Loretta Goff sends us a snapshot of Photo City, a portrait of photography itself as told through the lens of the citizens of a place defined by the art form.
With Photo City co-directors John Murphy and Traolach Ó Murchú focus their lenses on a number of photographers from all walks of life in Rochester, NY. This city, the home of George Eastman’s Kodak, was once booming, with Xerox and Bausch & Lomb providing abundant employment opportunities alongside the photography company. Today, a much different picture of Rochester’s economic situation is presented, reflective of Kodak’s bankruptcy in 2012. However, the immense impact of Kodak is still evident in the area through the city’s love of photography and amount of photographers that live there. This documentary explores Rochester’s relationship with Kodak through the unique perspectives of some of these individuals.
Importantly, Photo City examines a range of photographic practices used today, from film developed in a darkroom to the instant accessibility and shareability of digital photography. Kodak’s downfall resulted from their lack of planning for this digital age that has, indeed, reshaped consumers’ and practitioners’ relationship with the medium. However, what emerges throughout this documentary is a sense that several artists remain deeply connected to the full process of photography—the art of developing your image from start to finish. Science becomes part of the art here as a number of individuals drawn to the technical side of photography experiment with creating their own equipment and procedures.
Memory and nostalgia equally emerge as themes attached to the photographic image. While this is made clear through various discussions of older images, both personal and universal, it is particularly evident in an interview with an elderly man who once travelled the world as a Kodak portrait photographer. His house is not only full of his old photos, including one he proudly displays of Walt Disney, but also of old Kodak memorabilia and advertising cut-outs that inspire him to cheerfully reflect on his time with the company.
A photograph gives an impression not only of its subject, but also of the person behind the camera. Weaving together interviews with a variety of photographers—from commercial to artistic and personal, from photojournalists, pin-up photographers and filmmakers to those who are also teachers, engineers and technicians—Photo City delves into their lives and stories as much as it does their relationship with photography. As a result, the documentary also touches on a range of important topics (such as race, marginalised communities, class, economic dislocation, education, illness and addiction) that affect the lives of these photographers and shape their work.
Visually, this documentary creates moving portraits of its subjects, often interspersing their dialogue over images of them working, scenes of the city and close-ups that give an intimate feel to the film. Frequent shots of the iconic Kodak building give it a looming, ever-present feel in the documentary, reminding us of its impact on the city. More interesting, however, are shots of Rochester’s various communities that offer a more complete image of the city, its diversity and clear economic disparities.
Director John Murphy attended the screening of Photo City at the Cork Film Festival and noted in the Q&A afterwards that they wanted the documentary to have an emotional connection, so that viewers would learn about Kodak through the experience of individuals, rather than being an information dump on the history of the company. As photography has become so accessible and part of today’s vernacular, he also was adamant that were “keen to show photography as a church for a broad congregation” and therefore interview a variety of people. As such, they actively searched for different “character types” to fill their diverse array of roles rather than just going after the city’s top photographers. This method works well, making the documentary topical, relevant and interesting for a wide audience.
Photo City screened on 16th November 2017 as part of the 2017 Cork Film Festival (10 – 19 November)