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Video: The last roll

TODAY contributor
updated 11/27/2009 10:48:13 AM ET 2009-11-27T15:48:13

I saw a sign in the window of a photographer’s studio the other day. It read: “If you have beauty, we’ll take it. If you have none, we’ll fake it.”

Sometimes shadow and light are better than make-up. One covers what we don’t like; the other brightens what we do.   

I suspect we all begin taking pictures before anyone gives us a camera, creating hopeful images in our mind’s eye. Think what it must have been like before 1935, when the only people who saw themselves in color were the ones who could afford to have their pictures painted; the rest of us were frozen in black-and-white. A game changer came that year, as revolutionary as the Internet or iPhone: the first successful color film.

God and Man invented it. That’s what the pundits called Leo Godowsky and Leopold Maness: two friends, world-class musicians, who felt photography should be more than colored paint on shades of gray. 

“Kodachrome was such an amazing film because the color stayed good,” says Leon Crooks. He ought to know: He’s been a photographer for most of his 90 years, recording the three stages of life — childhood, middle age and “how good you look.”

My dad had thousands of Kodachrome slides stacked in shoeboxes, stuck on shelves in the basement. On blustery winter nights, he would pull them out, set up a screen, and click on a projector.

For the first time, we kids saw ourselves as the neighbors saw us — in color. Those images are still as timeless as summer memories.

Kodachrome was kind of like lipstick and make-up for life. Yes, it gave you a color picture — but it could also make you look better.  

Don’t take my Kodachrome away
Half a century ago, 2,000 film labs processed Kodachrome in the United States. Now, Dwayne’s Photo in tiny Parsons, Kansas, is the last one — in the entire world.

Dwayne Steinle’s son Grant watches over all our colorful memories.

“When you woke up one day and found you were the last of the last, what did you think?” I ask.

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“It’s kind of pride mixed with sadness, because Kodak isn’t making Kodachrome any more,” Grant says.

After 74 years, it has shut down production of a product so iconic Utah named a state park after it, the only one in the country named for a brand of film.

Customers around the world are scrambling to develop their last rolls before Dwayne’s stops processing Kodachrome at the end of 2010. A thousand rolls a day tumble into this town of 10,000 on the Kansas prairie.

Picking your shots
If you could leave the world only a handful of images, what pictures would you take? What would you see that we might miss, even standing next to you? In a world where digital cameras let us take all the pictures we want, these are tough questions.

Aftera alls, students in Parsons’ high school photography class shoot 40,000 photos a year, But 16-year-old Lauren Llanes has been pondering what she would pass on to her grandkids if, like Kodachrome, she had only a few shots left.

Video: The fight for America’s last pole ferry Ultimately, it’s not the camera — it’s the eye behind it that takes the pictures we remember.  Lauren took me to a place most pass by: Parsons’ abandoned train yard.

“Railroads built our little town,” she points out as we wander past the rusting boxcars. “Not many know that this is where most people worked back in the day.” Back before the depot burned and the trains moved on, taking two thousand jobs with them, that is.

Parsons’ little photo lab may lose workers, too: Kodachrome is 20 percent of its business. But life is not a question of being dealt a good hand; it’s playing a bad hand well, over and over and over again.

“We don’t get trapped into saying, ‘Oh, something bad has happened to us. We need to give up,’ ” Grant Steinle says. “We’re always looking forward to where we need to go.”

Now that’s a lasting image.

Keep those ideas coming. Know someone who would make a great American Story with Bob Dotson? Drop a note in my mailbox by clicking here .

If you would like to contact the subjects of this American Story with Bob Dotson, visit:

Dwayne's Photo
415 S 32nd St
Parsons, KS 67357
(620) 421-3940

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