Film may not be dead, but some kind of funeral was held for it on January 18, 2012. On that day, the Eastman Kodak Company declared bankruptcy, and with that, the fall of analog and the rise of digital became official.
Chapter 11 wasn’t a big surprise, of course, as Kodak had been hemorrhaging cash since the late 1990s. Instead, the announcement served as corroborating evidence for the realistic and told-ya-so ammunition for the nostalgic. But while the fall of the iconic image-based technology company may have felt like a bit of an inevitability, the news still stung. Although many saw it coming, this was still the symbolic end of an era — and eras are, for the most part, to be mourned.
A few months later, a group of 10 photographers from international cooperative Magnum Photos — Bruce Gilden, Jim Goldberg, Susan Meiselas, Martin Parr, Paolo Pellegrin, Alessandra Sanguinetti, Alec Soth, Larry Towell, Alex Webb, and Donovan Wylie — went to Rochester, NY, the home of Kodak, to create “a documentary archive of that city’s culture and landscape.” The trip was the third installment of Magnum’s Postcards from America, a project ideated by the cooperative’s members who wanted to try their hand at working collaboratively.
The resulting publication, Rochester 585/716 (Aperture, 2015), presents 1,000 pictures — 100 from each photographer — made over three weeks. It begins like a traditional photo book, with images sequenced carefully and printed at a size that takes appropriate advantage of page dimensions. But then the strangest thing happens: The photographs start to be treated like pieces of information, not art. They are suddenly displayed as thumbnails, organized not by an aesthetically focused curatorial eye but by a cold, artless system: alphabetical order by caption. If the area code title and the cover design weren’t a giveaway, it’s at this point we realize we’ve entered a visual phonebook.
The concept, though a bit gimmicky, reveals ambitions that are, in some sense, as scientific as they are artistic. A phonebook is a collection of data that encapsulates a specific place at a specific time. It’s a complete historical record, a city in book form. And Rochester 585/716 wonders whether a photo book can be the same.
The strength of its individual images is a secondary concern. Establishment of narrative feels almost beside the point. Authorship is relegated to an afterthought: It’s not even totally clear who’s responsible for which images until the very end of the book. What seems to matter here is whether the archive in its totality succeeds in capturing the city in its totality. So Rochester 585/716 doesn’t read like a polyphonic visual story, but rather like some big photographic experiment, one that treats the medium’s somewhat chimeric promises — to represent, to capture — as hypotheses to be tested.
No conclusions are offered, of course. The spirit of Postcards from America has always been more curious than opinionated, more playful than political. This book isn’t some kind of photo equivalent of a mathematical proof. But by embedding ten of the world’s best photographers in a relatively small city, and having them create such a large body of work about it, the question becomes not whether this archive is a “good” or “accurate” portrayal of a city, but whether such a document can exist at all. That is, by overwhelming the task at hand with both quantity and quality, the Postcards crew avoids possible flaws in the product in a way that highlights possible flaws in the premise. There’s an unignorable element of “If they can’t do it, no one can.”
Something else that can’t be ignored is this project’s uncanny resemblance to photojournalist W. Eugene Smith’s infamous Pittsburgh commission. In 1955, Smith was sent to the Steel City to make 100 pictures in three weeks — and he returned to New York a year later with 17,000 negatives. The explanation for this crazed behavior may be rather simple — rumor has it Smith was freely alternating between uppers and downers while making this magnum opus — but I’ve always imagined that his frantic instinct to make so many pictures was born from a fear of every picture’s individual inefficacy. I like to think of him as a Sisyphean figure, trying to solve an inborn problem by simply pushing the boulder harder.
Like Smith, the Postcards crew arrived in a Rust Belt city as outsiders. They too made a high-volume archive that attempted to leave no stone unturned. But where Smith seemed to be trying to overcome or out-photograph the medium’s inherent shortcomings, the group from Magnum plays with them. From Alec Soth’s exploration of fading modes of American community to Larry Towell’s collages of old Kodak products to Susan Meiselas’s dive into the city’s last surviving major factory, this entire collection seems to be hyperaware that the moment it endeavors to capture, just like all moments, is passing. This is a work that reverently portrays its subject — Rochester as it existed in 2012 — while knowing full well that there is no saving it from the sands of time.
A “Kodak moment” is, after all, one we deem worthy of rescuing from oblivion. That famous tagline, like so much good advertising, makes us anxious, positioning the act of taking a picture as one of salvation. But Rochester 585/716 doesn’t worry about what is lost. It’s a complete document that recognizes its own incompleteness. It’s aware that it’s failing, that perfect documentary representation is impossible, that great photographs and great photo books are simply the ones that try to get close.