The Last Roll of Kodachrome

Actor Robert De Niro in his screening room in Tribeca, in New York City, May 2010.

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!”

De Niro in his screening room, May 2010.

De Niro in his office in Tribeca, May 2010.

Indian film actor, director, and producer Aamir Khan in India, June 2010.

A boy in a tea shop in Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia, near Mumbai, India, June 2010.

A sculpture studio in Mumbai that produces statues of notable Indian personages and Hindu gods, June 2010.

Indian writer and actress Shenaz Treasurywala, in India, June 2010.

Indian film actress and director Nandita Das, in India, June 2010.

Shekhar Kapur, director of Elizabeth, in India, June 2010.

Amitabh Bachchan, one of the country’s most prominent actors, in India, June 2010.

A Rabari tribal elder, photographed in India, June 2010.

A Rabari tribal elder, photographed in India, June 2010.

A Rabari tribal elder, who is also an itinerant magician, photographed in India, June 2010.

A Rabari tribal elder and itinerant magician, photographed in India, June 2010.

A Rabari woman, photographed in India, June 2010.

A Rabari woman, photographed in India, June 2010.

A Rabari girl, photographed in India, June 2010.

An elderly Rabari woman, photographed in India, June 2010.

A Rabari boy, photographed in India, June 2010.

Turkish photographer Ara Guler (“The Eye of Istanbul”), in Istanbul, Turkey, June 2010.

Street art at Seventh Avenue and Bleecker Street, in New York City, July 2010.

A woman reading on a Saturday afternoon in Washington Square Park, in New York City, July 2010.

A woman reading on a Saturday afternoon in Washington Square Park, in New York City, July 2010.

A street performer in Washington Square Park, July 2010.

Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt in his Central Park West studio, in New York City, July 2010.

A self-portrait of Steve McCurry, taken in Manhattan, July 2010.

A self-portrait of Steve McCurry, taken in Manhattan, July 2010.

A man on a bench in front of a statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Union Square, July 2010.

McCurry at four a.m. in his hotel room watching a Stephen Colbert interview on television, in Parsons, Kansas, July 2010.

A local man sleeps outside a community center in Parsons, July 2010.

A statue in a cemetery in Parsons, home to the last photographic lab in the world that developed Kodachrome film, July 2010.

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