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
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Arts and Entertainment
Awesome foursome: Sam Smith shows off his awards
music22-year-old confirms he is 2014’s breakout British music success
Arts and Entertainment
Contestants during this summer's Celebrity Big Brother grand finale
tvBroadcaster attempts to change its image following sale to American media group
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidate on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Latest stories from i100
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.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?