Postcard from an Analog Youth

No Photoshop, no iPhone. Just a tray of stop bath and some memories.

When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, to steal a line from a Paul Simon song playing nonstop in the wake of Kodak’s bankruptcy filing, I’m always transported to the same place—Long Island, 1975, inside a large darkroom in the back of an industrial arts class, squinting under a faint red light at a piece of paper floating in a tray of smelly liquid.

My hands are rocking this tray, a tiny tide pool contained in blue plastic, the five by seven inch paper gently gliding from one end to the other. With each jiggle a tiny bit of liquid spills over the edge and coats my fingers.

Suddenly, from just below the surface, something happens. An image slowly begins to emerge, always miraculous and always the same, no matter how many times it’s been run through the Super-8 projector of memory: my schoolmate Andy Landes is standing on an empty soccer field, his right hand outstretched and palm open. He is wearing a winter parka. Thirty or so feet behind him stands another boy, David Bernstein, smiling broadly behind braces. He’s waving in the exaggerated manner of a silent movie actor. Though the boys are clearly far apart, with some help from the principles of depth and perspective, concepts I might have paid more attention to in geometry class had I not been so mesmerized by the principles of photography instead, David appears to be magically sitting atop Andy’s fingertip. 

My very first photograph—clichéd, not entirely in focus, and faded from too-little fixer—but most definitely ground zero of what will become the only life I’ve ever known. News photographer. Celebrity photographer. Sports photographer. Portrait photographer. War photographer. Wedding photographer. But mainly just photographer.

Thirty-six years and a million images later (and hopefully better), I now understand the magic that day lay not in the parlor trick of making someone appear to be holding something huge, a gag scores of amateur photographers have tried with everything from the Washington Monument to the pyramids of Egypt, but in all of those products that came wrapped in yellow from Rochester, New York and delivered to the industrial arts department of the Mattlin Junior High School: the Kodak Tri-X which recorded my image, the Kodak Microdol-X that developed it, the Dektol print developer that filled the tray that held the single sheet of Kodak Polycontrast paper that became the photo of David and Andy.

The demise of Kodak might be a surprise to a handful of people who live in more remote regions of Siberia, but for anyone who owns an iPhone, spends time on Facebook, prints pictures on their own inkjet printer or uploads family pics to Shutterfly, the company’s announcement of reorganization under bankruptcy protection seems like a pathetic afterthought, salt poured into a 25 year-old wound.

Reorganization? How did reorganization go for horse and buggy makers in the face of the Model T? Anyone know how Smith Corona’s reorganization went? Radios? Cassette tapes? Handwritten letters? Civility?

It’s over, though it was already over back in the late 1980’s when the first digital cameras started to trickle onto the market; over by the 1990‘s when electronics giants like Sony came up more in conversations about photography than Kodak; over when the new sheriffs in town, companies like Epson and HP started dictating new, strange paper sizes to a nation weened on 8 x 10’s and 11 x14’s (try shopping for an 8 1/2” x 11” frame); and definitely over when people became eminently satisfied with the notion of taking grainy, blurry pictures of Bruce Springsteen with their camera phones and nary a thought of ever printing a single frame out.

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