Last night I watched a movie called “Kodachrome” because Ed Harris is in it, even a kind of sentimental, predictable, schematic premise like this. A cranky old professional photographer is dying and insists that his estranged son drive him and his last rolls of kodachrome, undeveloped, to a developer in Kansas. You know what will happen, but it’s interesting to watch because it’s Ed Harris.
The makers didn’t emphasize the most interesting part: the material culture of the camera before the invention of electronic images. The camera was one of those Edwardian personal home industrial complex machines. My parents married as mature adults, over thirty. Each had a camera and a gun, then a similar home machine for collecting meat. They both grew up on venison and pheasant — my father at a lot of moose because he was in far north Manitoba. Both were experimenting with how to live in a city, the small gray city of Portland, OR., before WWII. But no one shot with guns, no need for wild meat. They shot with cameras.
They still had those bourgeois machines: my mother played the big heavy upright piano and my father typed two-fingered on a hulking typewriter. They were not meant for travel.
My parents were not sophisticated. My mother shot her family. My father shot for his job, field man for Pacific Supply Cooperative and feeder of articles for their newspaper. Until 1948 he composed graceful, clear photographs but after a concussion in a car wreck that year, everything became more clichéd. By the time he was shooting with Kodachrome slides, his sense of possibility and composition were simply gone, as it was in all his life. But he faithfully wrote all statistics (aperture, speed, time of day, kind of film) in a shirt-pocket notebook with a mechanical pencil.
My first camera was a Brownie box camera and all my photos looks as though they were taken in a prison camp somewhere, all black and white and all with the subjects backed up against a wall, except that my little brother was posed with his front pressed against a bush as though he were using it for, um, personal disposal. There was no sense of composition. I tried not to cut people’s heads off.
We did not have a dark room at home. We didn’t even have enough bedrooms or a downstairs bathroom. My father created a corner with a plywood desk and a lot of orange crates, the kind with a shelf in the middle. He got his photos printed at Fred Meyers. Photos and negatives were often just in their store envelopes with a rubber band around them. Slides were in tin boxes with individual slots, the boxes stacked in orange crates in the basement. All labeled with jokey titles. (They weren’t clever.)
In the eighth grade Mr. Jones started a photo club with a dark room in the high cold cement bunker where the projectionists ran the machinery for assemblies. His motives were a little dubious, as he was a young man, not entirely proper. But the material culture of darkrooms is deep in me. The trays of fluid smelling like vinegar, the clothesline of drying images, the slowly forming photos adding more detail and contrast all by themselves as though remembering the reality of what was in the finder of the little innocent-seeming box.
It was a time when my eroticism was opening up, trying to find expression in ways that didn’t expose me to danger (pregnancy -- not for moral reasons but because the birth could mean death). I fell in love as though I were photographing, distant enough to see it, record it, even analyze it in an obvious sort of way. Never advancing to participation. (It could mean death.)
My father collected porn, but not images, at least none that I could find when everyone was out of the house. His porn was print, as distanced as photos. Often it wasn’t meant to be porn: Kinsey, Masters and Johnson, almost clinical but not quite, since one of the latters’ equipments was a penile thrusting machine that stimulated and photographed the consequences. Thinking about these materials was a lot to handle for a girl my age. The most erotic writing I knew was in “Green Grass of Wyoming” when Ken kissed his girl and made the handkerchief in her shirt pocket (just over her breast) jump because of her heart beat. Erotic and romantic were the same thing — physiological and full of possibility, room to grow. Life.
Bob Scriver had a dark room and used it. Now I grew acquainted with the enlarger and the drum dryer, but the basics of trays and chemicals were there, too. The dark room was his private unconscious which included naked women but only the ones he had married. The first wife was sleeping, lit by a candle, softly tender, blonde and perfectly shaped. The second wife was saucy on satin sheets and in Kodachrome. He eventually made a nude statue of her. There is no nude photo of me and probably not one of number four wife. Of course I explored and found the dildo he made for a Browning saloon keeper. It was like his true anatomy, maybe a little bigger, and red. I thought it was funny and wanted to try it, which made him angry because he thought he was plenty good enough.
So distant, secret, romantic, intensely emotional — all were characteristics of photos, even the most famous and professional ones. Even the ones about nature were fleshly, living, snapped at a fraction of a second in a long process of becoming and fading. I loved the ones of dead and withered roses, the ones of stubbed out and discarded cigarettes in gutters, because they were made beautiful. But they were not Kodachrome or necessarily color.
Photography is an art of discipline, selection, distillation, but often the rule of the composition is chaos and ambiguity. With computer printing of digital material, photos can be impossible, indecipherable, and — over time like a sheet developing in the bottom of a tray — images form. Maybe a face or hand. At my age I can’t hold enough detail in my brain to make overlays, distortions, echoes. But I still have enough brain and eye to see, which is a hat trick done in the head.
In our times photos interest me less. Colorized, predictable, “pretty,” with over-saturated color, they have lost their eroticism in most cases. What they think is romantic has become cynical. I’d rather write. Happily, the Kodachrome photos at the end of the movie with that name, which have by then assumed major importance and symbolism, turn out to be good enough to justify everything in the story.