Pictures – and in particular period pictures – are a fundamental and important element of ViaRETRO. Besides our shared passion for classic cars and the culture which surrounds them, old photos never fail to excite us. One company more than any other contributed to placing pictures in our everyday lives: Kodak.
It was during a recent drive – in a classic car, naturally – from Sealand to Jutland in Denmark that the idea for this article came to me. A couple of friends and I passed the characteristic wavy roof construction of the old industrial building just before crossing the Great Belt Bridge at Korsør. Any Dane 40 years of age or more will know the building. It was once adorned by a large Kodak logo, as this was the Danish film development headquarters of the world-spanning imaging company – a true leader in its field. But for many years the building was left empty and the Kodak logo is long gone. All that remains is a memory.
Back in the good old days, whenever we went on a family outing to Jutland to visit our more remote family, we would pass the Kodak House at Korsør – both just before driving onto the ferry to carry us over the Great Belt and then again just after leaving the ferry on our way home again. As a young boy with an interest in photography, my father had given me his old Nikon F1 camera, as he had upgraded to a F2 Photomic – that lucky devil… I was instructed in a manner that left zero space for interpretation, to never use anything but Kodak’s Kodachrome 64 film. Anything else was simply a waste of time. I of course did as I was told, which led to a huge number of slides. Still to this day, I absolutely adore pictures taken on Kodachrome – even more so, when you strain the film a little with underexposure. The film clearly didn’t like this, yet it rewarded you with a depth and intensity of red colours which only Kodachrome could.
So todays article could have very easily been a tribute to the Kodachrome film, full of passion and a nostalgic longing, with an era coming to an end when Kodak gave the famous photographer Steve McCurry the last roll of film and developed it for him. Or it could have been the story of the Kodak Instamatic camera, which brought cheap and easy-to-use cameras to the public along with the catchy slogan “Get a Kodak Moment”.
But not today. Instead I’ll focus on another of the great Kodak specialties: Kodak Colorama. Back then – in the fifties – Colorama was the world’s biggest photo. They were hung in the main hall of Grand Central Station in New York. Kodak had developed the technology and a special laboratory in which they could produce these enormous backlit photographs which measured all of 18 meters across and 6 meters across. The photographs were in colour and in the wide panorama format – a combination of which of course lead to the name Colorama.
The majority of the many Colorama photographs were taken by Kodak’s own photographers. They were often staged – as were it a movie – and sometimes it took several photographers working together to produce the massive photos. They were built up from 41 smaller individual photographs and spliced together.
The very first Colorama was hung in Grand Central in June 1950. Needless to say, it immediately became quite an attraction, and it later developed into a constant but important part of the travelling New Yorker’s everyday life. Nowadays where we are bombarded with visual communication in the form of adverts on huge digital screens and displays everywhere, Kodak’s Colorama might seem like a small and inferior achievement. But it was a very different age, and regardless, this was really the very conception of that type of communication.
The motives on the Coloramas varied hugely. They portrayed dreams, daily life and pictures from exotic destinations. Even when the moon and outer space was conquered, Kodak were there to capture the moment on Colorama.
For all of four decades, the vast Colorama photographs adorned Central Station on Manhattan. The final and last one was displayed from November 1989 to February 1990. The photograph depicts the New York skyline against a breathtaking sunset. In a peculiar stroke of genius, the photographer had double exposed a massive red apple onto the horizon – needless to say, it was meant to symbolise New York’s beloved nickname: “The Big Apple”. But today, where we know all too well what the future was about to bring, the apple symbolism can be interpreted quite differently. Was it a warning, that a new player would soon take over and practically wipe out Kodak? Their failure to understand the future and move with it led to Kodak drowning I debt and eventually filing for bankruptcy. Today, just below the wall where the amazing Colorama photographs were hung in Grand Central Station, you will instead find an Apple Store.
ViaRETRO-bonusinformation: Kodak were in fact the first to invent the digital camera as early as 1975. However, they were worried it would compromise their existing product and business, so the invention was filed, hidden away and forgotten.