McCurry from the manufacturing plant in Rochester to his home in Manhattan (where he is a member of the prestigious photo agency Magnum), to Bombay, Rajasthan, Bombay, Istanbul, London, and back to New York. (The camera was X-rayed twice at airports along the way.) McCurry’s final stop, on July 12, 2010: Dwayne’s Photo, in Parsons, Kansas—the only lab on Earth that still developed Kodachrome—which halted all such processing in late December.
What did he choose to shoot on the last frame of that last roll? A statue in a Parsons graveyard (in the section reserved for Civil War veterans), bearing flowers of the same yellow-and-red hue as the Kodak package. (See Frame 36.) “I saw a statue of this soldier, looking off in the distance,” says McCurry, age 60, “and he’s kind of looking off into the future or the past. I figure, This is perfect. A cemetery. Kodachrome—this is the end of this sort of film—[suggesting] the transience of life. This is something that’s disappearing forever.”
And what, pray tell, will McCurry miss most about his old trusty chrome? (He happens to have shot, at last count, 800,000 Kodachrome frames over the past four decades.) “I’ve been shooting digital for years,” he insists, “but I don’t think you can make a better photograph under certain conditions than you can with Kodachrome. If you have good light and you’re at a fairly high shutter speed, it’s going to be a brilliant color photograph. It had a great color palette. It wasn’t too garish. Some films are like you’re on a drug or something. Velvia made everything so saturated and wildly over-the-top, too electric. Kodachrome had more poetry in it, a softness, an elegance. With digital photography, you gain many benefits [but] you have to put in post-production. [With Kodachrome,] you take it out of the box and the pictures are already brilliant.”
Never more, alas. Unless, of course, some chemist some day comes up with a way to replicate the complex, expensive developing process. Until then, McCurry is biding his time. “I have a few rolls of Kodachrome in the fridge,” he claims. “I’m just going to leave it there. My fridge would be kind of empty without them. If they ever revive Kodachrome like they did Polaroid, I’ll be poised and ready to go!”