Requiem for a Blackbird

The Bottle RoseRight around the late 1990s the writing was on the wall. I flew out to Rochester, New York, to Kodak’s Institute of Photography and attended one of the first seminars for commercial photographers like me to learn about the new technology that was going to change the way we worked. The camera they were demonstrating was a small camera maybe 3 megabytes, and produced a very small file of low resolution. The quality, to say the least, when compared to the 4x5 and 8x10 film and view camera’s (Think Matthew Brady and his images from the Civil War, and Ansel Adams and his breathtaking landscapes of the western mountains.) we were using was not even close. That said, I knew that this was to be the beginning of the end for film. Photographers who waited too long to change were simply put out of business. The economist, Joseph Schumpeter, called this type of change “Creative Destruction”. Of course this creative destruction has been going on for all of human history; which is why we travel in automobiles rather than horse drawn carriages. This industrial revolution really got going with the advent of modern science on the European continent in the 1700’s. The poet Alexander Pope had a line in one of his poems that said “Nature, and Nature’s laws lay hid in the night: God said, Let Newton be! And all was light.” Indeed, Newton’s three laws of motion (And brilliant engineering!), logically led to putting humans in space, and other wonders of technology. Change is not easy; at first I still photographed with film and then did high resolution scans to get the film turned into digital files until the chip technology in the digital cameras got better and better, until my beloved view cameras sat quietly shrouded in plastic dust covers like historic relics of another era. My black and white darkroom would soon be changed to hold the many computers, and equipment I needed to transition to digital imaging. Around this time, I happened to be looking into my backyard on a rainy foggy day and saw a flock of Blackbirds in high voice obviously upset about what I thought might be an owl or hawk in the area. A closer look revealed that in fact they were attacking one of their own, swooping down on the ground to kill it. It may have been sickly or dying on its own, and when I approached it saw the bird had passed. Picking the creature up I noticed the array of textures and of it’s iridescent colors evincing the beauty of its feathers. It was sad, and yet I thought I would like to photograph this creature now, literally, a still life in my studio. I shot it with 4x5 Plus-X film with my view camera to produce the photograph with this essay. It was one of the last images I ever made with film. I have a large print of the image in my studio right above one of my computers. It is, after all these years, one of my favorite photographs. The story, at least in regard to my view cameras, has a rather happy ending. Long after these cameras were what I considered to be obsolete, I put them up on eBay to see if any one would purchase them. Surprisingly they sold almost immediately and for a good price. The buyer, it turns out, was from China and he revealed to me that he loved Ansel Adams and did his developing and printing in his home darkroom. I packed up the cameras and included one of my old Ansel Adams books. So when I look at the print on my studio wall, I like to imagine that a young Chinese man is still using my old cameras, and shooting landscapes in China. And that, my dear reader, is the story of the image the best that I can tell it.