Liam Hanlon looks through the lens at John Murphy and Traolach Ó Murchú’s Photo City, which screened at the Audi Dublin International Film Festival.
Photo City is a new documentary by John Murphy and Traolach Ó Murchú, which was selected to feature at ADIFF 2017 as part of the Reel Art scheme. This documentary explores the concept of photography, especially its influence in the town of Rochester, New York. Home to Kodak, Rochester is “the image capital of the world” and Photo City closely examines how photography has shaped the lives of Rochester natives, as well as the negative influence of Kodak’s eventual decline as photography entered the digital age.
Murphy and Ó Murchú benefit from using multiple Rochester natives to discuss their personal relationship with photography, including a man using photography to capture his wife’s life with cancer, to an underprivileged teenager awarded a college scholarship with the assistance of community photography classes. Each participant has their own respective personal story to tell and they all share in the fact that each story is related to photography and how living in Rochester has formed that photography-related story. These stories become pivotal to the success of the documentary and contribute to a charming and poignant overall message.
It isn’t as simple as pressing a button and an image is captured; these individuals are obsessed with an art form that has captured the imagination of the Rochester population. The decline of Kodak is established as a main narrative feature, but becomes more and more irrelevant as the documentary progresses. This is due to the expertly-chosen individuals that grace the screen throughout Photo City’s running time. Photography is about the people who capture images and dedicate their lives to it, which is evident from those featured in the documentary. There are juxtapositions between older and younger participants using different photography devices, yet their passion for the medium is shared.
Kodak’s downfall in Rochester led to economic decline, which is highlighted in the documentary, but the directors have to be commended for not choosing to not solely explore Kodak. It’s reminiscent of Michael Moore’s Roger & Me, with the closure of General Motors plants in Flint, Michigan, but the two documentaries about two specific American cities are vastly different. Photo City’s overall tone is more positive, despite some of the participant’s backgrounds, and it offers more hope. Especially the female participant who suffered from domestic violence and homelessness, yet persevered and married another participant. Both are photography-obsessed and it was touching to see people progress in their lives despite setbacks. There is a sense of positivity in the Rochester air, in spite of the turbulent economic atmosphere, and Photo City beautifully captures that.
A special mention has to be awarded to Photo City’s director of photography Keith Walsh for portraying Rochester in an optimistic light, notably the final sequence involving a community photography event featuring the Kodak tower. The only minor negative of the documentary is that some participants don’t have the same effect as others who deserve more screen time, but it does highlight how far-reaching photography is in Rochester.
Overall, Photo City is an effective and fascinating documentary which deserved its Reel Art submission. Murphy and Ó Murchú treated Rochester and its residents with respect and Photo City is the perfect way to document that respect.
Photo City screened Tuesday, 21st February 2017 at 6pm at the Irish Film Institute as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival.