By Geoff Wittig
I find it fascinating that very specific films or imaging technologies have so narrowly defined the "look" of color photography over the years.
The recent eulogy for Kodachrome here at T.O.P., and the beautiful examples of work done with this film, got me thinking a little "meta" on the subject of imaging technology. Not to get all McLuhan about it, but the æsthetic and perceptual characteristics of a particular film tend to constrain or channel the way we see, especially in color. Kodachrome is the greatest example of this, because it dominated color photography and reproduction for decades. Once color offset printing became affordable, photography in the book and magazine publishing industries was largely built on this specific transparency film. Photographers who learned how to get great results with Kodachrome essentially created the visual "look" of the period circa 1960–1980.
Study any color photo book from this era. Almost invariably you'll see the Kodachrome æsthetic: rich warm tones and relatively subdued greens, with deep shadows as an artifact of the slight underexposure required to get decent color saturation. As long as you kept the highlights under control, you'd reliably get that nice palette: lovely blue skies, subtle cool greens, and burnished warm colors with impact out of proportion to their size in the frame. To me it sometimes seemed like looking at the world through a glass of Scotch. For folks my age, learning color photography meant learning to see the world like K64 did. (I don't mean to ignore color print film; I'm aware that the sales volume of C-41 films dwarfed all the chromes combined. But their frequently abysmal color permanence combined with the vagaries of automated printing and the dominance of transparency film in publishing conspired to make them less relevant.)
Forest Drive, Great Otway National Park. Photo by Glenn Guy using a Leica R8, 90mm Summicron, and Fuji Velvia 100F film.
E-6 films began to erode Kodachrome's market share ever faster from about 1980, and in 1990 the Velvia steamroller arrived. At least for nature and landscape photography, the prevailing color æsthetic changed dramatically. The hypersaturated, brash, neon colors of Velvia and its imitators came to be the perceptual 'filter' through which people saw the world. It's completely understandable; those luscious glowing transparencies on a lightbox are hypnotizing. But it's also a weirdly distorted, cartoonish vision of the world, one that basically mandates photographing in soft/overcast light or within a few minutes of sunrise/sunset.
In the last decade we've seen another great shift in the way color photography sees the world, with the digital juggernaut. The potential of this technology for greater subtlety and fidelity seems to be losing out, at least in nature/landscape photography, to an irresistable urge to mimic the Velvia æsthetic. I sometimes shudder at the countless over-saturated digital confections published in magazines and coffee-table books. Digital also adds its own quirks, of course. Sharpening halos, plastic textures, shadow noise and empty highlights can be a lot less attractive than organic-looking film grain. There's hope, though. Excellent digital exposure and processing provide a completely different level of quality from a thoughtless default.
And we're no longer chained to the vagaries of a K64 processing plant the size of a small steel mill at the instant of exposure.
Geoff Wittig, a "humble country doctor" in New England, is a regular contributor to TOP.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Adrian: "Keeping with the book-theme of the previous post's comments: Here's a beautiful book with pictures about the life in Swiss countryside in the 1950s. The (Swiss German) commentary in the video on the website claims that the images were taken with Kodak transparency film from 1952 to 1958."
Featured Comment by Keith B.: "The 'Velvia Steamroller' could be said to have actually started with the introduction of Fuji 50(E-6), with its increased color saturation (compared to Kodachrome 25 or Ektachrome 64) and outstanding fine edge detail characteristics, sometime in the early 1980s. Fuji 50 was to be merely a preview of the jacked-up, borderline-false color Velvia which appeared by about 1984. I worked at Bel Air Camera in Westwood Village (L.A.) at the time, and the Fuji rep handed out samples of the first Velvia in 35mm. My Velvia sample rendered white cumulus clouds shot on a clear, sunny day with a magenta cast, so I went back to my preferred distortion of reality, Kodachrome 25."
Featured Comment by Frank P.: "A Kodak Scientist told me that in the early 1950s, color negative film was intended to be the primary photographic medium for professional photographers to use for color lithographic reproduction (i.e. magazines, books, advertising, everything!).
"In the ideal Kodak workflow, the professional photographer would handcraft a carefully adjusted and retouched color print to be shot for color separations. The photographer maintained complete creative control over the look and feel of their images.
"What happened? Clients and color separators wanted chromes. The photographer relinquished the control and craft aspect of making prints for commercial repro and instead togs spent the next 50 years in an inane game of chasing color and attempting to make their transparencies consistent and pleasing...which is why I have a collection of 025 Wratten Gel filters fading away in the basement.
"Transparencies may have been nice to look at but it's a real shame they were so popular. They stifled a lot of the creative options that a good photographer could have used to make more distinctive and individualized art."