The format is gone, but one enthusiast is preserving its warm take on Toronto one image at a time.
Don Draper said it best: “Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent.”
Presenting a slide projector to a room full of Eastman Kodak executives, the advertising visionary from AMC’s television series Mad Men clicked through dozens of family photos, generating an emotional response from those in the room.
A trip down memory lane is no less powerful in real life. Those often-forgotten slides, photographs and home movies, languishing in shoe boxes and attics, are vital tools in piecing together the history of our communities, says Astrid Idlewild, a Masters student in urban planning at McGill University in Montreal.
In January, Idlewild launched Kodachrome Toronto 1935-2010, an online project examining Toronto’s urban and cultural development through the medium of Kodachrome photography, a resilient process renowned for bringing out warm, rich reds. Introduced by Eastman Kodak in 1935, it became the first commercially successful colour film stock.
Kodachrome was discontinued in 2009, and although its ardent admirers stockpiled the film, a final roll was recently processed in Parsons, Kan.
Since Kodachrome was available to several different generations, Toronto citizens have inadvertently documented the city’s evolution in colour, allowing us to see how “people were living their lives on a day-to-day basis,” says Idlewild.
“We went from a period where people were being photographed professionally to a time where people could do it on their own while the world carried on in the backdrop.”
Although the project is in its initial stages, Idlewild is building a database of all known Kodachrome archives, some of which is already featured on the Kodachrome Toronto flickr pool.
One of the city’s most important collections of Kodachrome photography resides at the City of Toronto Archives. From 1945 to 1993, F. Ellis Wiley, an accountant , captured many vibrant moments in the city’s development: The construction of New City Hall and the Toronto-Dominion Centre, life in Kensington Market, popular intersections like Yonge and Dundas, movie theatres, as well as streetscapes (many of Wiley’s photos are available through the Archives’ own flickr pool).
The Wiley collection boasts more than 2,500 35 mm negatives, but Idlewild believes there is more out there in family collections, which she says are potentially more important than the work done by official city photographers. “Unlike an architect or a city photographer, family photos carried no specific agenda. Rather, somebody was capturing the moment, rehumanizing it.”
Idlewild scoffs at digital camera filters and smartphone apps that imitate Kodachrome’s rich organic qualities. “They’re forgetting that the colour palette is only half the equation. It lacks all its texture and the three-dimensional quality that comes from the emulsion itself.”
When showing examples of the project with her cohorts, it was a 1945 image of Queen’s Park, shot by Wiley, which elicited a Draper-like response.
“When you’re able to see a time period that clearly looks like it was shot last week, it breaks down an emotional barrier,” says Idlewild. “I see a city that I’m familiar with but (one that) is completely different.”
This article originally appeared in the Toronto Star on February 18, 2011.