Chapter 1. Finding Kodachrome Toronto

Sequences of Time Arrested: the Kodachrome Toronto Registry Initiative

In this chapter

This supervised research project (SRP) culminated the creation of what is now a registry for photographic and cinematic media featuring any aspect of Toronto — so long as the media used was Kodachrome film. The subject matter is otherwise left to the devices of each media creator.

This Kodachrome Toronto Registry (the Registry for short) is a finding aid. It is designed to assist other scholars with locating Kodachrome media germane to their research. This finding aid, a knowledge base, pulls together metadata on content from several streams — private collections, public and institutional repositories, commercial products, and even long-disused corporate collateral materials. The Registry will continue after this SRP is completed with plans to expand its scope and mandate.


My own survey of Toronto with Kodachrome laid the groundwork that would eventually become this SRP. I knew there was no way for me to keep up with digital photographers whose ever-current work was featured in Toronto’s news blogs, so I didn’t bother trying. Rather, I turned to Kodachrome as a creative palette much the way some painters might use oil pigments. I began to see the world around me in much the way Kodachrome’s emulsion would record it. This learned skill remains a force of habit even to this day, but now I lack the means to materially convey to others what this looks like.

In 2009, I started to curate a Flickr project — a group pool which brought together other Flickr members who, like me, had documented Toronto with Kodachrome. Unsurprisingly, this pool is known as Kodachrome Toronto. While it helped to inspire this SRP thesis into being, curating the Flickr pool assumed a special urgency after a serendipity of sorts made this preoccupation mean more than just shooting with a technologically obsolete emulsion.

During my final year of undergrad at the University of Toronto, I was enrolled in a course called Historical Toronto, taught for many years by the inimitable professor emeritus, Gunter Gad. Dr. Gad had taught the course for several years and did so in the sole remaining classroom at Sidney Smith Hall still equipped with a slide projector. The Kodak Ektagraphic carrousel, a more robust model than what my dad used, served as the keystone for his lectures. After arriving to Toronto from Europe in 1968, Gad spent the next four decades documenting the city’s evolving architecture, manufacturing clusters, and streets. He did so almost entirely using Kodachrome.

The experiential, social, and generational chasm between me and much of my cohort in Gad’s course was impossible to ignore. What they saw as pedestrian, if not quaint, contrasted starkly with my sometimes audible gasps as Gad advanced the carrousel to the next slide, letting us peer into a Toronto now no longer a part of us. Each slide, a window of Toronto’s past, was as fresh, vibrant, and complicated as the day Gad shot the frames — some of them reaching back to 1968. Much as I was during my very first visit to Toronto in May 1996, Gad was mesmerized by the interplay, nuance, and hidden beauty of this unassuming, but fortuitous city, built by layers of industrial will, geographical serendipity, and notorious social restraint.

Figure 1.1. Dr. Gunter Gad, 2007. [Geography & Resource Management, Chinese University of Hong Hong]

Figure 1.1. Dr. Gunter Gad, 2007. [Geography & Resource Management, Chinese University of Hong Hong]

The bulk of slides during Gad’s lectures were of downtown core buildings long since demolished to make way for today’s skyscrapers. They revealed long-demolished façade treatments of Victorian and Richardsonian Romanesque buildings. They affirmed the degree of morphological change to Toronto’s streetscape. After a few of his lectures, Gad and I spent a few minutes discussing Kodachrome and why we preferred using it. At first, he seemed genuinely surprised that I was actively using it, owing to how scarce it had become in this digital era. Initially, he thought the film had been discontinued and was pleasantly surprised to learn otherwise. Even for Gad it had been some years since his last roll was processed. Eventually, I was able to share with him what I was doing with it — an approach somewhere between painting with light and documenting Toronto much the way he had. This city was our muse.

Gad fell ill in 2010 and was forced to leave teaching. His slides are, paradoxically, not described in the Registry — not yet, anyway. This is slightly ironic given how his field work in Kodachrome so directly informed this project. Adding his collection will, as with every collection, require thorough review, inventory, and description. This has yet to happen — though once it does, the Registry will have come full circle.

Gad’s passion for both Toronto’s roots and Kodachrome slide photography gives inspiration to a Kodachrome Toronto Registry which, following this SRP, will continue supporting researchers for several years to come.

Raison d’étre for a Registry

The scope of subject material inclusive to the Registry is unrestricted, save for two requirements. The first is the media’s content must have been produced inside the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), with especial emphasis on areas within the post-1997, amalgamated city of Toronto. Subjects may feature anything from architecture to event-based history, family picnics, public art, or formal field research. The second is that the medium’s image must have been generated with Kodachrome chemistry.

Owing to my own candidacy in urban design, under the aegis of McGill University’s School of Urban Planning, the principal keystone of this research is to help aggregate, enhance, and liberate the availability, extent, and quality of architectural and public space histories as documented photographically and cinematically. The value of related images — progressions of structures or spaces over time — offers net benefit for comparative research on topics of urban design, history, and architecture.

Imaging a city

Our physical record of the past shapes deeply our memory of it, even when that memory is not what we personally experienced. Our perceptions emerge from what these texts show us. Particularly so when seeing the past, we are often left with only a partial accounting of what actually happened. A muddy, black-and-white photo in a newspaper, however limited, can be one step beyond just reading about a news story. For something like the Christie Pits riot in 1933, we may be confined to just one underexposed, halftone-reprinted photo on the front page of the Toronto Daily Star (Levitt & Shaffir: 1989, 17). To get a bit closer to the experience, it would be ideal to see the actual photo, not the halftone-bled newsprint. It would be even more ideal if the film were fast enough to not have difficulty with low light. And it would be even better if we could have it in colour. But we cannot. Consequently, we are largely dependent on our impressions provided by eyewitness accounts and a muddy photo.

What we are often left with is an incomplete perception of the past from which myths are made (Vale 1995, 646). Myths can be useful for memory, but they can also hamper an authentic understanding of that record.

Of the imaging technologies at ready disposal for those who were living during the 20th century, colour film was held as an apex for recording the present so to help convey to the future its stories, myths, and memories. Still, even with this medium, several colour films commercially available then were ill-engineered for the long-term stability required to crystallize key moments for perpetuity. We are instead left with pink and yellow traces of what is now lost. This is an imperfect account. While faded film may be sufficient to offer glimpses of that past, it fails to invite us to connect with it. What Kodachrome achieved, meanwhile, was not simply a means for recording a moment in colour. It achieved so in a way which, quite fortuitously, held it in a suspended state, much as it actually happened. Over time, stability becomes priceless.

With Kodachrome, we can preserve a record of long-lost buildings — so many of which could have continued to enrich Toronto’s morphology. We can still value what we’ve left standing by turning to Kodachrome to appreciate their longevity, durability, and fixity. This visual record can evince a case for building preservation, as it can convey to parties favouring demolition to see several examples of what we’ve already lost, courtesy of a lack of foresight borne from profiting on raw exchange-value. With Kodachrome, we can better grasp how bereft of our past we are today.

Because of Kodachrome’s relative permanence, the Registry now has visual verification that the Church of the Holy Trinity fire in 1977, just behind the then-new Eaton Centre, was substantially destructive. There is colour record of the 1963 Palace Pier fire, and this too was captured with Kodachrome. The impermanent glimpses of ordinary lives, frozen in situ, deliver perhaps the rarest records of culture and class. And most ephemerally — storefront windows — were chronicled with Kodachrome.

Toronto: canvas for civic evolution

The morphological terrain of the Toronto cityscape mushroomed during the 20th century. In 1935, the year Kodak first marketed Kodachrome movie film for sale, Toronto was a moderately sized industrial manufacturing centre and shipping port, a second-tier city just entering its second century. It was limping through the Great Depression and still principally populated and governed by Protestant Anglo-Canadians (Lemon 1984, 59–60). By 2010, Toronto, by far the nation’s largest city, had matured into an alpha-ranked global city built on internationalized finance, data services, and enriched by an impressive spread of cultural, social, and ethnic experiences.

Given these substantial changes, it is expected that over a span of 75 years, Toronto’s changed face would also be harder to recognize the further back one reached. Its built form was constantly reconfigured, demolished, and amplified in scale. Sidewalk social activity and street furniture shifted on changing mores of what public space signified. Popular culture and clothing trends were cyclical if not mercurial, often prone to serving as nuanced markers for labour classes and social dignities — disproportionately so for women (Srigley 2007, 89). Hydro lines slowly made their way underground. Commercial activity was transformed from a peppering of small corner goods shops selling low-order staples to keep communities in motion, to transnational brands and leisure boutiques occupying most major street intersections and stripping diversities of uses from sanitized high streets. Two of Toronto’s family empires for retail and manufacturing, Eaton’s and Simpson’s, vanished. The flourishing and wilting of indoor shopping malls and strip centres superseded street-level pedestrian commerce — only for streetscape retailing to redouble attention to itself as gentrification, mixed-use zoning, and new urbanist venerations for smaller-scale retail footprints embraced walk-up shops. Automobiles underwent a few dozen generations of change — and with each turnover, stricter normativities on what air pollution and safety designs were “acceptable”. Public transportation grew from a streetcar network with turn-of-century rolling stock to the prevalence of an overburdened, underfunded subway system. City halls changed. The eradication of tree canopies over sidewalks and avenues, a collateral victim of Dutch elm disease, rendered the picturesque boulevard of the 1930s as barren. Aspirations for the lakeshore, never quite reaching its planned potential of a public promenade, shifted from industrial rail yards, warehouses, and piers to a divisive expressway laced with condo towers and two boats (doubling as a tourist seafood restaurant). Lightboxed street signs installed during the centenary of Confederation vanished after amalgamation. Much of Toronto’s first century was wiped clean.

In short, constancy in a living city is a mirage. Constancy is for the ghost town.

By that same token, some features did hold fairly constant. What endows a reference resource like the Registry with enduring indispensability is not so much its simple utility as a finding aid. Rather, it is in the Registry’s facility for corralling together slides and movies which help to describe how a Toronto in 2010 could still have been legible enough to a Torontonian living in the 1930s — that is, had they been given a chance to travel forward in time. Fortunately for us, we can look retrospectively with rare clarity once we know where to find these glimpses. The Registry helps to point the way. Despite gradual changes to soot-laden masonry and patina-cladded roofs, Queen’s Park, (Old) City Hall, Casa Loma, University College, and the Royal York Hotel hold fast through all eight decades of Kodachrome. Several smaller edifices endured revamped façades but likewise survived. For the architectural scholar, the exterior and even interior treatments of buildings may be of particular significance to period authenticity. For the restoration specialist, the means to verify how a structure was originally configured before renovations or modifications can help with restoration planning.

Kodachrome’s availability from 1935 to 2010 also hews closely to Toronto’s second century as an incorporated city — from the 1934 centenary to its 175th anniversary in 2009. While an ancillary contributor to Toronto’s economic growth, Kodak Canada’s headquarters and manufacturing plant, based in Mount Dennis (in the former city of York), was a major lab and processing centre for mail-in Kodachrome processing. During Kodachrome’s dying years, this very same Kodak Canada site, very much a brownfield, was shuttered, razed, and torched by vandals.

Figure 1.2. The Kodak Low Country — remnants of Kodak Canada’s Mount Dennis factory, 2010 [Idlewild]

Figure 1.2. The Kodak Low Country — remnants of Kodak Canada’s Mount Dennis factory, 2010 [Idlewild]

Why not other films?

While Kodachrome’s chemistry was tweaked a few times over its sales lifetime, the basic manufacturing and development processes were unchanged throughout. As a result, the constancy of Kodachrome’s image rendering properties and dye stability endowed it with an enviable reputation for consistency. For the comparative researcher, this consistency is immeasurably useful. The means to view a Kodachrome movie reel from 1939 next to a reel from 2010, of related subjects, can be remarkable as the expanse of time between the two seem to seamlessly compress together [Supplement: CD-ROM, short clips, 1939 & 2010]. The hue of blue skies remains virtually the same. Reds, flesh tones, and golds are rendered the same way with, at most, an imperceptible shift of colour. Metal retains the same perceptual tactility. Such stability opens windows of comprehension in a manner which memory can relate to readily: colour as our eyes perceive colour. A more thorough understanding on the history and evolution of how this technology became possible is described in Chapter 2.

Kodachrome was engineered unlike any other commercial film product beforehand or following. It is also one of the oldest emulsions and most enduring of processes commercially offered — reversal or negative — for any colour film ever sold. Its first four years excepted (as Kodak was still ironing out some of the very complex lab processing steps), Kodachrome’s chemical stability after development meant that the film on carefully stored slides and reel canisters could uphold image stability without marked shifts for well beyond a century, if not longer. The Kodachrome “K-process” and its distinct film properties are explained in Chapter 3.

Introducing the Registry

Field work for the Registry yielded thirty unique collections now designated with their own accession numbers. This numbering convention is intuitive for human readability (as it was for the Registry), but it also functions as a permanent identifier, even if a collection (or the Registry itself) is migrated to another area or classification (Proctor and Cook 2000, 91–2). For the Registry, a numbering convention was formalized. For example, if referencing a collection under accession number KT2012038 (n.b., this is a fictitious Registry number), it denotes that the collection was the 38th registered during calendar year 2012. A review of SRP field research in Chapter 4 expands on collection findings. This review highlights some of the most notable findings the field work uncovered both in slides and movies.

Registry structure

The Registry’s structure is informed in part by archival and information science protocols for cataloguing collections. These methods help to facilitate knowledge retrieval, record description, and archives curation. How the Registry departs from a physical archives, at least at this stage, is that it does not aggregate actual collections in one repository, nor does it try to digitize and store those images for online retrieval. After locating a collection with potentially relevant content, the researcher must then consult with the custodian associated with the collection (each collection is provided with custodian/owner details).

While the means to provide direct access to digitized reproductions of original Kodachrome media is a long-term objective well worth entertaining for a continuation of the Kodachrome Toronto project, the logistics and funding required for this undertaking makes this idea unfeasible presently. Ways to move the Registry forward toward more ambitious aspirations are explored in Chapter 5.


At its core, the genesis of this project derives from an impetus not so much to hone in on specific topics or to confine oneself to single disciplines. While one beneficiary of the Kodachrome Toronto Registry is certainly my chosen field of urban studies — history, design, planning, and architecture — this Registry’s purpose goes well beyond any of that.

The utility of the Registry implicates sociology, ecology, politics, art, and even the simple joy of knowing what once was. The Registry is more than just some terminal to mine the past. With aspirations as a tour guide to bring together Kodachrome views of Toronto, we can use the Registry to peer into the windows of what Toronto’s elders not only remember, but also observed first-hand. They can verify the authenticity of the moment as the film recorded it. With the Registry, we the descendants can now begin to walk along their paths to know viscerally the Toronto they intimately experienced — wonderment, warts, and all.

With the Registry, we shan’t forget ourselves as Torontonians.

Contents ©2012 Astrid Idlewild. Do not excerpt without written permission. A printed version of this SRP is filed with the Blackader-Lauterman Library of Architecture and Art at McGill University. The online version of this manuscript was edited and serialized in 2013.

Series Navigation<< Introduction. A Kodachrome eideticChapter 2. Finding a medium for posterity >>