As you probably know, the very last place to develop Kodachrome film is processing it’s very last roll today, and retiring the special Kodachrome machine that uses the special Kodachrome chemicals that give the film it’s unique warmth and richness.
Kodak gave the final canister of film ever manufactured to a photographer named Steve McCurry, whom they thought had done an outstanding job of using the film to its best advantage. He is the man who took the iconic photograph “Afghan Girl”, of a young green-eyed girl named Gula in a Pakistani refugee camp, for National Geographic. (Thirty years later he found her again and took another photo; she looks like she’s had a rough life. Even her once bottomless eyes look faded and colder, like sand worn beach glass instead of tiny, twin planets.)
If you’re interested, here are some images of from that ultimate roll:
He’s quite the photographer, right?
Anyway, for some reason, the end of Kodachrome really bothered me. I heard about it on CBS Sunday Morning News, and couldn’t stop thinking about it all week.
This is the season for reflection, and I am kind of obsessed with memory anyway, because I am always so astonished when reminded of all that I have forgotten. Not remembering distresses me, because, as some famous but completely forgotten person once said, “we are our memories.” In a never-ending quest towards self-improvement, I find it imperative to be able to define who I am, in order to figure out who I want to be, and that involves analyzing what the elements of me are, so in addition to being fascinated by all things memory/perception-related, I have a personal stake in the subject. Perhaps that’s why I write this blog – to remember what I think. (Here’s a paraphrase of a really nice memory quote from J.M. Barrie: “[We have memories] so that we might have roses in December.”)
The thing is, often, I am not sure if my memories are my own, or if they are manipulated mutations of memories. In other words, are memories organic, or are they products of external suggestions? The answer, of course, is “Yes.” They are both. And many of my favorite memories are in Kodachrome. I can no longer distinguish the moment from the image that captured it, and the intensity or import of those moments is enhanced by the density and dynamism of, as it turns out, a unique developmental process and a slew of chemicals. Which came first: the picture or the memory?
My first camera was a Kodak X-15 Instamatic. I had it for years. I took pictures of my grandfather driving what I will always think of as a Cadillac, whether it was or not. Never much concerned with details like what’s in the frame, I have a picture of his legs, from his white leather belt and polyester, maroon pants against the green leather seat, down to his matching white loafers on the pedals. On the floor is an orange golf tee. From the picture comes a cloud of sensation and factoids: the smell of his pipe; the way he ate so slowly, always the last up from the table on Friday nights; the strength of his arms when he let me feel his muscles; the taste of the peaches he grew; the songs that crooned from the radio of that car as it purred down Central Expressway, passed the drive-in that is no longer there, on our way to the now-demolished Luby’s, where I could order anything I wanted, so long as I ate everything that I put on my plate. Holding that slightly blurry photo – a word that itself is giving way to the more popular “image”- I am transported to a world in which my grandmother is still living, and I can almost feel her hands in my hair, smell her soup on the stove, hear her whispering to me, as I’m sure she did to all of my cousins, that really, I am her favorite. I see the dress I get to pick out on my first day of third grade and remember how proud I was. I see my sister as a tiny golden sundrop, with a shag hair cut in a little fringed jacket, smiling up at me, posing for the camera, and my mother, beautiful and radiant, and my handsome beatnik father, a perfect family before I knew that families are never perfect. That one picture brings back an entire era that is forever bathed in a certain glow…a Kodak glow. The era is gone forever, as are high school, and leaving home, and my first love, and life-changing travels to astounding locales, and groups of friends that are long dispersed, and people, now, quite a few, who I will only ever see again in the photos in my albums or the snapshots in my head. In those pictures we are smiling and laughing, or walking and talking, sharing holidays and road trips and afternoons on the porch. I miss those people. Part of me is gone with them, and I have phantom pain in the part that remains.
It’s not just that.
There are photos of our collective consciousness. I recently saw Paul McCartney on SNL and the again on the Kennedy Center Awards. At the awards, there was a retrospective of his professional life. There were the early black and white Beatles; funny to think that those well-tailored young men were considered radical and threatening. Pictures showed them growing up, growing into a phenomenon, growing apart. Cynthia on John’s arm, Yoko on John’s arm, Sean in John’s arm and then no John at all. Later, there will be no George. At least Ringo is still out there, preaching peace and love.
Back to the show. Paul and Linda. Linda Eastman McCartney, herself a photographer, but not a member of the Eastman-Kodak family, maybe the love of Paul’s life. There they are in a flowered, verdant field, on brown and white spotted horses, there they are making wings of their fingers, there she is, blonde curtain of hair obscuring her face as she leans over the piano. The camera at the Kennedy Center pans on Paul, looking a bit wistful and lost, slightly hollow. I am struck by how sad it is that these oft-viewed photos and film clips are all he has left of what must seem like another lifetime. Of course, there are also the memories one carries in the mind, but it is the double-edged blessing and curse that they fade. To me, it seems like McCartney himself is fading, and it is hard to watch.
On the tv, the light has changed. The retrospective has moved from technicolor to video to digital, and then the stage lights come up and instead of McCartney desperately attempting to channel himself when he was more vivid and in-focus, Gwen Stefani, looking bloodless and sounding soulless, minces on 6 inch stilettos through “Hello Goodbye” and “Penny Lane.” Then Dave Grohl and Norah Jones, then Steven Tyler. The Beatles, once so powerful and revolutionary, so seminal and inventive, are now represented by others who are like the spark of a Zippo to an inferno. They were the big daddies, the memory makers of a generation, the song of growing up for so many, and in such different ways, from the teenyboppers to the Manson family. As a kid, I was a huge Aerosmith fan, but really, is sell-out Steven Tyler now elder statesman of music that once made a statement? Are grandparents and grandchildren going to dance together to “Big Ten Inch Record” or “A Lick and A Promise” in the same way they do to “All You Need Is Love” or “Let It Be”?
The thing about this is, as our touchstones crumble, we lose ways to communicate with each other. We lose our collective memory.
Ah, the times they are a’changin’. The final gasp of film – it’s been dying for a pretty long time now-has left me nostalgic. I understand progress, and that those who can not adapt, and who cling to the obsolete will be left behind. I’ve always known this, but I am beginning to understand how easily it can happen, and how a person can get stuck in time, swallowed by memories. I myself have a fabulous new camera, a Canon with a lens that goes in and out – fancy!- and I love the fact that I can delete and edit my snapshots at will. Life is too short for a bad picture, especially one of me! But I think that’s the heart of my feeling of loss right now. There was a time when thing in life were not so clear, sharp and harsh. There was a time when life itself seemed brighter, deeper, richer, warmer. Then, there was no deleting, no Photoshopping, no taking out the red eye. It’s not so much that we saw things how they really were in the past; it’s just that then, the imperfections seemed to add to the value, like the patina on an antique. We saw things in washes of color – “the greens of summer” – and comforting generalities – “makes me feel all the world is a sunny day.”* I guess the past always seems more innocent, but now at a time in my life when I might enjoy a little delusion, the writing is stark on the wall: People get older, then old, then die, and others mourn, and then forget, and what seemed so important, so pivotal and monumental, is forgotten. I am not immortal, and everything ends.
That was a whole lot of words to tell you something you’ve already learned and probably remember, huh?
That being said, here are some digital images I have captured with my great camera in the final weeks of 2010.
* These words, of course, were written by Paul Simon, who has a new album coming out in 2011, So Beautiful Or So What.
Are you still here? Good! This is a really interesting story about what people want to be remembered and how they want to remember it: http://www.theworld.org/2010/12/30/gay-holocaust-memorial-controversy/
See you in 2011!