The news last week that Eastman Kodak will no longer manufacture Kodachrome film should have surprised no one. The history of photography is in no small part the history of its technology. Equipment is constantly updated and thus constantly becoming obsolete. But while the discontinuance of Kodachrome may not be felt as keenly as that of other recently defunct items -- notably Polaroid's SX-70 film or Kodak's black-and-white printing papers -- the Kodak film has given honorable service for so long (since 1935 in movie cameras, since 1936 in 35mm still cameras) that its demise calls for a send-off more ceremonial than just a quote from the Paul Simon lyric.
All kinds of photographers at one time depended on color slides. During the second half of the 20th century, Kodachrome recorded countless American vacations, memories that in many households have slept undisturbed for years in their 2-by-2-inch cardboard sleeves. The film was also called upon for art-history lectures and elaborate advertisements, by travel and shelter magazines and, beginning in the early 1960s, by news weeklies.
Photo-realist painters and installation artists employed it as a humble tool. The shrewd exhibition "Slide Show," which premiered at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 2005 -- six months after Kodak stopped making projectors -- brought together 19 works (and more than 2,500 slides) by artists as different as Nan Goldin, Dan Graham and Louise Lawler.
Even Ansel Adams, who distrusted color because in his day its reproduction on the page was so iffy, made hundreds of Kodachromes in various formats for commercial jobs during the '40s and '50s. A sample of this unrecognized work will soon appear in the volume "Ansel Adams in Color," to be published this fall by Little Brown.
Sports Illustrated was launched in 1954 as a weekly designed to exploit the emerging potential of color photography. A new celebratory volume published by the magazine, also named "Slide Show," is inadvertently a farewell valentine to Kodachrome. The picture book reproduces slides of famous moments, such as Lynn Swann's diving 1976 Super Bowl catch, caught by Heinz Kluetmeier's lens, complete with the notations added over the years by editors along the white border of the picture after they peered at it through similarly outmoded tools, the loupe and the light box.
Walter Iooss Jr., who began to work at the magazine in 1961, has mixed feelings about the end of the Kodachrome era. "It wasn't like you had a lot of options if you wanted to shoot in color," he recalls by phone from his house in Montauk, N.Y. For portraits and brightly lighted outdoor scenes, it was the go-to film, even though early versions were so slow (rated at ASA 10) that "if you got any frozen action, it was a miracle."
The saturation of hues was the selling point and "the grain was sensational. Hands down it was the best color film of the period, until the '80s when Fuji caught up."
Kodachrome was so complicated to develop that amateurs and professionals were on an equal footing in relying on labs to handle the film. No basement darkroom was up to the task. Kodak had the exclusive processing rights until 1954, when the Supreme Court ruled this monopolistic practice unlawful. Among some photographers, says Mr. Iooss, the expensive regimen involved gave the film a "near mystical" status. "There was only a few labs that processed it," he says. In recent years, that number had shrunk to only one.
Mr. Iooss is even willing to muster regret for a less-heralded aspect of Kodachrome -- its trim little canisters. With their tight rubber caps, he swears they were "the greatest devices for smuggling contraband of all time."
What he won't lament is "carrying film through airports" where fogging by X-ray machines had been known to ruin a week's work. Or "waiting three or four days for the film to come back." Or "guessing when it was expired." Once you took Kodachrome out of the box -- and photographers at Sports Illustrated would grab "bricks" of unexposed rolls before heading out on assignment -- you never knew when your unused film was out-of-date.
Art photography, too, is now largely digital. But the American street and landscape photographers, who in the '60s and '70s made color as respectable as black-and-white, often preferred color transparencies over color negative film. William Eggleston urged his friend William Christenberry to try Kodachrome in the early '70s.
"I liked the density of the color," says Mr. Christenberry from his home in Washington, D.C. "I like things to be real. Some people think Kodachrome color is surreal, but I never felt that way." A book of this body of work is scheduled to be published next year by Aperture.
Joel Meyerowitz, another leading member of that generation, began shooting with Kodachrome in 1962 and carried it in his bag until a few years ago. Over the phone from Cape Cod, he recalls walking around New York during his youth with the British photographer Tony Ray-Jones: "He and I would shoot with Kodachrome, almost every day, and get expedited service, overnight. Then we would project the pictures on the wall, two or three feet across, and analyze what we had done and what the film would do in certain kinds of light."
He and other Kodachrome die-hards rhapsodize about "the luminous skin tones" it could elicit. "If you got the exposure right, you got the most exquisite curve. It held the information in the shadows and the highlights."
Dye-transfer printing -- still the most vivid and long-lasting, not to mention costly, way to reproduce color on paper -- was easier with Kodachrome than with other films, in Mr. Meyerowitz's opinion. Its three color emulsion layers (with filter layers built in) and the complex "subtractive" process required to produce the image was ideal for dye-transfers. "It's as if the film gave back to the dye-transfer lab what was already embedded there," he says. He credits Kodachrome with "instructing me in what the medium was capable of."
Digital technology has transformed picture-making and much else about contemporary life. The pace of change shows no signs of slowing down. But photography, by preserving figments of the present for the future, is innately elegiac.
It shouldn't be too long before songs are written by young men and women concerned that another innovation is taking their JPEGs, TIFFs, GIFs and PNGs away, if they haven't already accidentally erased the files themselves.
By Richard Woodward, an arts writer living in New York.