Kodachrome, the wicked world, and the sunny day

I have a copy of Portraits, a book of Steve McCurry's photographs, on my bookshelf. The Afghan girl is on the cover -- you know the photo, yes you do, and those eyes have never left you. McCurry photographed Sharbat Gula in 1985 when she was a 13-year-old refugee, and about seven years ago he found her again, living in a remote region of Afghanistan.

I was thinking of Sharbat Gula over the weekend as we watched the story of Neda Agha-Soltan unfold -- another young woman in a terrible, riven place. There's another image you won't be forgetting soon. I wish I could, but if I could choose to forget I guess I wouldn't; it would be wrong to deny witness to what we saw in those grainy images.

Sharbat's portrait is a still photo, with skin and hair and textile tones so seamlessly reproduced she almost seems to be breathing, or preparing to dart away. It's formally composed. It's lovely, in fact -- a picture of a desperately poor girl in a terrible place, in a terrible time, and yet it's the beauty that smites you. That's Kodachrome.

The slide film first offered in 1935 by Eastman Kodak was the first commercially successful color film. Over the years, it was made available in a wide variety of sizes and formats, but by Tuesday's announcement, only Kodachrome 64 and Kodachrome 64 Professional remained in the line. And there was also just one processing facility left. In Kansas.

Some of the images in Portraits are of pure wretchedness; Mr. McCurry estimates he took over 800,000 photos on Kodachrome, many of them in some of the world's most difficult regions. But the richness and preciseness of Kodachrome's color and line give his portraits, and so many millions of other Kodachrome images shot over the years, reality and gravitas. Sharbat and the others in Mr. McCurry's portraits are there, before you, and they're demanding. You can't deny them; you will look and you will see the individual humanity of the people individually looking through the film to you.

About halfway through the video of Neda's murder, her head turns to the side. Her eyes are open. She's at the brink of death, and in those final moments her eyes go to the camera and, through it, to you. If anyone has ever looked at you in their final moment, you've never forgotten it, never will. And no one who has seen the video can deny the power of that image, by which we mean its horror and gore and grief, at the moment where her humanity comes to its end.

And so I'm sorry that we're saying goodbye to Kodachrome, which gave us those moments that collapsed time and space but made them richer, fuller, more human -- less easy to replay in our heads until they're iconic and remote, like the Rodney King beating of yore and yes, one day soon, Neda's murder (sorry, but this is how we do things). Mr. McCurry -- who has moved on to digital photography -- has been asked by Eastman Kodak to shoot a few last rolls for posterity and the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, and Dwayne's Photo will develop film through 2010.

We are firmly in the era of digital imagery now, and most of us are operating with much, much lower resolution than the estimated 20 megapixels to make images of the quality of those old Kodachrome images. I'm glad we all have cameras, glad that our Nedas are borne witness. But I will miss Kodachrome, which connected us simultaneously to the ugliness in this world and, in the same frame, its comprehensive, insistent beauty.

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