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Exposed: The Last Roll Of Kodachrome

In 1984, photojournalist Steve McCurry was in an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan. He followed the sound of voices to a tent where he found a group of girls. "I noticed this one little girl off to the side that had his incredible set of eyes that seemed almost haunted — or very piercing," he tells NPR's Audie Cornish.

McCurry snapped a picture that ended up on the cover of National Geographic's June 1985 issue. "The Afghan Girl" became one of the magazine's most widely recognized photographs — and one of the century's most iconic. To get that shot, McCurry used a type of film that has become iconic in its own right: Kodachrome.

The film, known for its rich saturation and archival durability of its slides, was discontinued last year to the dismay of photographers worldwide. But Kodak gave the last roll ever produced to McCurry. He has just processed that coveted roll at Dwayne's Photo Service in Parsons, Kan. — the last remaining location that processes the once-popular slide film.

What's on that landmark roll of film is still under wraps. It will be the subject of an upcoming documentary by National Geographic. What is known is that the first and last images are in New York City, McCurry's home base. And between those frames are photographs from India, where McCurry established his career as a master of color photography.

Although he has almost a million images spanning 35 years in his Kodachrome library, he still felt the pressure of this assignment. Every one of the 36 frames on that final roll was precious. "Am I getting the right moment?" he wonders. "Is it in focus? Is the exposure right?"

So before he took one of those shots, he used a digital camera to hone in on the perfect exposure. "To have that reinforcement, to be able to see that on a two-dimensional screen ... it was a big help," he says.

And he's got a piece of advice for amateur photographers with unused Kodachrome film lying around: Get it to Dwayne's! The Kansas photo shop will stop processing Kodachrome rolls on Dec. 30. And while that will mark the end of an era of photography, the memories created with Kodachrome — like that Afghan girl's green eyes — will live on.

Related: 'Afghan Girl' Mystery Solved

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Dust Storm, Rajasthan, India, 1983 (Photos by Steve McCurry)

Villagers participating in the Holi Festival, Rajasthan, India, 1996

Beggar Girl, Bombay, India, 1993

Blue Mosque, Mazar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, 1991

Three men sit in the old quarter in Jodhpur, India, 1996

Afghan refugee girl. Refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan, 1984

Painted Boy, Bombay, India, 1996

Fisherman at Weligama, Sri Lanka

Girl with Green Shawl, Peshawar, Pakistan, 2002

Tahoua, Niger, 1986

Boy in Midflight, Jodhpur, India, 2007

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, host:

Now, to the dreamlike images of photojournalist Steve McCurry. McCurry is best known for an iconic 1984 portrait he captured at an Afghan refugee camp in Pakistan. He followed the sound of young voices to a tent and a group of girls in a makeshift classroom.

Mr. STEVE MCCURRY (Photojournalist): And I noticed this one little girl that had this incredible set of eyes that kind of seemed almost kind of haunted, very piercing.

CORNISH: That photograph, now known as The Afghan Girl, ended up on the cover of National Geographic and became one of the magazine's most widely recognized. To get that shot, McCurry used an icon in its own right: Kodak's Kodachrome slide film. Last year, Kodak discontinued Kodachrome and gave the last roll ever produced to McCurry. He crossed the globe for those final shots and he came into our New York bureau to talk about them.

When he got the assignment, he says, he had one big question.

Mr. MCCURRY: What do you photograph? What do you shoot when you have the last manufactured roll of Kodachrome? And I thought, yeah, I need to photograph where I live. I need to go back to where I've done most of my important work, which was South Asia. And I need to find iconic situations and iconic people that are going to be kind of a great celebration of this last roll of film and kind of, you know, going home for the last time.

CORNISH: So, Steve, my husband shoots hundreds of pictures with his digital camera just to get a few good shots. I mean, what was the pressure like to have just essentially 36 frames and the last 36 frames?

Mr. MCCURRY: The pressure, it was really nerve-wracking because, you know, you load it in and, heaven forbid, somebody opens the back by mistake. You know, going through security, I was so worried that the X-ray machine in Istanbul, in Italy, all these airports that I went through, I was worried sick that there was going to be X-ray damage, or, you know - and then, you know, the right moment - am I getting the right moment? And then, is it in focus, is the exposure right? You know, I missed a couple...

CORNISH: I have to say, you're making me feel so much better that you were stressed about what to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MCCURRY: Yeah. Oh, my God. It was crazy.

CORNISH: And you said you missed a couple. I mean, what does that mean?

Mr. MCCURRY: Well, there was really only one exposure that I think I was a little bit off on. So, I'm actually quite pleased with what we came back with.

CORNISH: And when - at what point do you think we may actually see some of these pictures?

Mr. MCCURRY: I've been working on a National Geographic documentary. That's scheduled to be out next spring.

CORNISH: Now, Steve, what's the big deal about Kodachrome?

Mr. MCCURRY: It was the best look, the best color. It was the truest, you know, look of reality that you could really have in film. And now, there's only one lab left on the planet that is processing Kodachrome. So there's only one lab. If you want your Kodachrome film processed, you've got to go to Dwayne Photo in Parsons, Kansas - that's it. And after December this year, they'll no longer be processing it.

CORNISH: Lastly, most of our listeners know your Afghan Girl shot. But I want to ask if that's actually your favorite picture?

Mr. MCCURRY: You like different pictures for different reasons, so I would be hesitant to - reluctant to say which one. I mean, maybe a picture I took in -also in 1984 of a dust storm in Rajasthan, India with, you know, all this dust and wind and heat and these women were kind of huddled together. I think that's probably - if I had to choose one picture - I think that would probably be my favorite.

CORNISH: Well, we look forward to see what else you come up with, especially with this last roll of Kodachrome.

Mr. MCCURRY: Well, thank you very much.

CORNISH: Steve McCurry is the photographer who shot the last roll of Kodachrome film ever produced. You can't see those photos yet, but you can see a gallery of his greatest hits on our blog, The Picture Show. It's at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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