Ektachrome: A Look Back


It’s not too often that a blog post actually makes you do a double take. And it’s even less often that the blog post is about CES, the annual Vegas-based electronics showcase notorious for gimmicky product launches, miles (literally) of booths, and crowds composed mainly of overworked tech reporters. So you can imagine my surprise when I was casually scrolling through CES headlines, and read something genuinely shocking; Kodak is bringing back Ektachrome.

Why is the resurrection of a specific brand of slide film so personally exciting? My company, Gado Images, works with archives worldwide to help them digitize and share their visual history. Many of our collections include huge numbers of transparencies, and we have more than 20,000 in our own archive here in San Francisco. That means I’m probably one of the only living people who work with Ektachrome every day. For me, reading that Kodak is bringing back Ektachrome was a bit like a paleontologist walking around a corner and finding a living triceratops.

So what is Ektachrome, anyway? Originally launched in the mid 1940s, Ektachrome is a color film from Kodak, used for transparencies. It was one of the first commercially-available color films, and one of Kodak’s flagship “chrome” films. The chrome bit refers to the fact that Ektachrome is a positive (or reversal) film. With traditional negative films, you expose a piece of film, develop it into a negative, and then print it using an enlarger. With positive films, though, the actual piece of film you expose in your camera ends up being developed, mounted, and returned to you, usually as a slide.

The advantage with chrome films is that they have beautiful, vibrant colors. They also tend to have higher resolution, because they’re capturing exactly what was present in the scene; you’re not going through the extra step of printing from a negative. For this reason, they were the preferred choice of magazine and advertising shooters, who needed bold colors and vivid details to sell products or capture exotic, far-off places.

Exposure issues were always a challenge with chrome films, including this example from the 1980s /Gado

The disadvantage of chrome films is that they’re persnickety. Whereas with a negative film, you can fix a lot of exposure issues during the development process, chrome films are much less forgiving. The rule of thumb is that you can’t push them more than about 1-1.5 stops. That’s fine for professional photographers, who know how to get lighting and exposure just right. For amateurs, it’s a different story. I could build a tower hundreds of feet high with the underexposed Ektachromes in our collections (Jenga, anyone?).

When Ektachrome transparencies were well-shot, though, the colors were great. The issue is that they didn’t always stay great. Since its launch, Ektachrome has gone through six different development processes (referred to as E1-E6). Each one involved different temperatures, different steps, and different chemicals (generally, less toxic ones as companies slowly became uncomfortable with poisoning their darkroom workers). The first three processes (E1-E3) were, frankly, terrible. Ektachrome slides developed with these processes would fade and discolor, taking on a nasty purple hue so quickly that by now, they’re basically all gone. One of the early processes yielded slides that lasted only 8 years.

Colors faded fast in E1-E3 Ektachromes like this example, and details often lost crispness /Gado

By process E4 (rolled out in the 1960s), things were a bit better. Colors stayed stable for around thirty years. Since the process was used until the 1990s, lots of E4 Ektachromes are in fine shape today. Still, in archival terms, 30 years is a pittance. Many of our archives hold illuminated manuscripts from the 1500s, or even papyri from Egyptian times. They’ve been sitting for centuries, and their colors still look great.

Famously, musician Paul Simon wrote an eponymous 1973 song about Kodak’s other flagship chrome film, Kodachrome. He compared Kodachrome’s legendary colors to the vivid, colorful memories from his childhood and imagination. It’s a good thing Paul had Kodachrome—which takes 185 years to discolor–for his childhood “Nikon camera.” If he only had Ektachrome, the lyrics may have been a lot different: “Ektachrome/Give us those fade-prone colors/Give us those mauves of summer/Makes you think all the world/Looks just okay.

The colors still look brilliant in this 15th century Book of Hours /JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado

The good news is that today’s Ektachrome is a totally different animal. In the mid 1990s, Kodak came out with E6, their newest development process. That’s the process they’ll use on Ektachrome film when you buy it later this year (and yes, you will buy it). Ektachrome now has an archival life of more than 200 years, and the colors look great. Some say they’re as good as Kodachrome. Some say they’re better.

Which brings me to the even more tantalizing possibility raised by Kodak’s big announcement. Maybe, just maybe, they’ll bring back Kodachrome, too. Officially, Kodak has been noncommittal. As reported in the Washington Post, they first said the film wouldn’t be coming back, citing (correctly) the fact that it basically requires a chemistry degree to process. But later, in the Kodakery Podcast, Kodak’s CMO spoke a few magical words: “we’re looking at what it would take.”

Kodachromes are known for their legendary colors and incredible archival stability. This one was shot ca. 1952 in Mexico City. /Gado

So here’s my message to Kodak. Please look faster! Resurrecting Ektachrome is huge, and clearly the right first step. The film is far easier to develop than Kodachrome, making it much lower risk for a company testing the analog waters. But still. Kodachrome literally defined a generation. It’s the film of Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl, and countless other iconic color images of the 20th century. Utah named a state park after it. It’s been dead for seven years, and there are still entire blogs about it.

Ektachrome’s resurrection is hugely exciting. Anything which gives photographers another tool to work with, another format to try, or another challenge to master (get out your light meters, folks!) is a great thing. But I hope Kodak doesn’t stop there. They’ve already brought back Super 8, another format with a rich legacy. Why not Kodachrome? Why not now? I’ll tell you this; they’d have at least one eager customer.

Thomas Smith is Co-Founder and CEO of Gado Images, a software and media company which uses innovative technologies to digitize and share the world’s visual history. The company works with archival collections to find unique, niche content and make it available to creatives worldwide.

Images used with permission