It took time for the reality of it to sink in. Although Kodak announced in June of 2009 that it was retiring its banner transparency film, Kodachrome, introduced in 1936, it was only with the cessation of processing at the end of December, 2010 by Dwayne’s Photo in Parsons, Kansas, that amateurs and professionals alike had to recognize that an era of image making had died. I wrote a piece about the demise of Kodachrome that some read as a wake rather than a tribute. I meant the latter. After all, it is not Kodak’s fault that despite its archival superiority to current imaging techniques, photographers just stopped buying it.
As if the once mighty imaging empire of Kodak were not already in straits, successive internal “consolidations” have weakened rather than helped its bottom line. An NPR story on September 27 forecast that even with its sputtering attempt to gain market share in digital imaging (even home copiers and printers) the great American icon’s pedestal is crumbling. Some naysayers give it six months to a year before being broken up, its divisions being parceled off to the sharks of corporate raiding. In a dispiriting story in the October 1 Business Day section of The New York Times, Kodak said that it had hired the Jones Day law firm to give it advice regarding restructuring, although it denied rumors it was considering filing for bankruptcy protection. For many of us who have imagined that film will always be there, this is dismaying. Many of us embrace the continuing advances of digital technology even as we advocate that film is still a superior (and certainly more archival "capture" medium.) And because Kodak is a company that has supported so many generations of emerging filmmakers with its programs, it is even more dismaying to see the near Schadenfreude that so many seem to display at seeing Kodak and its products at a difficult crossroads. Too many of my colleagues who have benefitted from Kodak's generosity ever since their student days now seem almost ecstatic to dance on celluloid's anticipated grave. It confounds me because I encounter many students today whose fondest dream is somehow to "shoot on film," even as their cinematographer heroes abandon the medium as unhip, obsolete.
Unlike many large American companies that elicit ambivalent responses, Kodak’s is a name that we associate with our best times and memories. Paul Simon’s 70s anthem gets it right:
There is not a cinematographer working today (at least those over 30) who has not somehow been assisted by Kodak’s tech support, its generosity in accepting feedback from users, and its ongoing encouragement for emerging filmmakers, even as those men and women choose to make their movies with digital cameras. The recent ICG “Emerging Cinematographer Awards” at the DGA partly sponsored by Kodak were illustrative. Of the eight winning films and the two honorable mentions, only one was photographed on film.
Most photojournalists, even James Nachtwey, who is seen in an early scene from the Oscar nominated documentary, War Photographer, labeling rolls of exposed 35mm film, have switched to digital cameras for their most demanding reportage deadlines. Nachtwey is now making inkjet, rather than silver, prints for the collector’s market. I am proud to have silver prints of his work, a designation that may soon have the same cachet for collectors as the words “vintage print.”
One of the questions that I, and those of the “film” generation, ask ourselves is, “Do we have a nostalgic but unwarranted attachment to film?” I think it depends a lot on your perspective. I was incredibly impressed by the resolution and natural landscape beauty of the short film Absaroka, photographed on a Canon XH A1 by Stefan Tarzan—and matted to a 2:40 aspect ratio. You can watch it here:
At the same time, as I become more and more aware of the long-term preservation challenges for movies photographed with digital cameras, and finished and stored only on digital media, I continue to believe that film is currently the only true archival medium. It is a terrible conundrum as the capture/conservation dilemma continues to bedevil the best minds at the major studios as well as the custodians of our film history such as university film archives and the National Film Preservation Foundation.
In this third and final review of my essays of the past year I want to review the postings that consider work created in the era of “film” photography. There is no better place to begin than in looking at the world’s first photograph.
In September of 1826, the French photographer Joseph Nicéphore Niépce sent a letter to his brother, Claude, asserting that he had made a fixed, stable image from nature of the view from his estate’s second floor studio window. It was recorded on a bitumen coated pewter plate. Flexible film, as we know it, was still more than fifty years in the future. The fascinating story of the odyssey of this image, lost and found, is the subject of a piece I posted last May. It has video embeds that trace the archeology of the image and the reconstruction of the room in which it was made.
A Getty museum photo exhibition from early this year, curated by Paul Martineau, focused on the often marginalized but highly personal and historically important subject of the “still life,” a genre most often associated with painting, but one whose origins course back to the earliest days of photography. A history of the photographic still life is one that runs a parallel track to that of general photography trends. This pocket exhibition of about three-dozen images aims high, and the catalog is a compact guide to that history.
My own reflections on the still life include many images not in the exhibition but ones that question the idea of what is a still life in an era when the fastest motion can be frozen.
One of the great delights I have in writing these essays is the experience of digging deeper into artists whose work I feel I already know something about. Even more gratifying is the discovery of an artist I know nothing about or, in the case of the gentlemanly Raymond Cauchetier, an artist who has bodies of work completely separate from those for which he is generally known. I first came to know Cauchetier through his iconic images of the French New Wave films, many of which have cemented the films in our minds, but which are images that don’t actually appear in the movies. Such is his photo of Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo from Godard’s Breathless strolling in conversation between takes on the Champs-Elysses.
In March of last year I wrote a four-part essay on the body of Cauchetier’s work.
Cauchetier’s movie period was only a single decade of a career that has spanned five decades, the last two of which were spent in summer excursions with his wife Kaoru photographing medieval Romanesque churches and sculpture throughout Europe. A true medievalist, Cauchetier has thousand of images that will be an important patrimony to France as well as the Euro community. But, as is the case with much such dedicated work like Atget’s, its value is not fully acknowledged during the artist’s life.
In a piece posted on Valentine Day I made the seeming unlikely juxtaposition of photos Cauchetier made during his New Wave productions and those he took of stone sculptures in medieval churches. Unlikely as such a mash-up might seem, I feel it gives a window into the creative mind of this eclectic artist, a visual dialogue between a frozen cinematic instant and the timeless frieze of carved stone.
I have remained in contact with Cauchetier who, despite fragile health, continues to catalog his archives even as he prepares prints for exhibition. He is in discussion currently with Ellen Harrington of the Academy’s Special Exhibition program for a show of his New Wave photography at AMPAS next winter.
From the earliest days of photography there has been an abiding fascination with architectural ruins.
Two contemporary, young French photographers photographed the ruins of urban Detroit in a style that evokes the genre of 19th century pioneers like Frith, Salzman, and Maxime du Camp, but with the chromatic lushness of Robert Polidori. I wrote a piece that examines this work against the background of an earlier, more heroically industrial city seen in the Diego Rivera murals at the Detroit Art Institute. In case this is not yet eccentric enough, there is an Eminem Chrysler commercial aired during the Super Bowl.
Unlikely companion pieces to the Detroit industrial ruins are those of the one time pilgrimage site, Spomeniks, of the former Yugoslavia. These surreal monuments to the war dead of a much–fragmented state spawned so many unexpected and contentious comments that I felt the Balkan War was being fought again—in my comment box. Somehow, the link for this essay escaped into the web ether where Serbs and Croats continue to battle in words. I finally had to say I would post no more comments. If only some of the other essays elicited this much response.
Self-portraiture is a distinguished genre in painting history. Some of it is hidden, such as Caravaggio’s self-portrait as the beheaded John the Baptist. Rembrandt was ruthless in documenting the ravages of time on his own face. Van Gogh cast an equally merciless eye on his own escalating neuroses. Self-portraiture in painting is not usually flattering or benign. Except for dandies like Baron de Meyer or the martyred Christ effigies of F. Holland Day, self-portraiture in photography often followed an ever more self-excoriating, psychic path.
Dead by suicide defenestration at age twenty-two, Francesca Woodman left a significant, hauntingly poetic but disturbing body of work. It is only recently that her prints are appearing in the major auction houses. The family has been both custodian of much of the work and protector of her image. Nonetheless, they have co-operated with filmmaker Scott Willis on a documentary about Woodman and her gifted family of artists. A trailer for the film can be seen here:
There are several published monographs of her photography, with interviews and testimonials by Woodman’s close friends and classmates at RISD. Several YouTube video tributes are embedded in the blog essay. On the evidence alone of these video montages, Woodman speaks to the darker concerns of identity for young women at the cusp of full adulthood.
Anyone who follows these weekly musings with regularity knows of my ongoing commitment to photojournalism. A posting from last September profiled an exhibition of fifty years of intense photojournalism by ten of its most impassioned men and women.
The catalog to the exhibition has many insightful essays and is a veritable history in the work of ten artists of one of the most fiercely intense eras of “engaged photography.”
The final gallery of “Engaged Observers” contained a mural sized photograph by James Nachtwey of an Iraq trauma ward of wounded bodies. The thirty-foot long mural initially repelled viewers with its piled-on litany of maimed bodies, but on sustained engagement became a sacerdotal metaphor of man’s mortality. Carol and I have collected Nachtwey’s often-painful work with a fierce dedication to his mission of “bearing witness.” This sixty-image mural tests that dedication, as the thought of living with such a massive scroll of suffering is more than any collector can envision. Nonetheless, we acquired it. It is now in storage in the bowels of the Getty. Who will have the courage to exhibit it in the future?
I hope that this three part review of the past year’s postings have allowed you to look at some that you may not have had the time to more than glance at, or missed completely—or that you have come to these essays recently. However it may be, I invite you again to leave comments. It may not seem of much importance to you, or to be an onerous imposition on your limited time. But it does mean a lot to know you are there. And please fill in the subscribe box below the recent comments.
Starting with this review, I am going to post every other week for a while. Each of these pieces demands a lot of time, time that recently has been stolen from work and other educational ventures. Also, a lot of readers have told me that they can’t keep up. I get that. I know these essays are not casually grabbed blog postings. My personal compensation is that they enable me to get beyond a press release of a new book or exhibition. That’s a great reward, paddling against the stream of information logjams that insist we experience the arts in ever more discrete and unconnected digital bits. I hope you have an analog experience reading these personal musings.