Kodachrome achieved for National Geographic what its writers seldom could, capturing America as a dreamspace, where the most familiar sights become places of fascination. We laugh when William Graves describes Mobile as a “hauntingly beautiful land,” but there’s little other way to describe the window National Geographic’s photographers opened onto postwar American life. David Boyer’s 1966 time-lapse portrait of a blazing neon street in Casper, Wyoming, could have inspired a Stuart Davis painting. James Blair’s image of Big Sur from the same year depicts the coast in a dusk wash of purple and pink. The monotone is interrupted by two easily missed signs of human intrusion: a small streak of red curving along the coastal road—a car’s taillight—and a speck of yellow in a hilltop house, perhaps a lamp. The effect is unspeakably lonely. Bruce Dale’s 1965 image of the incomplete St. Louis Arch shows the monument’s two legs emerging from a thick fog, as if it were being built in the Arctic depths, or perhaps on a bad movie-set depiction of heaven. In 1969, James Amos used a fisheye lens to contort the oppressive buildings of Atlanta’s Peachtree Center into a vertiginous swirl. If it weren’t for the jet plane in the corner of Walter Edwards’s aerial photo of the same year, the Grand Canyon would be unrecognizable as a place on Earth.
These photos are not the sharpest, particularly by the crystalline standard of the magazine’s contemporary digital images. Distant objects tend to haze and smudge in Kodachrome. But the colors have a richness that seems sourced in deeper springs; taking a razor to one of these images, you’d half-expect colors to ooze, sap-like, through the gash. This contrast between rich color and ill-defined backgrounds creates an intimacy that is lost in digital photos. The latter have become ever more lifelike and, correspondingly, have lost the lyricism of the earlier photos. Kodachrome, on the other hand, took the familiar and made it strange, representing the world while changing it.