The color of an era

I was shooting with a photographer in the Public Garden recently, under the suspension bridge that runs over the swan pond. It's a dark and mysterious location -- and several degrees cooler, in the shade -- and once I pulled out my standard Reflects A Lot Of Light white chiffon scarf, we started cracking silly jokes about spy movies and Eastern European refugees.

It was apparently a happy accident in Lightbox, but when he gave me back the gallery of retouched images, most of the bridge ones had been turned a beautiful, vintage filmy blue:


(The photographer's name is Matthew Phillion, and he is also an actor, director, producer, model, writer, and for all I know, goat-herder. He keeps a webpage, with short blog, at Lost Continuity. Go read it. HE WRITES IN SENTENCES, Y'ALL. This is still much too rare on the internet. The rest of the gallery is up on Facebook.)

The characteristic color of the late 1960s is a combination of film chemistry and time. Very vivid photographs with true color and high contrast were likely taken on Kodachrome film. Kodachrome is excellent for capturing sharp, colorful shots, and for a long time was the preferred film for things that were going to be published in print, rather than processed as snapshots. It was also widely used by hobbyists; it was pricier than other contemporary film formats, but this was in large part because Kodak developed all Kodachrome in-house, and the cost of the roll included the cost of the envelope, the shipping, and the certified Kodak processing. Kodachrome is generally more dye-stable in dark storage than other films, and prior to digital collections, was the format of choice for archived slides.

The mid-contrast cool tones, on the other hand, are on Ektachrome stock. Though less often used for print work, Ektachrome was often used in lighting environments that were unsuitable for Kodachrome's relatively slow exposure speeds, such as for home movies taken in ordinary house lights, or out on assignment for National Geographic. Casual photographers liked it especially for ushering in the era of "1 Hour Photos" -- the process for Kodachrome was picky, complex, occasionally dangerous, and required a lab, whereas Ektachrome could be developed using several different methods in the back of a drugstore using chemicals that wouldn't immediately kill you.

Though all Kodak films seem to cast blue under certain lights -- Kodachrome, though brilliant in projection, comes in oddly green on a flatbed scanner if you don't watch it -- newly-shot Ektachrome has a distinctive all-over calm blue cast even in near-black lowlights. Once you've seen it, you can't unsee it ever again. Vintage Ektachrome films in particular have a distinctly cool feel even when the director has chosen to light the set extremely warmly.

Old Ektachrome, on the other hand, has a wide variety of other distinctive color balance issues that are somewhat less stylistic in nature. The yellow dye disintegrates and drops out relatively quickly (on the order of decades; contrast Kodachrome maintaining a minimum of 80% dye stability over 150+ years), even in archival dark storage, although ironically this is counterbalanced by the fact that the Ektacolor paper many of these photos were printed on spontaneously stains itself yellow over time. This doesn't help with Ektachrome slides, and more seriously, the cyan dye conks out second, leaving many cherished old photos near-monochrome studies composed mostly of rosy magenta. It used to be nearly impossible to correct these back to normal/original, but nowadays if you have a nice flatbed scanner and a basic understanding of how CMY color mixing works, you can usually get something acceptable by spending about a million years fussing with color curves in Photoshop.

A brief reminder that my birthday is next month and I'm running a pledge drive of sorts. Allons-y!

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