The current ease of making digital color photographs is a taken-for-granted marvel that aviation photographers of earlier generations lacked.
The search for practical and permanent color photography began in the mid-19th Century. Early processes were complex and far from user-friendly.
The color revolution that changed all that was the introduction by Kodak of Kodachrome color transparency film for movies and slides in 1935 and 1936. By 1938, improvements in the Kodachrome developing process gave this color film superior archival longevity in dark storage when compared to most other color film processes.
That color stability has been of vital value to researchers and anyone pursuing color imagery dating back to before World War II.
Back then, Kodachrome had an ASA (ISO) speed rating of 10 — pretty slow by today’s standards, but workable.
Kodachrome slides found their way overseas with individual airmen who often shot 35-millimeter slides in simple Argus cameras or more sophisticated Kodak models.
The military took 35-millimeter Kodachrome into battle, creating images that, when well-stored, are as brilliant today as they were in the 1940s.
When feasible, some military photographers used large 4″x5″ Kodachrome sheet film to record remarkable color images.
Since Kodachrome was offered in 16-millimeter movie format as well, some motion-picture color footage was shot in gun cameras, offering a rare look at World War II aerial combat in color.
When other contemporary color film emulsions faded, turning magenta or orange and losing their historic or aesthetic value, Kodachrome remains vibrant, as the photos accompanying this article show.
The dawn of the digital age reduced the need for Kodachrome film. The last roll of Kodachrome color slide film departed the Kodak plant in 2009, although rumors abound that the company is considering a relaunch of the brand in keeping with other retro items like vinyl recordings that are enjoying a newfound younger audience.
If modern photography makes it possible to capture incredible imagery digitally with no film and no external wet processing labs, there’s still an old-school mystique about getting the right exposure on Kodachrome film — something so tangible that it is the only film to gain its own popular song, Paul Simon’s 1973 ode called simply “Kodachrome.”