As an old-school photography lover, life will not be the same.
Soon I’m going to the Cartier-Bresson exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago. I’m like a child waiting for Christmas—anticipation is creating an aura of happiness. For me, black and white photography, like no other medium, is capable of creating a sense of intimacy with the aura of place and time. Henri Cartier-Bresson spoke of “the decisive moment,” that fleeting space between the past and what is to come.
He intuitively and masterfully captured that pregnant instant in his viewfinder and on his film. I’m a jaw-dropped fan of his work.
A couple of recent articles on the net have caused me to rethink photography.
Steve McCurry, the brilliant photographer who shot the iconic green-eyed Afghan girl published as a cover image in National Geographic, was recently given the last roll of Kodachrome film. Wow. Kodachrome was the first commercially viable color film, “extolled since the Great Depression for its sharpness, archival durability and vibrant yet realistic hues.” Paul Simon wrote a song about it. (Hum “Kodachrome…” and you’ll remember the song.) I ran uncountable rolls through my 35mm Nikon without ever thinking: this is a finite resource: soon it will be gone.
He too loaded the film and shot it. “McCurry feels the tug of nostalgia even as he loads Eastman Kodak Co.’s last manufactured roll into his Nikon F6, just as he’s done ‘so many tens of thousands of times.’” Then he had it processed at Dwayne’s. It may be shocking to learn, (as I did about a year ago when my son, Graham, was looking to have his Kodachrome processed), that the last photo-lab in the world to process “the elaborately crafted color-reversal film” was in Parsons, Kansas. Really. It’s Dwayne’s Photo. Soon, after this last manufactured roll, and any stragglers are processed, Dwayne’s will unavoidably shut down that part of their business.
Albeit a quiet milestone, discontinuance of this once technological wonder in color photography, caused me to think about some earlier photographers and their impact on the field. For example, Eadweard Muybridge. Basically he was challenged to settle a bet regarding whether a galloping horse ever has all four feet off the ground. One photo isn’t enough to capture that potential bet-winning image, so Muybridge devised this system of using a series of cameras that would shoot sequential images of the action. It is brilliant, and is a precursor to motion pictures. A wonderful presentation of his animated black and white still images is on the Minneapolis Institute of Art website as Animal Locomotion, and he is, as they call him, “The Grandfather of the Motion Picture.” There is also much background information and curatorial interpretation online at the Corcoran Gallery of Art. An exhibition “Helios, Eadweard Muybridge” was held there this summer.
What is it about photography that is so important to us? In a recent book about Facebook, Justin Levy says, “More than one billion photos are uploaded and shared on Facebook every month. ” Yikes. That is a really big number. It means that rather than using Kodachrome film (obviously) we are changing how we “shoot” photographs, process and share them. We still want to have these immortalized images to share, but we want it faster, easier, cheaper, more portable. (Justin R. Levy. Facebook Marketing: Designing Your Next Marketing Campaign. Indianapolis: Pearson Education, 2010. Print. 31).
There are trade-offs in the move to fast, cheap, portable, i.e. digital.
But bottom line, I think is that the whole evolution underscore how important photographs are to us as human beings. One of the first cognitive abilities an infant has is the drive to identify faces. Photos are our “relics” of human relationships. We want to capture and have these touchstones with us to reconnect with important moments in our lives.
I realized my interest in photography as a child. As an emerging artist, I created my own darkroom in my basement when I was about 13 years old. It seems so prehistoric now: I went to the library and studied all those books about chemicals, enlargers, dodging, burning. I used my babysitting money and bought subscriptions to (it seems) dozens of photography and camera magazines with bold and busy ads for camera shops in New York—it all seemed so exotic to a teen from Omaha, NE.
I worked as a student photographer in high school and as the sideline photographer for the University of Nebraska football team (yes; those guys are really big). I studied photography in college, had a photograph win a national contest and be published in a national magazine as an 18 year old. I then taught photography, used photography in my art, and cherished the art form. And, sad to say, black and white photography is almost a relic now too. It is challenging and a hassle to get a lab to process black and white film.
So for me, and everyone who has loved the absolute magic of watching an image appear on the paper, it is a complicated emotional transition to see the world changing from Kodachrome and film to digital. I don’t have to discuss the pluses and minuses—but I’d be interested in your thoughts on the topic. Yet, it’s a reality. I just hope something else comes along that will have some of the same magic as the chemistry of a latent image emerging from nothing. And, I have to again pay homage to the pioneers such as Nicéphore Niépce, Eadweard Muybridge, Dorothea Lange, Margaret Bourke-White, Cartier-Bresson, and Steve McCurry with the last roll of Kodachrome.