Verichrome, I do mind dying
This originally ran on the old site — Ed.
It was on the ground floor of John King’s book store. All the light came from translucent windows on Howard Street. The Michigan Camera Exchange had the musty, mildewy and wonderful smell of any camera shop. Every possible surface was covered with fingerprinted and grimy fluorocoated lenses, blue plastic baskets of orphaned camera parts, and the bellowed diaspora of Rochester, Tokyo and Dresden. Looking around, you could see the odd outdated roll of Kodachrome II, the Canon Pellix camera body with the dusty pellicle mirror, the white telephoto zoom lens that fit a Konica Autoreflex-something-or-other. The man behind the counter never put down his cigarette as he read the newspaper.
When the world is gone, or when I am gone from the world, I will miss a great many things. It could be the smell of rain, the pink light of a northern sunset, or the intoxicating smell of perfume when I was sixteen years old. But what I might miss most is the smell of a roll of 120 film, pushing the paper tongue thumbwise into a plastic takeup spool, or the whirring of an old Rolleiflex.
We don’t have it now, the gelatin or the silver or the sucking sound of a metal shutter flattening reality into a still frame. There is no struggling in the dark with loading film into developing reels or the surprise of seeing that the negatives actually came out. We don’t have the magic anymore. For the would-be chemists and physicists, there was so much documentation, the disintegrating, mildewy Kodak data guides that showed curves in so much precision and told us what to do, at what temperature, and for how long: it was all method to tame the magic. Today you can find those booklets in the free bin at the front of King’s. But for all of the technique, all of the numbers and the graphs, there was always the faith of Tri-X Safety Film: you take the picture, we do the rest.
Seeing them decrepit and moth-eaten and being used as props at furniture stores, you might never understand why old cameras were so decorative and so conventional: all sandblasted chrome on brass, thin pebbled leatherette, hundreds of ornate numerical engravings, a sticker inside the film door advertising a film discontinued before you were born. A camera’s functional parts just as easily could have been housed in a plain wooden box. Maybe you can understand it this way: magic objects have a certain look about them. We know that Christ did not drink from any jewel-encrusted gold chalice – yet that is the form that is shown today.
We’ve replaced all of the ritual with cold, austere rationalism: histograms, curves, color balance. Photography has moved onto office devices, and it’s a plastic click and a RAW file. Even the machinery of the ritual has changed; there is nothing in the form of a digital camera to separate its shape from an Ipod or a cellular telephone: thermoplastic, rubberized finishes, flat silk-screening. It’s all functional.
But as they say in the transition, your sad devotion to that ancient film religion has not helped you conjure up the blown highlights or given you clairvoyance enough to divine the color temperature of daylight fluorescent tubes. Today we shoot, and we look at the little screen, and we shoot again. We fill computers with thousands of identical pictures taken at arm’s length with redeye-reduction flash. We revisit and re-level and fix the contrast and the color and sometimes the composition. But neither the process nor the result ever has the old magic: the twinkle in the eye of an old girlfriend or the firm confidence that the landscape was done right the first and only time.
Maybe in some afterlife, one where we’re having a cup of coffee with Weston or Strand, we’ll reach into that paper bag, crack open a box of Verichrome Pan, and remember that it’s f/11 and 1/250 of a second for bright or hazy sun, distinct shadows.