In those moments that somehow stretch into the days of late fall, when there are more leaves under foot than over head, a certain timeframe emerges. It’s almost a fifth season. When the maples are bare and you can see forever through the forest, as jays call and dive to dodge a passing hawk, when the musky scent of leaves fills your lungs and mind as they begin their slow passage from one form of energy into another… What a fantastical time to be in the woods.
To be there in the fog, in a light rain that masks the sound of your footsteps among the moistened leaves, is a blessing unto itself. To be there with a tripod over your shoulder, with a roll of Kodachrome in your camera, was the most you could ask of any day.
This quiet ritual is the first step in anchoring memories such as these. And while that anchoring is seldom perfect, as the transformation of four dimensions into two rarely is, for decades, Kodachrome was the media of choice for a battalion of nature photographers on a quest to fix those days for anyone not lucky enough to have shared them in person.
And when the last batch of Kodachrome 25 was run in 2002, and the lines that produced this epic film were committed to other projects, a handful of Kodak managers went down to a local pub in Rochester and held a wake for the passing of their beloved cornerstone.
As I created the early works in this portfolio, I believed them to be simple extractions from the eternal bio-flow that surrounds us, continually advancing in transitory motion. As many young photographers dream, I hoped that someday they might grace the covers of Geographic or Audubon. And some have turned up, here and there, in smaller publications, on higher page numbers…
So what success this group has lies not within my aspirations of youth, but in a retrospective evaluation of the media which held our photographic images for the first 150 years—specifically the one that allowed our baby-boomers’ childhoods to be remembered in full color, not just shades of yellow.
Positive films have a near-mystical life of their own, a palate unmatched by other films, and Kodachrome 25 was the quintessential media throughout the age in which these films reigned. It was unique, possessing a range of characteristics only dreamed of by other films. Not as clumsy or random as electronic capture, it was an elegant media for a more civilized age…
As I browse these files today they are less about commercial endeavors for the green market than they are about a past gentleness, a naïveté that once existed in my rural world, a quietude I sought when in need of respite from the academic terrors of St. Clair County Community College. In present context, though, as my friend Terrance Reimer points out, they exist as a form of nostalgia—though not for the subjects embodied within them, but rather for the media in and of itself.
Kodachrome was the benchmark of all positive films. There was nothing else like it. In the amateur magazines that populated the newsstands of those decades, film review after film review compared every new Fuji on the block to Kodachrome 25. From a conceptual point, what made it, and all other slide films, stand apart from digital media was their very nature of being a unique positive, an image there for direct interpretation, each one its own unique, invaluable edition: 1 of 1. Every time.
As we look now to digital media and ways to limit the unauthorized spread of images through watermarking and flash files, we find a pale struggle to protect something that wasn’t meant to be unique in the first place, something so reproducible that we now do everything possible to insure its worth because, in the long run, it represents the epitome of everything photography has aspired to be since Gustave le Gray first began working with waxed papeFrom my gaze, Kodachrome has become one of those wild things I would prefer not to live without, a vanishing breed from our past that has faded from public admiration. Painting, sculpture, ceramics and glass still exist as unique forms of art. How ironic is it, then, that more than a century after Jacques-Louis David labored to paint duplicates of his works we have engineered the most replicable media in the history of art only to quash its most unique feature by issuing our works in tiny editions solely to increase their market value.
But the function of the imagery hasn’t changed, at least not from the media’s point of view. We still employ photographs as a means to document, to express, to confront and to share. So what have we lost in Kodachrome’s passing? The volumes coursing through my subconscious can barely be contained when I think of all the possible answers! And yet, pragmatist that I am, I must point out that while a very few of the images in this portfolio are on a film other than Kodachrome, the greater sin is that one of them is a digital image, a file I created with a small pro-sumer camera, in the lane on my family’s farm in Michigan, where so many of these other images were burned in chrome so many years ago. As a test of my pragmatism, and all that photography truly means, I challenge anyone to tell which one it is…