Once upon a time in America: National Geographic's images from the golden age of Kodachrome

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Nathan Benn spent two decades shooting 10,000 rolls of film for 'National Geographic'. Twenty years after his final commission, his work remains as fresh and evocative as ever thanks to the unique properties of Kodachrome. Peter Popham delves into Benn's archives – and discovers America anew

Nathan Benn was one of the aristocrats of American journalism – those blessed photographers who were brilliant, versatile and hard-working enough to be hired by National Geographic. A Jew from a modest home in Florida, Benn spent months shooting Hasidic Jews in Brooklyn on spec. Robert E Gilka, the magazine's legendary director of photography, liked the pictures and put Benn, who was only 22, on the payroll.

National Geographic is still a big noise today, with more than three million Facebook friends, but back in 1972 it was a global giant, with a unique reputation for photographic quality. It had 10 million paying subscribers. Benn was provided with an office, cameras, a generous expense account that enabled him to travel the world and spend many months on a single project, and as much Kodachrome as he could eat.

He worked for the magazine for nearly two decades, with a gap in the middle, yet only 10 of the 100-plus pictures he has selected for a book to be published in the US next month originally appeared in the magazine. The rest emerged from an archive of 350,000 transparencies (about 10,000 rolls of film) in 44 cartons held in a warehouse near Washington DC, which he first got to grips with in 2005, 13 years after his final National Geographic assignment.

That hiatus was unusually long, but even in the course of his work for the magazine, many months would often go by before he saw the results of his labours. That, in turn, was due to the nature of Kodachrome. The richest, warmest colour film ever invented, Kodachrome's unique technical feature was that the dyes were not present in the film's emulsion but were added afterwards, during processing, which therefore had to be done not in a laboratory but a dedicated factory. Unlike other film, exposed rolls of Kodachrome had to be dispatched to one of the centres around the world – there were 25 at the height of the film's popularity – where they could be processed. "With Kodachrome," Benn says, "you never knew what you got. It took at least 48 hours to get the film back, but if I was k travelling on assignment, I might not see the pictures for three months."

Nothing could be further removed from the instant feedback of digital photography. "If you don't know what you're going to get," he goes on, "you keep on shooting to cover yourself. As a result, the prime emotional factor in my 20 years with the magazine was insecurity. You keep working it and you keep working it and you keep working it and you come up with something unexpected." Exactly what those unexpected images were, he only began to discover in 2005.

Today, those are the pictures he treasures, and from which he has picked his favourites. "I spent a lot of my career reinforcing stereotypes," he says. "If I went to Pittsburgh, I would shoot pictures of men working in a steel mill. The first instinct when working for the magazine is, look for people that reinforce preconceptions. You go to Vermont and you are looking for typical Yankee characters, who are unpretentious, straightforward, gruff, hard-working. In the magazine these were called didactic pictures. But going through my archive, the ones I was drawn to were the ones that were not didactic. The only ones I really like now are the ones where I had no control, where there was a serendipity, where taking the pictures was effortless."

Despite these caveats, his book features plenty of pictures where his magazine's mission to educate shines out, shot by a young man who, having previously seen little of his country outside Florida, saw it first with a Nat Geo Leica in his hand. In picture after picture, America emerges with beguiling freshness: the young lady with big hair, loud coat and face brimming with optimism, waiting for her Greyhound bus; clapboard, fins and flag on a 4 July in Pittsburgh; cheerleaders in the rain in New York, observed by a youth in a hammock who looks hard to impress. Elsewhere, he produces images that satisfy his bosses' appetite for the familiar but which transcend the expected message: watermelons are code in America for the lowly status of blacks, but here it is the sheer voluptuousness of the watermelon mountain that monopolises one's gaze.

His magazine always had important messages to convey and Benn did his best to oblige. Yet that is not why his best pictures ravish us today: despite the passage of time, his Koda-chrome transparencies – much more stable than rival film – retain their vividness, while the didactic mission that motivated them has faded away. What remains are the elemental seductions of his craft, a four-way love affair between America, Kodachrome, Leica and gorgeous light.

'Kodachrome Memory: American Pictures 1972-1990' by Nathan Benn will be published by PowerHouse Books in October, priced £35

Arts and Entertainment
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?