It’s 1940. How do you shoot this here newfangled Kodachrome?

I found some interesting reading materials — relating more to the Kodachrome component — in the McGill library stacks last night (which, respectfully said, pales in breadth and availability to the UofT stacks).

Of particular note are two books from the early 1940s on teaching photographers how to use Kodachrome film. In retrospect, it’s a bit darling to look over 128 and 232 pages, respectively, of “this is how you do it” tutorials on using what many photographers later came to take for granted.

Kodachrome and how to use it [Levon West, 1940]

The first, published by Simon & Schuster, is Kodachrome and How to Use It by “Ivan Dmitri” — a photography pseudonym for artist Levon West. West was a graduate of the University of Minnesota and strove to bring a legitimacy to photography as an art form, rather than as mere means of documentation, commerce, or vanity portraiture. While given the name Ivan Dmitri at birth, West’s Armenian family had moved to North Dakota when he was still young, and the family Americanized their names shortly thereafter. He retained his birth name as a pseudonym for his photography work while using his legal name for other installations.

Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh stressed the importance that West brought in pressing the “art” question for photography: West compelled to bring this question to the public in 1959 by convincing the The Met in New York to showcase an art exhibit on photography as a creative medium (Travis 2009, 27).

A flip-through of Kodachrome and How to Use It reveals a remarkable tour for the creative, aesthetic, and technical thought processes behind the selected photos used for this guide. It is reminiscent of what Ansel Adams would later bring to black-and-white technical photography (cf. The Negative). Most have details on exposure times, focal lengths, apertures, ambient conditions, filters used, and shooting locations.

Example panel from West (photo: Anton Baumann)

Example panel from West (photo: Anton Baumann)

Contributions come from a number of photographers (though most are by “Dmitri”). But what is perhaps most striking about this book is that every subject image is in colour and shot with Kodachrome. Many of the shots are clearly made not in 35mm, but with large format sheet film — which Eastman Kodak manufactured for 13 short years (leaving generations of subsequent photographers eternally envious of those predecessors fortunate enough to work with it). Kodachrome sheet film is what many photographers for the U.S. government were using for their World War II propaganda and Works Progress Administration documentary series.

Facing info panel from West

Facing info panel from West

That West made heavy work of sheet Kodachrome for a book published in 1940 — so soon after Kodachrome’s chemical stability issues were resolved in 1938 — is in itself a novel accomplishment. While the primitive, four-colour process offset printing for this book limits how well the original transparencies probably looked (if not still, wherever they may now be), it’s evident that the film used was made after Kodak figured out those image stability problems. The subjects are global in scope, though most are of the Americas (two photos were from Canada: one of Lake Louise, Alberta; the other Saint-Jovite, Québec). Many of the subjects are in outdoor, in situ settings without artificial lighting or studio equipment.

The book is typeset in Didot-Bodoni Bold.

Kodachrome and Kodacolor from All Angles [Fred Bond, 1942 (2nd ed., 1945)]

The other book, by Fred Bond, is far more technically oriented than West’s approach (which advanced a heavy artistic commentary approach to framing subjects). Kodachrome and Kodacolor from All Angles was published by a small press in San Francisco called the Camera Craft Publishing Company. The book is extremely delicate and showing its age. There are 17 colour plates in all (one for the cover, which was long missing on this copy), and some of those are crudely pasted as bookplates on blank pages. A couple of the plates are also long missing, while others are barely hanging on.

What it lacks in colour examples of these two early films it makes up with its 150 black-and-white photos — most pertaining to technical setups, including a few leading up to the colour plates seen intermittently through the book. It is dense with technical tables and exposure setting matrices for properly exposing the films. The sections are broken into basic colour theory; how colour varies between sunlight and artificial lighting; flash photography; types of subjects; making movies with (specifically) Kodachrome; and technical post-processing information such as making prints from colour.

This book, was also typeset using the Didot-Bodoni family.


Illustrated instructional guides like these have become commonplace in the years since, of course, but the practical arrival of colour imaging (beyond mostly experimental or commercially inaccessible efforts prior to Kodachrome) in the later 1930s commanded the attention of colour photography’s potential as a medium distinct from black-and-white emulsion.

Putting it in a more contemporary, if not irreverent way: if the early bitumen of Judea heliograph images devised by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826 initiated “photography v0.1″; Daguerreotypes v1.0; glass plates v1.5; gelatine negatives v2.0; three-plate filtered colour images by Sergey Mikhaylovich Prokudin Gorsky was v3.0; then gelatine colour film was a huge step to v3.5 — and far more practical, as well (London Upton & Upton 1989, 353). After colour film, one could reasonably argue that the next innovation (v4.0) was analogue electronic imaging, followed by version 5.0 of digital imaging.

Okay, okay, that was a bit pretentious. OK, totally pretentious. But given the broader context, it makes sense that enough excitement and support by photographers, publishers, and supporting companies (endowing themselves with collateral promotion for their name and product placements in the books) resonated then to even make these books possible. They exist in a temporal place before World War II, the Cold War, and everything since — endowing them with an aesthetic naïveté absent of cynicism or critique we came to expect from the rest of the century.

These books were undoubtedly costly to produce, but they now signify an optimism for an era of photography which would again revolutionize how we see the world in the way photography itself changed the way the 19th century saw itself for the first time.


London Upton, Barbara & John Upton. 1989. Photography: Adapted from the Life Library of Photography, (4th ed.).
Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman, and Company.

Travis, David. 2009. Yousuf Karsh: Regarding Heroes. Jaffrey, New Hampshire: David R. Godine.