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What We Can Learn From Steve McCurry's Last Roll of Kodachrome

What We Can Learn From Steve McCurry's Last Roll of Kodachrome

Before reading this blog post, please click here to view the National Geographic video chronicling Mr. McCurry’s last roll of Kodachrome, and click here to visit Mr. McCurry’s blog to see the images.

And now, onto the blog post…

In 2010, when Steve McCurry was given the last roll of Kodachrome, the first thought that went through his mind was how best to make the last thirty six exposures count. From my perspective, he should have shot with a manual film-advance camera, in order to squeeze out an extra two frames. But instead, Mr. McCurry opted for a Nikon F6 paired with a Nikon D3x as a prep camera - in order to visualize the shot on digital capture before committing on film.

Since this was to be the last thirty six frames ever to be shot on Kodachrome, Mr. McCurry knew he had to memorialize his effort with images befitting its significance. In other words, he wasn’t about to trivialize his responsibility (completely) with thoughtless unpremeditated images of the mundane - typical of the images plaguing social media for likes. As such, he had to make a plan of action, in deciding which subjects reached the standards befitting of this final roll.

Early on, as he scoured the streets of New York City for random subjects to be memorialized, it became clear to him that the likelihood of getting perfectly composed shots weren’t promising. There were just too many variables, of which any - if gone awry at the decisive moment - could adversely impact the final image. I mean, what if the subject blinked, or if the light changed, or if at the last second someone photobombs the image capture?

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Ektachrome 100 - Since Kodachrome no longer exists, I resorted to shooting the closest substitute - which is Kodak Ektachrome 100. And for fun, I also shot a roll of Agfa CT Precisa 100 - which unfortunately has also been discontinued.

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Ektachrome 100 - In total, I shot three rolls of film. There is no way I can get a hit rate of 30 out of 36 (or 38) on a single roll of film for my blog post. So unlike Mr. McCurry, who had a hit rate of roughly 80%, I had a hit rate of roughly 40%.

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Ektachrome 100

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Ektachrome 100

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Ektachrome 100

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Ektachrome 100

To mitigate uncertainty, Mr. McCurry decided to take the conservative approach - albeit with the benefit afforded by his celebrity status. With the streets giving him jitters, he reached out to well known American actor Robert De Niro to assist him with his effort. Unfortunately, photographing Mr. De Niro cost him six frames of exposure. I can only guess that uncertainty got the better of him, in compelling him to shoot more than was required.

Clearly, Mr. McCurry got off to a poor start in New York City. Thus, it wasn’t any wonder that he decided to seek refuge half way around the world in India. He probably rationalized his hit rate would improve in more exotic locale, by Western visual standards. In all, Mr. McCurry captured six Indian celebrities in eight frames, and an additional nine portraits of Indian villagers in ten frames, plus one image of the photographer Ara Güler in Istanbul.

Having shot two thirds of the roll with something meaningful to show, Mr. McCurry must have felt sufficiently comfortable with his efforts. As such, he proceeded to blow the final third with six random unpremeditated images of everyday street life in New York City, intermixed with an image of himself and one of Elliot Erwitt, and a final three symbolic images taken in Parsons, Kansas - the location of the last photographic lab in the world to develop Kodachrome.

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Ektachrome 100

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Ektachrome 100

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Ektachrome 100

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Ektachrome 100

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Ektachrome 100

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Ektachrome 100

In reviewing the images shot on this last roll of Kodachrome, I can only surmise that Mr. McCurry was resting on his laurels. It’s not as if he captured any images of lasting significance. Personally, I believe Mr. McCurry circumvented the challenge by coaxing celebrities to sit for him. If not for his reputation, why would they accept his request. And if that wasn’t enough, he went back to the Indian village where he first made a name for himself photographing his signature subject.

To be fair, it’s not as if Mr. McCurry could’ve gotten away with doing what he did years ago and still receive the same accolades. Times have changed. When in the past we would not have seen the gaze of the Afghan Girl without his efforts, today the same Afghan girl could’ve just as easily captured her own green eyes on any camera phone without any outside intervention. Since we’re much closer to once exotic subjects, our expectations of what is eye-catching is more demanding.

Logically, the only reason why anyone would give Mr. McCurry’s photos a second look is because of his reputation, the stature of his subjects, and the historical significance of his task. Without that, his efforts could be replicated by anyone else with as much resulting impact. Of course, Mr. McCurry isn’t just anyone else. His portrait will enjoy more attention than any selfie taken by any unknown. After all, greater audience reach is the benefit tipped by reputation.

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Ektachrome 100

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Ektachrome 100

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Ektachrome 100

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Ektachrome 100

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Ektachrome 100

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Ektachrome 100

Admittedly, I have taken great liberties in fleshing out the approach taken by Mr. McCurry and the resulting post mortem in shooting the last roll of Kodachrome. Still, I believe my reconstruction of his challenge is typical of the difficulties facing photographers today. That is to say, the world has changed. Because of that, we cannot expect the shooting conditions to remain the same. I mean, the landscape has changed, people have changed, and cultural norms have changed.

Consequently, aspiring to do what the old masters did in the past doesn’t make sense anymore. In part, it’s because it’s already been done before. But more precisely, it’s because what was done in the past can’t really be done anymore - or at least in the same way. In truth, it’s no secret what one must do to take a good picture. But, getting it done is a different matter. If only strangers in our viewfinder were more accommodating in letting us take that Pulitzer worthy snap of them.

You can’t go around photographing people you don’t know anymore, unless you have something of value to offer in exchange - that is to say instant popularity or some manner of compensation. Short of that, you’re prospect of getting your much coveted money shot depends on how skillful you are in coaxing strangers to cooperate, or in photographing strangers without suspicion. If you have nothing to offer, why would anyone who doesn’t know you allow you to photograph them?

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Agfa CT Precisa 100

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Agfa CT Precisa 100

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Agfa CT Precisa 100

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Agfa CT Precisa 100

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Agfa CT Precisa 100

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Agfa CT Precisa 100

But just because the shooting condition has changed, it doesn’t mean we should be discouraged from photographing people we don’t know. If we insist on pursuing the hustle of documenting strangers, we should ramp-up our A-game to optimize the image capture. As such, we should try to confront our intended subject with confidence and accept possible rejection. Frankly, that isn’t easy, which is probably why Mr. McCurry opted for greater certainty with his subject choice.

Speaking for myself, I gave up that hustle years ago. Getting strangers to cooperate just isn’t my area of expertise. And besides, it’s not as if I have anything of value to offer them in exchange for their willingness to help me take that Pulitzer worthy snap of them. Thus, it comes as no surprise that I decided long ago to only photograph people I know - whether in a personal or a professional capacity. Only then can I optimize the resulting image capture with certainty.

In any event, the days of getting the money shot from willing participants you don’t know is over - that is - unless you’re willing to go that extra mile and face possible rejection. If not, then the only recourse would be to take pictures - in the shadows, from the wrong angle, and at the wrong moment in time - of unsuspecting strangers. In doing so, that resulting image capture will never look optimized in documentation, thus making it incomplete in composition.

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Agfa CT Precisa 100

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Agfa CT Precisa 100

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Agfa CT Precisa 100

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Agfa CT Precisa 100

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Agfa CT Precisa 100

Leica MP-6 + Leica 35mm f/1.4 Summilux-M Aspherical + Agfa CT Precisa 100

PS: In my opinion, I believe Mr. McCurry should’ve approached his task of memorializing the last roll of Kodachrome by focusing on the way it renders color. Fundamentally, what the world loses in the discontinuation of Kodachrome is its distinct color profile. To his credit, Mr. McCurry made the right call in returning to his old stomping ground in India. But, he should have expanded his search for color to the four corners of the world.

If it were up to me, I would have included the colors of East Asia, the vibrance of South America, and the vast expanse of Africa... with the odd smattering of A List celebrities from the West - in better representing a larger cross section of the world. But then again, what do I know. It’s not as if my selection of film stock or documentary situation is ever complementary to what I’m writing about, especially on the topic of film.

That said, I’m not Steve McCurry. As such, no one expects the photos I put up on this blog to ever reach up the level of standard demonstrated by a noted Magnum photographer. But to be fair to Mr. McCurry, the standard of his documentation on this project was up to expectations.

It should be noted that the sequence of images on the video is slightly different from the order suggested on Mr. McCurry’s blog. Last, Mr. McCurry had the right idea when he jokingly decided that he was giving up digital photography and was going back to Kodachrome at 21:33 mark of the video. I felt much the same way shooting my last roll of Agfa CT Precisa 100. I can only hope that the future holds greater possibilities for reversal film than what’s currently available.

All images have been tweaked and leveled on Adobe Lightroom. All images have been cropped during the digitalization process on the Pakon F135 Scanner.

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