Reviewed by Geoff Wittig
When I attended college in Rochester, New York, in the late 1970s, working at Kodak was by common consent the second best summer job for students staying in town. (The best? Working at the Genesee Brewery, where free beer was the standout perk.) Kodak paid well, working on the colossal film coating lines was interesting, and it gave you a foot in the door for a ‘real job’ down the road. At the time it was obvious that Kodak would be around forever; it was a force of nature.
Ahem. That was then…and things have changed a bit. Rochester as a community has weathered the collapse of Kodak more gracefully than other rust belt cities suffering similar industrial declines, but there have certainly been consequences. The neighborhoods surrounding Kodak Park in northwest Rochester and adjacent Greece NY have slid from solidly blue collar to a somewhat shabbier state, yet they have maintained a certain local pride and community integrity.
Two recent photobooks examine the post-collapse Kodak neighborhoods and yield distinctly different impressions despite some striking superficial similarities. First up is Swiss photographer Catherine Leutenegger’s Kodak City (Kehrer Verlag, 160 pages). A modest 9.8x8.1 inches, it’s a very nicely made clothbound book with a partial dust jacket. The foreword, by the redoubtable A.D. Coleman, presents an erudite, footnoted take on George Eastman and Kodak’s rise and fall. Following are brief essays by Swiss critics Jörg Bader and Urs Stahel, and by the author, who initially spent six months around Rochester in 2007, then returned to finish her project in 2012.
Leutenegger’s color photographs document Kodak Park and the surrounding neighborhoods with an unsentimental but not unsympathetic eye. The color palette is subdued without being completely drab, sort of like an endless November day. Kodak headquarters, weathered working class homes, downtown storefronts, empty streets and the occasional person all get the same deadpan treatment. The images have a distinct formal beauty; if you like Stephen Shore’s work, then you will love these photographs. They are printed on matte paper that nicely complements their subdued appeal. Some are printed full-bleed, some cross the gutter (boo! hiss!) and others are left with varying margins. The overall impression is to my eye an accurate, unsparing, but oddly affectionate take on this community.
Next up is Memory City, by husband and wife Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb (Radius Books, 172 pages). A larger book at 12.1x10.2 inches, it is self-consciously "arty." It comes adorned with affectations that include small tipped-in photos on front and rear covers framed with faux-"tape," occasional gate-fold contact sheet images with penciled notes on the back, and a large gate-fold inside the back cover with a highly selective time-line of the Rochester community’s history. The photographs are all over the map, from images of teenage girls with their favorite dresses (RNW) to gritty black-and-white photos of scowling pedestrians or gravestones (AW). Also included are dark color images of street life, multiple pictures of grimy windows, and a sarcastic photo of celebrants at the jazz festival at the Eastman Theater that looks like a classic Martin Parr. The photograph that probably best sums up the book is of a stuffed bird at the Rochester Museum and Science Center. In case readers don’t get the point, the caption helpfully identifies it as the "EXTINCT PASSENGER PIGEON DIORAMA."
The handling of color is lovely in many of the photos, and Alex Webb is justly renowned for his photographic composition. But I know this community very well, and the book presents such a relentlessly dour view of it that it’s scarcely recognizable to me.
TOP Contributing Editor Geoff Wittig is a rural family physician with interests ranging from health care quality improvement, medical informatics, and integration of health care delivery to photography and landscape painting. Photo books are a particular area of interest; he admits he has far too many for his own good.
©2015 by Geoffrey Wittig, all rights reserved
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Featured Comments from:
Mark Sampson: "I was born and raised less than a mile from the shopping plaza shown on the cover of Kodak City. And I worked for Kodak as an industrial photographer for 20 years, and every day went to work through the door at the lower right of the other photo shown (it's the Hawk-Eye plant, likely empty by now). So I can claim a real connection.
"I'll take a good look at Catherine Leutnegger's book; it's a subject worthy of attention. Now that I've moved away I can imagine it as a project; I was too close to it when it was my life (for example, my own illustrations of Hawk-Eye, and there were quite a few, were assignment-driven, and any real personal vision was subordinated to the needs of the assignment.)
"And I remember when the Magnum folks came to town a few years back; there was a group show at the George Eastman House afterwards. Seeing the show, It was fairly obvious that they parachuted in, did their thing, and parachuted out. Any real understanding of the city, and its situation, would take more time and effort than any of them had to give, and the results showed in the generally mediocre pictures."
Lindsay Bach: "As a native Rochestarian with a family steeped in Kodak over multiple generations—for example, my father worked in Roll Coating Chemical for 41 years and my brother worked in the same department for 31—I had similar misgivings with Alex and Rebecca Webb's book. While the Webb's images are great as photographs, they fail as a message about the demise of Kodak and the effect on the greater community, which has actually been surprisingly minimal. The truth is that much of urban Rochester and many of the neighborhoods around Kodak Park were in decline 40 and 50 years ago during Kodak's peak, as the generous salaries of Kodak employees made it possible for earlier generations of Kodak workers to move to the burgeoning Rochester suburbs during the post-war period, leaving their former neighborhoods to the vagaries of urban blight and a growing underclass. This is a story of "white flight" that played out in countless other cities across the country and is a larger story than Eastman Kodak. The company employed 65,000 people at the high water mark during the 1980s and most of the employees lived in the suburbs.
"In the wake of the race riots that rocked Rochester in 1965 (and later in 1968), there was, in fact, a huge effort by a Black activist organization called FIGHT to force Kodak to hire and spread its largesse to a greater number of 'inner city" (read black) workers and thereby, it was hoped, improve the lot of Rochester's poorer residents. Kodak yielded but the intractable urban blight continued, as it did in many other cities. This is what the Webbs appear to have captured. The present poverty in urban Rochester was not caused by the demise of Kodak, though it is fair to say that Kodak's hiring policies in the years prior to the 1970s may have ultimately contributed to its increase."