Paul Simon sang “Mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away” in 1973, but to no avail. Last year, Eastman Kodak stopped manufacturing the color film that had been used to document much of the 20th century. Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kan., is the only place left in the world to get Kodachrome processed, and the last roll of the iconic film left its shelves some time ago.

Kodachrome’s demise was inevitable, despite its claim as the sharpest color film in existence and one whose slides and footage, stored properly, have an expected life of at least 100 years. The complicated nature of its manufacture and processing is much to blame, and then there is that phenomenon known as digital photography.

“Ironically enough, Kodak invented the digital camera, in 1975,” said John Duncan, who will give a slide talk titled Kodachrome: A Cultural History in Images Thursday, April 15 at 6:30 p.m. in the Friends Community Room of Rockland Public Library at 80 Union St.

Duncan worked for 35 years as an engineer in the research and development lab of Eastman Kodak. He retired in 1998, which means he was in Rochester, N.Y., during some of the company’s most innovative years. The buildings he worked in, No. 65 and 69, were among the buildings the company imploded in 2007.

“Kodak really downsized,” he said.

In the peak years, circa 1980, Kodak had about 140,000 employees worldwide, some 60,000 of them in Rochester. Now, the New York facility is all there is and about 7,000 people work there, said Duncan.

The South Thomaston man will begin his talk with a brief history of color photography, from 1900 to the present. Among the examples of color images he will share are photographs by Russian Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, one of the first to work with additive color film.

“After the revolution, he escaped and most of his work was lost or not found yet. What has been has been scanned by the United States Library of Congress,” Duncan said.

Duncan also will share images of the French Lumière brothers, who devised the Autochrome Lumière system. Then he will talk about Leopold Godowsky Jr. and Leopold Mannes, two American musicians who are credited with inventing Kodachrome. Duncan described them as avid photography enthusiasts who knew each other and whose experimentation inspired Kenneth Mees to invite them to the Eastman Kodak research lab around 1930.

“That’s why they say Kodachrome was invented by God and Man,” said Duncan.

What made the subtractive Kodachrome different is hard to explain, but Duncan will do his best to lay it out during his talk. Kodachrome is actually shot in black and white; color is introduced in the complicated processing, which initially was done only by Kodak and was included in the price of the film. In 1954, the American government sued Kodak for anti-competition and, as a result, the film could be processed by others, but in Europe, Kodak continued to be the sole processor until the last plant, in Lausanne, Switzerland, closed.

Kodachrome was used by almost every professional photography artist and outfit, including National Geographic, not just for its vibrant color but also because of its archival quality when kept in a dark environment.

Kevin Johnson, photo archivist of the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, is a fan of Kodachrome and used it himself for many years. He said its color qualities are distinct “and in a way its color represents an era of photography that eventually was replaced by the super saturated color slide film like Fuji’s Velvia that I find to be more surreal.”

Most of the museum’s collections pre-date Kodachrome, but its “Red” Boutilier collection features some large format Kodachrome slides and the museum recently acquired a collection with 1,000 or so Kodachrome 35mm slides.

“I suspect that the next decade will bring tons of 35mm slide film to our archives … So far the Kodachrome slide film I have archived here has held up well over time,” Johnson said.

That has been Duncan’s experience.

“I had a number of slides I took of my daughter, who’s in her 40s now, and they look like they were just processed,” he said.

Indeed, many a family has boxes of slides tucked away, and where they are tucked away makes all the difference.

“If they’re up in an attic at 120 degrees, well … but if they’re dry and tucked away in a closet or basement, there’s a real good chance they’ll look good,” he said.

That was the case with the Kodachrome film footage of World War II that recently was showcased in The History Channel’s “The Color of War” series.

“A lot of new photographers at the time shot in black and white because they could process it themselves, in their tents,” Duncan said. “But a lot of them brought back 16mm Kodachrome reels that were processed weeks later and longer.”

It was not just documentary photographers and filmmakers that sought out Kodachrome during its 74-year reign, Duncan said. Fashion photographers preferred it because of the way it captured details of fabric texture.

“And orthodontists and ophthalmologists; I’ve seen thousands of pictures of eyeballs,” said Duncan.

The technology of processing went through a series of changes in the late 1980s that the multi-layered Kodachrome was hard to adapt to; the newer Ektachrome, while not quite as sharp as Kodachrome, improved to the point it worked fine for almost every application; the significant inroads made by Japan’s Fuji film; and the advance of digital photography all led to Kodak’s decision to end Kodachrome’s run in 2009.

Producing the multi-layered Kodachrome is a story in itself, one that Duncan will touch on in his talk.

“It was manufactured in total darkness, going through the machines at 500 to 600 feet a minute – a mile every 10 minutes,” Duncan said.

While extant Kodachrome slides and footage have a long shelf life ahead of them, finding the equipment to enjoy them on is becoming a struggle. As a member of the company’s camera club, Duncan had no need to buy a slide projector during his Kodak years and said he decided not to make the eBay foray it would have taken to get a projector for his slide talk.

“It’s like VHS – it’s not the media that will be obsolete but the hardware,” he said.

And, while he spent almost four decades immersed in color film, he himself has gone the way of the digital darkroom. So the Kodachrome images he will present in the slide talk are scanned for ease of projection. Not that he spends a lot of time with his Epson printer.

“I do shoot a lot of pictures, but I have three grandchildren competing for my time,” he said.

VillageSoup Art/Entertainment Editor Dagney Ernest can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by e-mail to