For The Love of Photography

July 30, 2013 · 0 comments


Last week, the fundraising campaign for “Rural Transitions” ended, with some level of controversy. A well-meaning person posted about the project on a Kodak forum, indicating that Kodak would no longer make any black-and-white film. Nothing could be further from the truth, but the Internet Rage Machine went into high gear, attacking me, Chris and the project in general, accusing me of of over-sensationalizing for the sake of profit. Again, not true, but the damage was done. Chris has addressed this issue directly in a posting on the project’s facebook page; I encourage you to read that posting and the comments that follow. The short story is this: Kodak is still making black-and-white film. The specific type Chris uses will still be available, although only as a special order in the size he shoots. My understanding is that ordering this film in small quantities can be problematic, but certainly not impossible. Either way, the documentary is about Chris and his process, and the eventual (some would say inevitable) demise of film as a creative medium. That has not changed. Anyone who wants to discuss this further is welcome to contact me any time; I only ask that you be polite. Edits to this post are clearly marked. Thanks…

My office in the studio has a collection of vintage cameras displayed on shelving around the walls. That’s probably not unusual for a photographer; in my case, most of those cameras are ones I’ve owned or were owned by a family member.

I have my second camera, a Kodak “Instamatic X-35F” with its innovative “Flip Flash”. There are several Kodak models that carry the “Brownie” label. There are film cameras, including the one my Dad carried when he spent time overseas in the military, another “Brownie” 8mm wind-up model, and a Bell & Howell sound model that was my family’s last foray into filmmaking.

But the most precious camera to me is the one my Mom used when she was a teenager; an aging Kodak Brownie “Starflash”. That was (likely) her first camera, and I’ve even had the chance to fire off a few shots on it. There’s a switch on the front for “black and white” or “color” film, a shutter, and a huge reflector with a receptacle for the flashbulb if you needed it. A simple camera, perhaps for a simpler time, but let’s not dive into the nostalgia pool just yet.

It’s not much of a camera, as cameras go. It’s not terribly sophisticated, but cameras like it have documented our world for decades now. Kodak marketed these kinds of cameras to the masses, and simple, inexpensive, easy-to-use cameras changed everything. Suddenly, photography was available to the average person, and did we ever embrace it.

My Mom was in that first generation of photobugs, and she loved photography. She had quite a collection of cameras; in addition to the aforementioned Brownie, she also used a rangefinder camera from Agfa that is, in fact, loaded with film today. She had an old enlarger, a knowledge of photographic chemistry and development processes, and we used to set up a makeshift darkroom by blocking off all light to our kitchen; she taught me how to process film and make my own prints. We even experimented with a pinhole camera, shooting and processing film (and making prints) from a homemade one-of-a-kind model made from cardboard and electrical tape. It was pretty cool stuff.

That was my introduction to photography.

In my high school and college years, I shot for the school newspapers and yearbook. I picked up a few freelance jobs here and there (once shooting an entire catalog of veterinary products for a local reseller), photographed a few weddings, senior portraits and such. I made full use of my college’s darkroom when it was available to me; I loved the smell of the chemicals, the tactile feel of creating my own prints, the joy (and sometimes frustration) as the image revealed itself under the darkroom’s safelight.

Later, of course, I would embrace digital photography with a vengeance. But I’ve never forgotten the pleasure of “analog” photography.

Which, of course, brings me full circle to the documentary I’m currently producing with Chris Walker, a photographer using large-format film and traditional processes.

Chris and I grew up in the same part of the country, in rural Southeast Michigan’s “thumb region”. We hung out with some of the same crowd, and Chris even hired me to do some photography for him when he was running an initiative known as “Project Bluebird”, which built nesting houses for Michigan’s dwindling native bluebird population (in fact, the photos I took for him were the first I ever had published with a byline when they ran in the local newspaper).

About a year ago, I ran across Chris’ work, and was astonished. I didn’t make the connection right away, but perhaps I should have. The photography was big, vast, important…there is a reverence for the subject matter that speaks to the nature of having been raised in the region. His inanimate objects stand like statues at Easter Island; the people he photographs have a casual intensity that is compelling. I didn’t look at or study his work as much as I absorbed it. Then I realized who had created these amazing images.

This is the same guy that I used to trade fart jokes with back in High School?

I did some more research, “friended” Chris on facebook, and started following his progress. Then one day, he posted that he had in his possession a share of the last production run of Kodak TMax 400 film in 8×10 format. When it’s gone, it’s gone forever. I knew I had to document this process. I called Chris, and we talked for the first time in nearly 30 years; he graciously agreed to let me produce a film about his project, and we were off to the races.

I’ve put other larger and more high-profile projects “on hold” to be able to produce this documentary. For me, this is more than a vanity project, or a niche film targeted to a small audience. Almost since its introduction, photography—specifically photography using what is now quaintly called “traditional” methods—has not only documented some of the most important events in human history, it has become one of the most popular (and accessible) art forms known to humankind. I don’t know of a single person that doesn’t have a photograph on the wall of their home somewhere. Think about that…paintings have been around since we chased mastadons and lived in caves, but your odds of having a painting in your home are much less than the chance you have a photograph. If your house were on fire, what would you save? I’d wager that it would be that shoebox full of photos, or the family photo album. The most enduring and important moments we remember—a sailor’s kiss in Times Square, Ansel Adams’ “Face of Half Dome”, the flag raising at Iwo Jima, even Albert Einstein playfully sticking his tongue out to the camera—they were all created by passing light through a lens to a piece of film which was lovingly printed in a dark room at the hands of a skilled artist.

Photography is important.

Photography matters.

This documentary will be my love letter to traditional photography. I don’t do my work in a darkroom any more; I’ve replaced film, chemicals and safelights for electrons and pixels. In a very short time, film will likely become a distant memory, the collective property of artists and cranks. It’s already happening: Unable If he is unable to find a suitable supply or replacement for the Kodak film he uses, Chris will likely abandon his 25-year project of documenting youth at rural county fairs.

I’ll be there to witness it. I’d love to have you along for the ride. Please give thoughtful consideration to supporting this project.

Thank you.

View the “Rural Transitions” crowdfunding page.

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