The Legend of Kodachrome Flat

Ever since Monday’s announcement by Kodak that they’re discontinuing production of Kodachrome film, professional and amateur photographers this week have been busy discussing its demise. Kodachrome was known for its rich color saturation and was widely used by National Geographic photographers in the first decades that the magazine printed in color. In fact, it was so well appreciated that when some explorers came upon a landscape that just demanded to be photographed, they decided to name it after the film. Traveler’s Senior Photo Editor Dan Westergren has the details.

A little more than a decade after its introduction, Kodak’s Kodachrome transparency film was becoming a favorite of National Geographic explorers in the field. In the September 1949 National Geographic magazine, writer/photographer Jack Breed chronicled the “First Motor Sortie into Escalante Land.” Breed’s expedition, which included 15 people, three jeeps, two trucks, and 35 horses, headed off into a rugged territory that is visible from Inspiration Point at Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah. The expedition was hoping to find unknown and yet unnamed geographical oddities in the hidden cliffs and canyons. One local cowman, when asked if there were any natural bridges or arches in the country replied, “Yes, I’ve heard tell of one or two, but in my 40 years here I’ve never seen any. I’m always too busy looking for stray cattle or good grass feed to notice the scenery.”

There were arches to be discovered but, after only five miles on the first day of their trip they stumbled upon “A Color Photographer’s Paradise.”

Here’s what Breed has to say about the area:

It was a beautiful and fantastic country. A mile to the left near the base of the cliff I could see red pinnacles thrust up from the valley floor. The few natives who had been here called this area “Thorny Pasture,” But we renamed it “Kodachrome Flat” because of the astonishing variety of contrasting colors in the formations.

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Later that afternoon they found something else that needed naming. To really appreciate the tone of the age that Kodachrome was brought into we should read Breed’s original words from the magazine. Upon finding in the distance a “gleaming palisade” he wrote:

“Our highest expectations were soon realized. What we saw was an arch–a new arch uncharted and unnamed!

This striking natural bridge is carved from creamy rock, a rarity in a land of brilliant reds. Actually, it is a double arch, with the larger span on the end of a buttress that juts from the main sandstone butte.

Near the anchor end, wind has blasted a smaller hole through the buttress.

Later a U.S. Geological Survey crew measured the gigantc creation of erosion. It is 152 feet high, 99 feet wide, and only four feet thick at the top of the span. As far as we could learn, we were the first to find it.

We named this feature ‘Grosvenor Arch’ in honor or Dr. Gilbert Grosvenor, President of the National Geographic Society, the man who, we all agreed, had done more than any other person to arouse public interest in geography.”

The area became a state park in 1962. According to Todd’s Desert Hiking Guide:

Fearing repercussions from the Kodak film company for using the name Kodachrome, the name was changed to Chimney Rock State Park; however, within a few years Kodak gave permission to rename the park Kodachrome Basin State Park.

As for the previously unnamed Grosvenor Arch, I can’t help but cynically think that its naming was a great idea on the part of the writer to ensure future employment by the magazine. In fact Breed did write a total of 10 stories for National Geographic, five of them after he named Kodachrome Flat.

Curiously, the photo that memorialized the discovery of the Grosvenor Arch was shot on EKTACHROME film!

Fast Facts:

Kodak has asked National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry to shoot the final roll of Kodachrome film. McCurry, who famously shot the Afghan girl cover for National Geographic magazine, told the L.A. Timestold the L.A. Times that it was in a way like losing an old friend. “I kind of think of it as an old form now, like somebody you’re never going to see again,” he said. “It was a beautiful, wonderful film and I had great success photographing with it.”

Nostalgic for more images? This week at the National Geographic Museum at our headquarters in D.C. a new exhibit opens called “Kodachrome Culture: The American Tourist in Europe.” The exhibit is free and frankly, we can’t wait to check it out.

Dan reminds us that you have six months left to buy any rolls of Kodachrome, and Dwayne’s Photo in Kansas, the only place that still processes the film, just announced that they will discontinue the service in December 2010.

Photos by Dan Westergren from the September 1949 National Geographic magazine, “First Motor Sortie into Escalante Land.”