Paul Vlachos is a New Yorker who understands The West. And he is a New Yorker who understands New York. Wherever Paul goes, he finds signs of life…
Let’s talk about film, the stuff we used to make photographs with, that plastic strip coated with a light-sensitive emulsion that captures what you see through the camera’s viewfinder. I have a long history with film and many thousands of frames of it, both positives (slides) and negatives. I have shot mostly on digital for the past 15 years, but I still keep my old Nikon F3 around and expose a roll of film once in a while. I’d like to think that it keeps me honest, but I don’t think honesty has anything to do with it. It just reminds me of the days when you needed to be patient. You would shoot and shoot and shoot – 24 or 36 exposures to a roll. Then, you would wind the film back on its spool, pop it out of the camera, put it back in its plastic container, and then you would have to take it in or send it off to be developed. Finally, a day or a week or two weeks later, you would get back the negatives and, more importantly, the prints – the tangible paper, glossy or matte, borders or no borders, and you could see what moments you had exposed.
My dad had an old Argus camera, a metal brick with all manual controls. It was not a point and shoot. The film in those days came in little aluminum cans with screw-top caps. He took mostly slides and, after what seemed like years after an event, we would all get together and he would set up the projector, dim the lights, and we would all watch as he projected the slides onto the portable screen that he set up in the living room. I have his slides and have scanned them all. My mom got a Kodak Instamatic at some point in the 1960s. It used size 126 film cartridges, eliminating what must have been a hassle for many people – loading the film. You would pop in the cartridge and take either 12 or 24 shots – if memory serves – then pop it out and send the whole thing off to be developed. If you needed to take shots indoors, you’d put a flash cube onto the camera and you got four flashes per cube, which would turn on its own after each shot. I loved those cubes. I have all of those photos, as well.
My first camera was a Kodak Brownie that took 127 roll film. I was about 9 years old and must have inherited it. I don’t know if it had been my mom’s or my brother’s, but I remember how much I enjoyed loading the film and shooting with it. Nothing to adjust, just click the shutter and you were done. By the time I was 10, I had put a darkroom together in the crawlspace of our house, using old bricks to construct a wall. The local photo store sold chemicals. I got some trays and a thermometer, along with a red light bulb, and I was in business, developing Plus-X pan and making contact prints with an old piece of window glass. Within a few years, I had gotten a Bogen enlarger and my dad had given me his Argus. My first good camera was an Olympus OM-1, and I must have been a teenager when I got it. So, what does all mean? Not much, besides demonstrating that I somehow have been into making photographs for a long time, long before, in fact, I ever thought of myself as a photographer.
I pawned that Olympus in the mid 1980s during some desperate times. It had an exposed roll of film inside of it and I never got it back. I took a break from photography and somehow got my life back together, but I still wasn’t shooting. It’s too bad, because I was doing really interesting work at the time, driving a truck around New York City. I had access to some fascinating locales and could have photographed it all. Unfortunately, I did not. The only images from that time are in my head, and perhaps that’s a good thing. Maybe not everything is meant to be recorded. Everybody shoots everything now, but I won’t go off on that riff here. As the 1990s got into gear, though, I began to take road trips and I decided to get a little camera to record stuff with – touristy stuff, but stuff, nonetheless. That was good for a little while, until I wanted to get better shots. I bought a really beat-up Olympus OM-2n and some old lenses and I began to come back from the my road trips with more and more rolls of film to be developed.
Digital cameras came along and I have happily embraced them. The massive battles online – and all online battles are basically meaningless – over “film vs digital” were resolved very quickly, much more quickly than any of the combatants could have imagined. Now, almost everyone shoots digital, aside from a few diehards and nostalgia buffs, and it’s all water under the bridge. I don’t harbor any great duffel bag full of sentimentality for film. No more than I miss the vinyl records I sold in the 1980s. As long as I can record what I see and listen to what I want to hear, it’s all just technology to me. The following photos, though, were shot on film.
1. This was taken in Florida in 1990, on a road trip that was supposed to take me and my then-wife to Washington, D.C. The government was on strike, though, so we decided to go to Virginia Beach, which I knew nothing about. We did not love it there – or perhaps my wanderlust began to manifest itself – so we headed to Myrtle Beach. Before you know it, we ended up in Florida, where we stayed for a few days and then had to turn around. At some point, I snapped this photo and, when I got the film back and looked at it, some little light flicked on in me. I liked it. The photo conveyed to me what I had felt when I shot it. It was not just another one of my snapshots. I then lost track of it for a long time, but I found the envelope years later and felt the same thing when I looked at it again. I always liked this photo.
2. I shot this, as well, in Florida, in 1999, on a much better camera, which was equipped with a long lens. By this time, I had a better idea of what I was doing. I had learned to see things differently, although it was not at all a conscious learning process. I just shot a lot. I still don’t like to formulate a philosophy of what I like to shoot, although I’m sure I could. All I know is whether something speaks to me or not. As I recall, I was stuck in traffic when I shot this, but I could be wrong about that.
3. 1999, Montana, possibly the town of Havre, possibly not. I do know it was up on old U.S. Route 2, which I had traveled north to ride on all the way to the coast. It’s been a long time since I have been up on Route 2 and I’m hoping to get up there again very soon, possibly by the time you’re reading these words. We shall see. If I had been shooting this on digital, I might have taken a few more shots, I might have had much longer lenses with me, and I might have gotten some close-ups on the “CHEVROLET” sign, along with the row of windows below it and the window by the door with the stuff pasted all over it. I was shooting on valuable film, though, and just took this one shot.
5. I took this shot somewhere in New York City, possibly Brooklyn, in 2010. I was trying to use up my last rolls of Kodachrome before Dwayne’s Photo Lab, in Kansas City, stopped the final chemical line in the world that could process it. Kodachrome was a notoriously complex film to develop. It also was my favorite emulsion. The colors with Kodachrome had their own special look and, importantly, they never fade, unlike many other color emulsions. This shot doesn’t really demonstrate the almost three-dimensional brilliance of Kodachrome, but don’t blame the film for that. Blame me. It was a cloudy day and I could not get this shot at another time. I still love the photo, but it’s not the best standalone example of Kodachrome. You had to get your last rolls in to Dwayne’s by noon on December 30th, 2010 or there was no place else on the planet you could ever get it developed again. I’m not joking. it was all very sad and almost tragic. People gathered together in online forums and commiserated with each other. Some wept. We all frantically shot our last rolls and sent them off to Kansas City. I do miss Kodachrome. See? I said I wasn’t going to get all emotional and here I go…