What is a Photographer?

"We’re preservationists by nature.  We take pictures to stop time, to commit moments to eternity."

~ Ryder

I’ve been a photographer for more years than I care to count and I’m always looking for ways to explain what I do to non-photographer types.  It’s odd, but they don’t seem to understand what it is exactly. When I say I’m a photographer, their minds seem to embrace the familiar idea of Jimmy Olson working for the Daily Planet who is friends with Lois Lane and Clark Kent. I mentally roll my eyes, smile, and change the subject.

I mention all this because I watched a movie on Netflix the other night called, interestingly enough, Kodachrome.  You know, the very film stock immortalized by Paul Simon in his song of the same name.

I remember when I was doing my undergrad coursework in film production and the professors always told us not to worry, that digital filmmaking was just a fad and that film would never go away, and yet, sadly for a lot of us, it has.  Film is no more…in filmmaking or in photography.

Well, Kodachrome, the movie, is about a guy who’s dying and wants his estranged son to drive him to Parsons, Kansas. He wants to get his last four rolls of Kodachrome film developed because it’s the last place in the WORLD where you can have it developed and they aren’t going to be doing it anymore after a certain date that happens to be one week from when they set out on their trip.  

They get there, turn it in for processing, and it turns out it’s from back when the son was a small child and his mother, who has passed, is in the pictures too.  There is a scene where after he turns in the film and is leaving the lab, there are a bunch of other photographers there who recognize him because he’s the greatest living photographer on the planet.

They all gush over him and his work and one guy who happens to shoot for Nat Geo says, “You must have been pissed when you heard they weren’t going to process Kodachrome anymore.  He (Ryder is his name) says, “no not really.”  Then the Nat Geo guy says, “I hope this doesn’t embarrass you, but I became a photographer because of you.”  Ryder says, “why would that embarrass me?” Right here he starts to deliver a speech to the group.

The speech he delivers is so perfect, so right on, that I had to play it back again and write it down when the movie was over.  He continues on to say “We’re all so frightened by time and the way things disappear, but that’s why we’re photographers.  We’re preservationists by nature.  We take pictures to stop time, to commit moments to eternity. Human nature made tangible. That’s as good a definition of art as any I guess.”

I was absolutely stunned!  There it was.  After all these years of trying to describe what I do to anyone who asked, I had the perfect explanation of what I do and why.  That screenwriter hit the nail on the head, and I, for one, am so very grateful.

Grateful because whatever I photograph, once it’s captured, it’s gone, never to be the same again.  Why?  Because that very moment is gone and I’m the one who froze time with the simple squeeze of the shutter.  It’s like we have a magic wand and with one little flick, time stands still.  Pretty powerful if you ask me.  

One more thing…while this movie wasn’t based on a true story, it is true that Steve McCurry (mentioned in the film) was, in fact, the last one who got his Kodachrome film developed at that Parsons, Kansas, facility.  And he IS the greatest living photographer on the planet.  I want to be him when I grow up.

So now, thanks to a decision to close my computer early for the day, having a glass of wine, and watching a movie on Netflix, I have a new explanation (definition?) of what I do when I’m out playing with my camera.  Thanks Netflix!

Until next time . . .