The Days of Wine and…Crap, We Really Had Rotten Film Back Then

There’s a propensity we humans have to remember things fondly. When we look back, and we do look back quite a bit, we tend to remember things much more fondly than when we were actually living them in the moment. This holds true for a lot of things, photography does not escape the truism anymore than say knitting I would imagine, but I talk about photography a lot so I guess it’s something I just tend to notice more with regards to that field. At least I noticed it the other day, when I was asked a specific question. The question was innocent enough, “Which of the images from Robert Frank’s The Americans is your favorite?” It’s an easy enough question to answer as well. While Frank shot over 28,000 shots for The Americans, only 83 were included in the final work. Picking one out of 83 should not be that big of a deal, but the question itself got me to thinking. And, by now anyway, you should know that when I think why it often ends up here in the form of a midnight ramble (of sorts.)

The Americans was, in many ways, the quintessential American photo book. It still holds up today as the benchmark in many ways for what makes a good photo book. When you place it in historical context, it was a giant standard barer for all photo books to come afterwards. Shot as a Guggenheim open grant over the course of two years worth of road trips across America, the book featured a forward by then noted beat writer Jack Kerouac. Just think about that for a second. I mean, who takes two years to amass 28000 shots from which to cull 83 images to make a book? Who gets Jack Kerouac to write the introduction for that book? Crap, who even gets a Guggenheim grant these days? See where I’m going with this? It was epic no matter how you slice it. It’s an epic photo book that still holds up today as not only epic but perhaps the most epic of all epic photo books. It’s the YEOWZA! of photo books.

All of that aside, back to the original question. Which image is my favorite? From the 83, if I had to pick one, single one out from all of this YEOWZA!-ness, which would it be? What strikes me as interesting is not that there’s 83 to pick from, not the entire YEOWZA!-ness of the work itself (although I do find that mind boggling in and of itself) no, what struck me as peculiar is that, in this day and age, I’d have to wonder if The Americans would ever even been made. Would it have even come to pass?

Fast forward to 2017. Today, right now in fact, if I were to log onto Flickr, or 500px, or Nat Geo’s Your Shot, or Instagram or one of the many, many (so very many!) other photography hovels out there, what would I find and how would it stack up to what we found in The Americans? The images today are technically brilliant. The advances in technology have made it so that we can now churn out technically brilliant images day after day, night after night. The cameras are even getting smaller. I’d be willing to venture a guess that somebody could take on a project much like the work in The Americans using only a cell phone camera. And it would be epic. That’s epic as in EPIC. It would technically blow away some of the images from the late 1950’s and, heck, it wouldn’t even look back to notice the dust. Seriously. If you don’t believe me, don’t take my word for it, go look at Flickr’s Explore or some of the Popular images on 500px or dip into one of the other hovels to see what people are doing nowadays.

Photography has come a long way. We’re more capable now of making brilliant, technically precise images than ever before. We have editing that photographers like Frank couldn’t even dream about back then. Heck, we don’t even have film all that much anymore. Frank had to deal with crappy, rotten film that expired and couldn’t stand the mid-day heat. Processing labs, clunky cameras, horrible equipment, and lots of nuisances along the way, yet he still managed to crank out The Americans. To me, this is akin to how our space program made it to the moon using only slide rules. Now we have lots and lots of calculators, phones that can do advanced mathematics, all kinds of personal computers, yet we can hardly get off the back porch. It’s both an advanced and very primitive way of living, isn’t it? We’ve come so far yet we can’t seem to get it in gear. Pretty soon, if not already, photographers are going to be getting replaced by robots. And, by golly, what are they going to do? These photographic robots, what are they going to do? Shoot lots and lots of images that look just like The Americans only with lazier, tired people as subjects, people who don’t even know what the moon looks like anymore? (Can somebody please save me from that before it happens even though we all know it’s only a matter of time and it’s coming?)

Today’s technology has given us a lot. The “good” old days weren’t always so nice. We really did have some rotten film back then (some good film too but, you know, rotten stuff was out there in the wilds too.) It all just leaves me wondering though, just a little bit, I mean, what are we going to do with all of this? We have thousands of perfect images sitting on Flickr and 500px and all of those other places yet it also seems like we hardly enjoy the art of photography anymore. It begs the question, if The Americans were made today, would anyone even bother to notice? The America…oh look! Justin Bieber got a new haircut. Is that our new YEOWZA! and does it amount to little more than a digitized variant of a squirrel for a dog?

So, I guess my answer to the question is going to be a cop out as well. As for which image from The Americans, which of the 83 is my favorite, I’d have to say the next one that looks a little bit like a barn from Walker Evans or a train car from Robert Frank circa 1958. You can pick it out if you digitally squat over on Flickr and mine the hashtag #Americana (or some such thing.) Because, why the next one, yeah that next one, that’s going to be my new favorite. Turn the crank and make another, why don’t you? We really had some rotten film back in those days but does that even matter anymore when we’ve all got this shiny new filter we can play with on Instagram?

Frankly, I’m surprised there isn’t a Robert Frank filter somewhere, out in the wilds. Then again, maybe there is and I was just too busy being too old school to notice such a beast? Either way, I’m going to sit this one out. The Americans was an epic book but I don’t think we deserve it anymore, let alone a favorite. If you want me to pick a favorite, why, it’d be the next cheap knockoff churning out of the perfection mill. The last one before the robots grab the handle and pull, yup, that’d be the one.

Until next time…

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