Saturday, January 15, 2011

Kodachrome and the Great Depression

Kodachrome and the Great Depression – those are two topics you don’t often hear combined in the same sentence!  Recently, Jonathan Halabi sent me a link to some amazing Depression-era photos taken using Kodachrome, a new film product at the time, first out on the market in 1935. 

(thanks for sending this link, Jonathan)

Here’s another similar one I found, with some different photos

And another one, of slightly more dubious provenance, but with some cool Kodachrome photos:

My first thought when I looked at this link was “Holy crap!  I didn’t even know that they HAD Kodachrome back in the Great Depression era.”  This was a product that I associated so closely with post-WWII life that I never realized that it was around before the war.  All those beautiful photos taken by photographers working under the aegis of various federal government agencies and programs during the 1930's-1940's - we normally think of the amazing photos of the Great Depression as iconic works in black and white, a la Dorothea Lange's seminal series on the dust bowl refugees, migrant farm workers, and rural poverty in general.  She, and other photographers, worked for the USDA’s Farm Security Administration (FSA), traveling around the whole country, their mission being to create photographs to try to persuade Congress that thousands of dispossessed farm families were in desperate need of government assistance.

Examples of the well-known black and white photos

NYT article about the mission to capture / document America’s poverty/misery

For me, when I compare the black and white photos with the much less numerous color photos, the color photos have a more urgent immediacy, they seem more real, less abstracted, I can relate to the people in them as being more like me, more sympathetic, more everyday folks, somehow.  The black and white pictures seem to portray people who are larger than life, heroic beyond what most humans are capable of.  They remind me of those idealized laborers in the WPA murals.  I am not sure if the members of Congress at the time would have had the same reaction, being so used, as they were then, to seeing photos and even movies in black and white.  Color may have seemed very unreal to them, very garish.  Perception and reaction have a lot (everything!) to do with our context and personal backgrounds. 

The black and white photos still pack an incredible punch.  Here are a couple of lesser-known works of Dorothea Lange.

Photo by Dorothea Lange.  Migrant worker photo.  USDA – public domain
Young migratory mother in Edison, Kern County, California, originally from Texas.  On the day before the photograph was made, she and her husband traveled 35 miles each way to pick peas.  They worked 5 hours each and together earned $2.25.  They have two young children…Live in auto camp.  April 1940

Photo by Dorothea Lange.  USDA – public domain
Children of Oklahoma drought refugees on highway near Bakersfield, California. Family of six; no shelter, no food, no money and almost no gasoline. The child using crutches has bone tuberculosis. 1935

OK, THESE people and most Americans who lived through those times, THEY knew suffering, sacrifice, and uncertainty.  It’s a joke to compare our current economic downturn, as horrible as it is for many people, to what went on in the 1930’s.  Check out these maps of conditions in the 1930’s.  Unemployment was as high as 38% in many parts of the country.  In some counties, fully 100% of the banks had failed, with people losing all their life savings.  The national unemployment rate rose from 3.2% in 1929 to 25% in 1933, and a conservative estimate was that one third of the nation was living in poverty by the mid-1930’s.

Map of “Hooverville” where people lived in home-made shacks (these “Hoovervilles” were all over the country, including one in New York City's Central Park, and were named, of course, after the President that many people blamed for the economic collapse.) This one was in Seattle, Washington, where there were eight other Hoovervilles at the time.  Map by Donald Francis Roy, as part of a Master’s degree thesis, 1935.  Hooverville: A Study of a Community of Homeless Men in Seattle

More on Seattle’s Hoovervilles:

(All from the website “Mapping the Great Depression in Washington State”)

In any event, the Kodachrome color photos are not something that most of us would have associated with the Great Depression, and I wanted to bring them to your attention, first of all because they are incredible, and they document a part of our past that is rapidly turning from lived experience to the mists of history, as more and more of the Depression-era generation passes away each year.  But the other reason I am writing all this is that Kodachrome, the most popular film in the history of photography, and the film that captured more American memories than any other, is no more.  This month marks the end of an era – the last operating Kodachrome processing plant (Dwaynes’ Photos in Parsons, Kansas) will be processing its final rolls of Kodachrome slides.  It was supposed to have shut down Kodachrome processing on December 31, 2010, but due to so many rolls of film arriving at the last minute, it decided to postpone the deadline a bit.  Kodak had already stopped manufacturing the film as well as the chemicals necessary to process Kodachrome in 2009.  A roll of Kodachrome shot by the award-winning photographer Steve McCurry was planned to be the very last roll processed at the plant.  He is the person who took the famous photo of the young Afgani girl that made the cover of National Geographic in 1984. 

The world of Kodachrome: Photography was so different then, before digital cameras.  I suppose in these days of instantaneous Facebook updates of family vacations and the public documentation of every aspect of our lives (e.g. – blogging!) it may seem very quaint, but back in the 1950’s and really right on through the 1980’s, you would invite friends and relatives over to your house for dinner or drinks, and then bring out the old Kodak carousel slide projector, and show slides projected on a white wall of your latest far-flung (or close to home) adventures.  It was entertainment!  People would sit in uncomfortable chairs, stare at the slides, and pay attention! (or pretend to!)  There would be a whole narrative you would weave through the slides.  People (OK, by “people,” I mean ME! But I was not alone in this, trust me!) would spend hours and hours sorting through the slides, editing the collection to the most illustrative 100 or so slides, putting them in the proper story-telling order. 

There was also something rather thrilling about traveling on the plane with two or three little lead-lined film bags, (to protect the rolls of film whilst going through x-ray machine at the airport) and then upon reaching home again, sending out the film to be processed.  So much could go wrong!  The film could have been damaged at any point along the journey.  The light meter could have been not functioning properly, and all the slides might be either under- or over-exposed!  And yes, I was one of those crazies who used a hand-held light meter, spurning a camera with a built in light meter as something beneath my dignity.  This stems from a kind of snobbishness about “real” photography that rubbed off on me from my photography instructor at college, who was an old “Life” magazine photographer and did everything the old fashioned way.  I was the teacher’s pet in that class, because while everyone else had fancy new 35 mm single lens reflex cameras borrowed from their dads, I had an old beat-up Rolleiflex twin lens reflex which used a large format (2 ¼” square) negative.  Lots of advantages to this type of camera (no shutter lag, no blacked-out nano-second during exposure, larger negative to fool around with, great for both action shots and portraits, and also “sneak” shots, since viewers couldn’t tell what you were taking a picture of, plus that fabulous square format) but it did take some getting used to seeing everything upside down and backwards!
But I digress!  So the slides would go out for processing, usually to a custom photo shop in the neighborhood, and you would then wait with your heart in your throat until the slides came back.  You never knew what was going to happen!  It isn’t like now, you get instant gratification – now you know right away whether or not you made the shot.  I can remember working with my perspective correction lens and setting up an architectural shot for an hour or more, just trying to get it perfectly (which usually meant waiting for pesky passers-by to get out of the way!) and no matter how many pictures you snapped, there was no guarantee that ANY of them would be good when they were developed.  And these were slides, not prints, so what you snapped was what you got.  The finished product and the “negative” were the same thing.  Not even anything you could do in the darkroom to correct anything, with slides.  It was a one-shot deal.  No do-overs.  No cropping.  No red-eye out.  No Photoshopping in those days!  So I feel a lot of nostalgia over the end of the Kodachrome era.  It was, indeed, a very special slice of a world that is no more. 

Kodachrome, probably the most-used film product in history, figured largely in our cultural heritage for over 7 decades, and was made even more famous by the Paul Simon song of the same name (Kodak even insisting that the little registration symbol be placed next to the song’s title on the album cover!).  This song was not released in Great Britain as a single, nor could it receive radio airplay there, due to the trademarked title!  

Kodachrome lyrics: (written by Paul Simon, on the studio album There Goes Rhymin’ Simon, Columbia Records, 1973)

When I think back
On all the crap I learned in high school
It's a wonder
I can think at all
And though my lack of education
Hasn't hurt me none
I can read the writing on the wall

You give us those nice bright colors
You give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world's a sunny day, oh yeah!
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So Mama, don't take my Kodachrome away

If you took all the girls I knew
When I was single
And brought them all together for one night
I know they'd never match
My sweet imagination
And everything looks worse in black and white

You give us those nice bright colors
You give us the greens of summers
Makes you think all the world's a sunny day, oh yeah!
I got a Nikon camera
I love to take a photograph
So Mama, don't take my Kodachrome away

Mama, don't take my Kodachrome away
Mama, don't take my Kodachrome away
Mama, don't take my Kodachrome away

Mama, don't take my Kodachrome
Mama, don't take my Kodachrome
Mama, don't take my Kodachrome (away)

But, well, Mama (or someone!) DID take his Kodachrome awaaay-hey-hey-hey!

Simon and Garfunkel performing “Kodachrome” at a free concert in Central Park 1981, attended by over 500,000 people.


  1. M. Monkey
    Eclectic. First drawn in on Freedom Rider's map, old memories.

    Re Kodachrome, introduced in 1935. Kodak sold it until a 1954 court decision with processing included.

    Take a look at

    Which is an extensive collection of the FSA Kodachrome from the era although it became more heavily used going into 1940 -- color not being quite as useful to most of those that printed FSA work. The new Magazines were another story.

    I went through most of the color work on the site at prints and photographs section and a lot of it is stunning. Some was shot on 35 mm (as was a good bit of B&w) but what you'll find is also a lot of 4x5 Kodachrome. Also, the FSA photography crew, which changed over the years, switched for the most part to the OWI. Two outstanding examples of use are Andreas Feninger's images of Bingham Canyon Utah and a series (forgot name) of a Rail shop replacing the tries on steam locomotive drive weels, lots of flying sparks and flame as they remove the outer wear section and put another on.

    Nice site.

  2. Thanks for the kind words, JMC56, and I'm really glad that you enjoyed the site and hope you visit again. It's always nice to hear from people who have discovered the blog "by accident." I will take a look at the sites you recommended, and thanks for pointing us there. The Map Monkey