Kodachromudgeon

Look at me: shooting nostalgic bric-a-brac using a cell camera. Philistine...

Look at me: shooting nostalgic bric-a-brac using a cell phone camera. Philistine…

Jesus, Mary, and Joe Lewis. I’m afraid it’s actually happening. Like, for realz.

I am, without doubt, becoming a curmudgeon. A pariah. A bit of a dinosaur. A right old codger.

I’ve always had a good dose of misanthrope mixed in, you know, just to tame my saccharine tendencies. :::eye roll:::

My long-time college friend, Christopher, himself an already endangered species of eccentric, quipped back in our twenties that I’d eventually be the sort who’d go about rapping teens about the head and shoulders with my umbrella.

And damn it all, he’s right.

Screen shot 2013-01-15 at 10.59.28 AM

An image from National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry’s stunning Last Roll of Kodachrome collection

You see — they’ve stopped making Kodachrome, and this news has hit me pretty damned hard. What’s more, they haven’t made it for four years now, and I had no idea. For years now, my visual muscles have blissfully slid down the digital path to entropy.  

Go ahead. Cue Simon and Garfunkle. It’s ok. 

Oh for chrissakes, you don’t know who Simon and Garfunkle are, or what I’m referring to when I say “Kodachrome?”

The More Things Change

I had a video shoot scheduled for the weekend, and I needed a longer lens than I currently have in my little arsenal. So, I called (that’s called, as in “dialed.” Spoke live. I didn’t “reach out,” I had a conversation with someone. Lawd, where’s the Grecian Formula…) a videographer friend, and I asked him if he had a manual telephoto lens. He responded that he had several. When he told me exactly which lenses he had, it was like a time warp, because I hadn’t use a lens like that in at least twenty years.

Ever since DSLR cameras touted the ability to shoot video, the use of old, formerly ignored manual lenses rocketed back into use with the professional crowd. Why? Because whizbang martini mixer lenses that adjust aperture and focus for you while you’re shooting just make video appear as if through the eyes of an epileptic during a full seizure. Things flicker and go bright and then dark. Colors shift. The camera doesn’t know what to focus on — the mailbox in the foreground or the silhouettes up on the second floor behind the drawn window. I dunno…I’m just a camera.

Classic, metal-body, manual lenses from the golden era of film cameras, known as “good glass” in the trade, found their way out of basements, closets, and second hand stores, and on to the latest digital camera bodies.Thanks to the use of fairly inexpensive diopters, or adaptors that allowed this magical hookup of a thought-to-be-extinct world with the new. Their sharpness and subsequent bokeh (I love that word; it’s Japanese, and refers to the etherial, creamy quality of the out-of-focus parts of a shallow depth of field image) previously available only to still cameras or prohibitively expensive cinema lenses, began to be seen in movies.

Old eyes. New brains. New aesthetic. Imagine that.

My videographer friend loaned me a 70’s era Tele Rokkor lens, which was only available for Minolta cameras. That whapped my nostalgia button somethin’ fierce. I went up to my studio, where I kept an early 80’s Minolta camera, complete with motor winder and hot shoe bounce flash on a shelf.

minolta-and-vivitar

Sweet mystery of life, I have not only found you — I had you on my shelf all along

I’m ashamed to admit it, but, it was just for decoration. It was a cool relic. A conversation piece in my all-digital world.

But that’s not what unleashed the sleeping coot in me. It was my subsequent Google searches that had me coming face to face with my own sense of generational hubris.

“I’ve discovered film…”

I fitted my friend’s Tele Rokkor to the very modern Panasonic DSLR I use for video, and marveled at how World War II heavy it was. It was stout. It felt like a weapon. It simply glided as you’d turn the knurled focusing ring from foreground to background, and while the sharpness was crystal, the areas out of focus — the bokeh — was downright silky.

Upstairs to the studio I ran.

I got my old Minolta, with it’s metal bodied 50mm lens, and the Vivitar zoom I bought with it — used because it was all I could afford in the 90’s — down stairs where I was having this Star Trek flirtation with The Prime Directive. (Google it…) Fitting the big zoom to the Minolta body, I was taken aback: it was all as heavy, smooth, and well-built as my friend’s equipment. But the most sobering fact was — I had forgotten. As a photo minor in college, I had fitted many lenses to many cameras, and they were all like this. This was the soul of the craft. The eyes through which you saw, and ultimately shared with others. This was how things were. No point and shoot without caring about focus, no chimping down at the camera after. Every. Single. Shot. Here is a tool from the era of being a physical part of the shot, demanding that you thought about how much light entered the camera, how long that light would be in that black magic box, deciding where the focus emphasis would be, and realizing that the 36 frames you had to play with would only handle so much light as a group.

You were so there, man. Love the one your with. Dig?

I purposed right then and there that I was going to get fresh batteries for that Minolta, it’s motor winder, and flash, and shoot a few rolls. But before I would, I thought I’d do a little Internet research.

Shooting my excitement in the foot

IMG_0351

You can’t image with the eagles if you’re gabbin’ on the porch swing with the point-n-shoots

First, I Googled my Vivitar lens, and to my delight, I read a review by a current guru in digital videography, who listed it as “one of the hidden gems” in DSLR filming. (I don’t think I’ll ever stop smiling at the use of the word “filming” in digital moviemaking.

Clapping my hands, I considered this the closest I’d ever come to my own red Barchetta. 

Then, I searched for those who proudly still shot film. And here is where the juxtaposition, the strobe light and the deep shadow clashed.

Outside of the anachronisms like me who shoot for their supper, I found blog after blog and site after site of those half my age who had just “discovered” film. “I found my dad’s old Konica. I took some pictures but, they didn’t turn out like I’d hoped.” “It will kind of drive you nuts because you won’t be able to see the picture you just shot.”

They went about describing the experience, presumably for their peers, in ways that were attempting to be — instructive, yet volumes were left unsaid because — it was clear that they didn’t have the context or experience to say the things I took for granted.

The film camera was seen as quaint. Meditative. A way to “connect with the moment” as a sort of — erstwhile escape.

With film, every squeeze of the trigger meant you were spending money. So only shoot what's worth shootin'.

With film, every squeeze of the trigger meant you were spending money. So only shoot what’s worth shootin’.

“Can you believe they used to do it this way…”

I read as those who were brand spankin’ new and dabbling in the craft I adore, were now attempting to coach others through it, while at the same time sounding as if they had already fully experienced all there was to it. They were the new experts, with barely enough knowledge to put a bayonet lens on and off without hurting themselves.

“Now here. You try it.”

To be fair, there were several sites that were really genuinely wonderful, both in their naivete and creative freshness: elocutions of a discovery of a “pure” way of capturing images that needs to be “kept alive” just buzzed off these sites. There were some delightful  pictures, and captions demonstrating the “wider dynamic range of film over digital,” and the “surprising sharpness,” but mostly, bubbling with near religious language surrounding the preciousness of the experience of each individual frame.

And I was glad for these. That pairing of fragility with the awareness that you, as the photographer, are both witness and creator, journalist and artist, participant in the dance as well as choreographer — that’s why I continue to shoot, albeit with primarily digital means. But, for me, it has never ceased to be a kind of deep magic. The spiritual essence of seeing, and the visceral, absolute must of I Need To Share This has always been blended with the technology of lens and body and filter and light and shutter.

The noobs are just now experiencing this transcendence. For me, it’s a continuation of something that captured my imagination from a very early age.

Sit down. Load up some T-Max. Stay a while. Want a peach Nehi?

Sit down. Load up some T-Max. Stay a while. Want a peach Nehi?

So to realize that there are those who were raised with telephones without cords that also always took pictures, and who are now “discovering film,” well, I should be filled with a kind of joy that the marriage of the delicate and the eternal can go on, through the good glass and emulsion and the awe that inhabits the waiting for the UPS truck to deliver your prints.

But still…

The feeling of being separated, as if by a thick pane of glass from this, well — generation — was oddly palpable and raw. Very strong. Of course, I wanted to be excited, and yes, just like my blog here where anyone can comment on my words, (and you know I want you to…) I could’ve commented and taught and furthered their excitement and “kept the craft alive,” but, I didn’t. Or rather, I haven’t.

It…doesn’t feel right. Yet.

The smell of a roll of freshly opened film means something otherworldly and entirely different for me, I’m afraid.

Mamma did, in fact, take the Kodachrome away.

Light changes. The sun is ever moving and the earth rotates. The expression of the portrait subject changes in that instant before you squeeze the plunger and expose the film. The paper in the developer, then the stop bath, then the fixer shifts and changes as the image emerges, and even then, you can slip and slide and dodge and burn its depth and color.

Photography, especially photography using film, is a master class in the art of change. The embodied Tao te Ching of the art if ever there was one. There is no more Kodachrome. There is no more Fuji Velvia. And there is a small segment of that new generation that is now looking at what remains of that craft with a different lens. That — is change.

I need to keep the batteries in that camera fresh. I don’t want to miss it.

It wasn't a "simpler time," at all. But I think it was a more aware time.

It wasn’t a “simpler time,” at all. But I think it was a more aware time.

But there are other ways to keep the blessed whine of the motor drive humming. A company in San Diego that specializes in film to digital processing for pro shooters will be receiving my first rolls of film shot in decades soon, and converting them to very high end digital scans. Unlike the drugstore film processing of not too many years ago, they still do it “dip n dunk” fashion. If you’re curious to peek through my classic glass, I’ll gladly share.

Just be patient. I’ll have to mail the film.

Oh, fer chrissakes…

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5 thoughts on “Kodachromudgeon

    • Thank you very much, Chris. I just figured your original post was intended. Confusing, but witty. 🙂 I’ve never tried making a poster print from such a relatively small file size. I’ll take that as a challenge. If it works out, watch for the mail cart…

  1. You’re a dear, Karen. Thank you. Konica. Yashica. All these names that I’ve not heard in years and years… it’s kinda heartwarming. I have a client shoot this weekend at a horse farm. I think I’ll shoot that old roll of T-Max that I’m going to load into my Minolta. Maybe it’ll make you think even more fondly of your Yashica. 🙂

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