There was a time when photographs actually required film be in the camera instead of a digital disc. Many professional photographers back in the day used Kodachrome because the colors were vibrant. On a bright shiny sunny day, you could get those those nice bright colors, the greens of summers that Paul Simon sang about in his hit song. If stored properly, Kodachrome had a long post processing self-life. Colors did not fade. Kodachrome was also good for magazine reproduction. With the introduction of digital photography, Kodachrome began to lose a significant portion of the market share. In 2009, Kodak stopped producing Kodachrome. In 2010, the last authorized processing facility, Dwayne’s Photos, located in Parsons, Kansas closed its doors.
Mark Raso’s film Kodachrome, now on Netflix, is a journey in more ways than one. It’s a road movie; it’s about a father and son reconnecting, it’s about love, it’s about dying (Ben and an art form), and it’s about the meaning of photography. All this may seem to be a lot to put all into one film, and maybe that’s a problem for some. It strives to be a great movie, it’s not, but it is a good one.
Ben Ryder (Ed Harris) is a well known and respected photographer. Respected by everyone except his son, Matt (Jason Sudeikis). Ben is also dying from liver cancer. Zoe Kern (Elizabeth Olsen), Ben’s nurse contacts Matt about his father’s approaching death. Ben has a request. He has some old roles of Kodachrome slide film that he never developed. He wants it processed before the last photo lab in Parsons, Kansas closes its doors in less than a week. Matt’s not interested. Ben has not been a good father; caring more for his career sacrificing everything for his art, cheating on his wife (with his brother’s wife before they married), and being an arrogant, nasty bastard. Matt’s also having problems with his own job working for an indie record label. He just lost the most prominent group under his banner and is on the outs with his boss. Matt eventually agrees to go along on the trip, and with the urging from Zoe attempts to reconcile with his Dad, but it ain’t easy.
Kodachrome wants to say a lot, and it does. Still, it is hampered by a script filled with cliches and sentiment. Some won’t like it, However, don’t let that stop you, as Ben Ed Harris deliverers a powerfully strong performance as the dying photographer, a man who knew the approaching finale was not just his, but that of his art. The Leica camera, the rolls of Kodachrome film, the developing will all soon be gone, products of a culture where everything is digital. At one point on their trip, Matt is using a GPS to help direct them toward their destination. Ben throws the GPS out of the car and produces a map, telling Matt we are doing this the old-fashion way.
Photography has changed over the years, for the better in that more people have access to taking pictures, but there has been a loss too. At one point in the film, Ben says, “People are taking more pictures now than ever before, billions of them, but there are no slides, no prints. Just data. Electronic dust. Years from now when they dig us up there won’t be any pictures to find, no record of who we were or how we lived.”
Will all that data survive? It’s too soon to tell. Photography has become disposable like paper cups and gum wrappers. Use and lose. Carefully setup self-portraits have turned into selfies taken at a moments notice at any point in time. Are we, as photographers, preservationists as Ben states, taking “pictures to stop time, to commit moments to eternity” or self-centered Kardashians’ that need to photograph and post online every meal we have eaten. The ease at which a photo is taken today has lowered the acceptance level of what makes a good picture. Photography has never been more popular, yet I wonder if digital photography has cheapened it all, or maybe it has made it more democratic. Everyone can do it. I could go on about this, but these thoughts are for another article.
The movie was inspired by a New York Times article from 2010 by A.G. Sulzberger about the final days of the last Kodachrome processing lab, Dwayne’s Photo, in Parsons, Kansas. Ben Ryder’s photography, not his unpleasant personality, is based on National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry who did, in fact, visit Dwayne’s photo during those final days. McCurry’s most recognized photo is Afghan Girl taken in 1984.
While the movie does have its weak spots, Ed Harris provides a fearless commitment to his role that you cannot let it go. Whether you hate his character for his flaws as a father, and as a human being, his performance transcends the sometimes overly familiar material making it worth watching.
Kodachrome is now on Netflix