Kodachrome and the rural post office
‘They give us those nice bright colours
They give us the greens of summers
It makes you think all the world’s a sunny day…
So mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away.’
Paul Simon, lyrics ‘Kodachrome.’
It was an event for the Sri Lankan village post office staff. A red-headed and bearded Irishman presenting a large envelope of films destined for Europe was worthy of all of the postal hierarchy’s attention. Each person, in turn, examined the package, feeling for the declared film cassettes and placing it on the weighing scales, called a superior. An audience was gathering behind with friendly curiosity. Finally, after each had called his supervisor, the top man was summoned. He looked at me, picked up the package and inhaled deeply. Finally, with a perfect pause, he issued the command to proceed. Now the forms and loud stamping, postage stamps and payment went into action, the business of getting the package on its way complete.
Kodachrome was a film first manufactured by the Eastman Kodak company in 1935. Up to then, colour photography had proved technically elusive until the unlikely alliance of two professional musicians, Leopold Godowsky Jr. and Leopold Mannes. The duo, who were also university-trained scientists, took an interest, having agreed that colour movies up to then were terrible. After many years of experimenting with colour couplers and dyes, they were introduced to Kodak’s chief scientist, Kenneth Mees and eventually worked for the company, bringing a novel three-colour material to market. It would be a mainstay and iconic film emulsion for the next 74 years.
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