Scanning Around With Gene: Yosemite, Kodachrome, and Curt Teich
Today’s column incorporates a number of my favorite things. First, there’s Yosemite, the great National Park in California that pretty much defines the term “stunning landscape.” Then there’s Curt Teich, the long-time Chicago printer responsible for so many post cards and promotional images of places near and far. And then there’s Kodachrome, the film emulsion that set the standard for color reproduction for a number of decades. They all came together in the form of a 1940s “memory book” which I recently found at a local thrift shop.
I’ve written before about Teich, most famous for those “greetings from,” “big letter” postcards you’ve seen forever, and Kodachrome, the film and processing technology from Kodak that set a new standard for color fidelity when it first appeared in the 1930s. So when I found a booklet of Kodachrome color images of famous Yosemite sites, reproduced by Teich and distributed by the Western Publishing and Novelty Company in Los Angeles, I just had to pick it up and throw it on the scanner. The booklet isn’t dated, but judging from the automobiles pictured, I’d say it’s late 40s or very early 50s. Click on any image for a lager version – this first one is not from the booklet, but is from the Teich series of big-letter post cards and serves as a good introduction to the photographs.
Yosemite, of course, needs little in the way of introduction – we’ve all either been there or seen plenty of pictures, most famously the black-and-white images of Ansel Adams. But at the time of this booklet, color photography was becoming all the rage and Kodachrome was considered the gold standard.
Teich had a number of printing processes that it employed in its products, including a couple of proprietary ones – the exact method used for this booklet is not credited, but it does a decent job of reproducing accurate colors for the era.
Curt Teich (1877-1974) was a German immigrant to the United States who built a small printing empire focused primarily on color post cards, many of them hand-tinted back in the days before color lithography became widespread. But in addition to post cards, Teich did many color memory books like the one these images are from, along with other commercial printing.
The story of Kodachrome is a fascinating one – the process was invented by two musician friends, Leopold Godowsky, Jr. and Leopold Mannes, often referred to as “Man and God.” They took their ideas to Eastman Kodak in the early 1930s. The company immediately hired the pair and put them to work refining the process which was introduced to the market in 1935.
Kodachrome was an early transparency film, which made it most suitable for color separation and reproduction via the various printing processes used over the decades. It had a distinct color gamut and look – not always “natural,” but always bright and crisp. These images may seem crude by today’s standards, but for the time they were considered very realistic and were reproduced with the idea that they might be framed individually and displayed as art.
Kodachrome was a very difficult film to manufacture and process, part of the reason it was discontinued by Kodak in 2009 and processing by the company ceased in 2010.
Unfortunately there are no photographers credited with these pictures, but having taken plenty of images in Yosemite I can attest that it’s not that easy to get good shots, despite the always dramatic setting. Every season holds something new and challenging for the photographer.
The only thing new I learned about Yosemite when researching for this week’s installment, was the very sad plight of the Ahwahneechee tribe of Native American’s who inhabited the Valley prior to the arrival of white explorers. Sadly, the Ahwahneechee were run out of Yosemite, relocated to, of all places, a reservation in Fresno, California. Many of them were killed along the way in various skirmishes with the US Army and other Indian tribes.
Even though printing processes have changed quite a bit since these images were published, Yosemite, thankfully, remains somewhat the same, save for too many tourists during the summer months. Photographers still flock to the park, only now they don’t have to make a choice of film emulsions to document their work.
And while I do appreciate that we’ve gotten very good at reproducing images accurately and with great detail, there’s something romantic to me about these older images. Color wasn’t taken for granted back then and I’m sure many people bought this booklet and were awed by the majesty of it all. And that much is certainly hard to dispute, even by today’s standards.