The passing of Kodachrome film (1935-2011) definitively marks the end of an era. The news late in December, 2010, that Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons Kansas would soon process the final 35mm roll of Kodak’s Kodachrome film was both expected and poignant. Kodachrome was for many years the film of choice for professionals and amateurs alike; the collections of countless academic slide libraries were filled with Kodachrome slides acquired from professional image vendors and amateur photographers including institutional faculty, students, and alumni. Generations of college students were first exposed to major works of art and architecture when looking at Kodachrome slides projected in their Art History classes.
The first academic lantern slide collections in the United States date from the 1880’s. Seventy years later by the 1950’s, the newer 35mm film format (including Kodak’s Kodachrome) was being quickly adopted by younger faculty members while the older generation mourned the loss of the larger format. For almost fifty years technology changed quite slowly for academic image collections. Then in 2004 two significant events occurred: 1) the Andrew Mellon Foundation announced that the ARTstor image database was available for licensing by nonprofit institutions and 2) Kodak discontinued the manufacturing of its 35mm carousel projectors and carousels. As a consequence American academics—again, particularly the younger faculty—realized the urgent need to switch from the use of analog, film based slides to digital images in their teaching. Of course, slide libraries are themselves now an endangered species. Many have been shuttered or eliminated; most are no longer actively used or maintained. Licensed content along with locally produced and maintained institutional digital image repositories have taken their place; Internet resources including Flickr, Wikipedia, and Google Images as well as personally scanned or digitally photographed images are often the resource of choice for imagery used in the humanities. Digital images are downloaded and stored on computers and iPods; they are incorporated into PowerPoint presentations; they are posted on course management sites such as BlackBoard; they can be manipulated and shared at will.
Shortly after the news about the demise of Kodachrome film, came Google’s announcement about their newest foray into the world of images. The Art Project (http://www.googleartproject.com/) is a collaborative effort between Google and a number of prestigious art museums to make high resolution digital images of important and popular works of art globally available using broad array of Google technologies. The ability to zoom into and out of the images, to walk through the galleries where they are housed, to hear or read a description of each work, to be transported to the birth location of the artist, and to share them with friends and colleagues is unprecedented. Information about this project is even available via YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/googleartproject) making it yet easier to access and use this technology. While this project currently only contains 1,000 of the most iconic images from seventeen museums, it will certainly quickly grow in all dimensions.
So, out with the old and in with the new. Kodachrome film lasted forty six years. Will ARTstor or the Google Art Project be viable for as long? What is the next innovation in store for this generation of academics, when will it come, and what are the implications?