Requiem for the Latent Image

Wed 18 April 2007 by psu

I have a drawer in my house. I call it my “photo junk” drawer. Eight or nine years ago, it started out as an empty hanging file drawer where I started to file away the PrintFile slide storage pages that I had been collecting since buying my first real camera. There are a few folders of slides in the drawer, but it is now mostly overrun with small piles of print envelopes and small accessories that I had no use for. So I decided to clean the drawer up.

When I first bought a “real” camera back in the 90s (a Nikon 8008s, love that camera), I spent a couple of years shooting slide film. I reasoned that this would be the quickest way to learn “good technique.” Like thousands of others before me I shot my film and put the canisters into a little envelope to send to Kodak. In a week or so I would get a yellow box back in the mail containing tiny little cardboard mounts, each with a picture in it. Then I’d spread the slides out on a light table, pick the good ones, and stick them in the pages. Once in a while, I’d get the pages out and stare at them. After a trip to France, I bought a nice loupe so I could stare at a somewhat enlarged version of the slide. There were no web sites, no grandparents to instantly share the pictures with. I just had my own little archive of images sitting in those pages, in that drawer.

To me, color slide film is one of the greatest achievements of modern engineering. In many ways it is even more interesting and astounding than the more recent digital capture systems. Digital capture, in my naive layman’s view, is a fairly straightforward application of existing computer technologies. It just took some time for the performance to scale the right way.

Color slide film is magic. You coat multiple layers of silver-based chemicals, dyes, and gelatin onto a piece of plastic. When you expose this plastic to light and dunk it in the right sequence of chemicals at the right temperature, you end up with three separate silver images, one for each of the primary colors. But that’s just the start. Where the final step in the black and white process “fixes” the silver image into the film, the color process replaces the silver image in each layer with dyes of the appropriate color. Exactly how this happens varies with different film types. But in the end the same thing happens. The chemicals in the film and the processing bath figure out how to put the dyes into the parts of the picture that were exposed to light. This is what always boggled my mind. The color dyes know where to go, or maybe more accurately in the case of slides, where not to go.

The result on the light table is the same: a perfect little color frame containing a small piece of reality, as captured by the camera at some point and time in the past. Color slides have a physical immediacy that sets them apart from black and white negatives, which you need to print to really see, or digital pictures which, even when displayed in all their glory on a huge TV screen still do not seem real since they are made out of bits. I realize in the rational part of my brain that this is partly nostalgia and partly my jaded software engineer’s view of the computer world.

All I know is, when I cleaned out that drawer, the first thing I did was pull out some old boxes of slides. These were the last rolls of film that I shot before I started using digital cameras. I put them in the pages. I threw them on the light table and the images jumped out at me the same way slides on a light table always do. You can’t not look at them with the loupe. There were some test shots that I had taken when I bought my Nikon 24mm lens. There were some pictures of Klavon’s Ice Cream parlor and soda fountain in the strip. There were some pictures I took the last time I visited a friend of mine in San Diego more than six years ago. And there were some shots from the last couple of trips to France, which had been forgotten because I was paying more attention to black and white or digital, depending on the time period.

I spent a couple of hours sorting through them, putting them into pages and putting them back into the file drawer. Then my nostalgia got the better of me and I looked around on the net for that place that had made me some photo CDs back in the day. They were closed. My favorite lab in Pittsburgh, Sukolsky Brunelle, was closed. Kodak also closed the last of its Kodachrome processing plants and discontinued all but one type of the classic Kodachrome film. Kodachrome’s days have been numbered for the last fifteen years or so since Fuji released Velvia, but it’s sobering to think that one of the oldest continuously available consumer products in the history of the world will soon be gone.

It is also sobering to think how fast digital has taken over. I bought my first DSLR only about four years ago. At the time there were still three or four reputable places in town to get slide film processed. At the time it would cost you about $5000 to get a digital camera that performed as well along all axes as the best 35mm film cameras. At the time, all of the major commercial photography workshops were film only. They might have had a few short courses on things like running Photoshop, but none of the workshops expected you to bring a digital camera. Now a large number of them are digital only. Pittsburgh, as far as I know, now has no reputable lab that will process your slides for you overnight. Oh you can drop the stuff off at the local Costco, but they send it all somewhere else. Even Fuji, which took over the world with Velvia, has closed its big labs and farms the work out. In a few years, I expect that anyone processing film will either be sending it to one or two large labs that can keep up the volume or they’ll be doing it on their own with a machine in the basement.

I find myself surprised by the pangs of grief and regret that I have for the quick demise of color slides. I think I am more worked up over this than my beloved black and white film because I imagine that black and white film will always be around as a specialty fine art item, whereas high quality slide film requires a large scale industrial base that will be hard to support at low volumes. In a pinch, you can almost make your own black and white film, but to make color slide film, you have to understand that magic about dye couplers.

What I plan to do, and you should too, is pull out one of my old film cameras, load it with some Velvia or Kodachrome 64 and go out and shoot a few rolls of pictures. Then I’ll mail the film away, and if it doesn’t get lost I’ll get back my yellow (or green) boxes and spread the miniature pieces of reality around on my light table again, and just sit and look at the photos. It’ll be a nice way to recall the “old days” of the mid-1990s. Maybe I can show the film to my kid and explain how things used to work.

Of course, I’ll get a Photo CD made at the same time. I’m not that nostalgic.


A bit of research indicates that Dwayne’s Photo in Kansas is where all the mailer business is going for both Kodak and Fuji. It’s also the last place on earth you can get Kodachrome processed. The one other big lab I found that I remember is A&I. B&H still sells mailers. But they cost twice as much as they used to.

Category: Photo