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Art: Residual Film 

Wednesday, Oct 14 2015
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In America's long history, the city of Rochester, N.Y., occupies an almost mythical place. It's in Rochester that Frederick Douglass lived for decades during the mid-1800s, founding an influential newspaper that broadcast his abolitionist views to an international readership. The early women's rights leader Susan B. Anthony also made Rochester her home. (Both Anthony and Douglass are buried there.) And it's in Rochester that two of America's best-known companies, Xerox and Kodak, were founded more than 100 years ago. Rochester's recent history is much less glorious, and the city's nadir was undoubtedly Kodak's 2012 bankruptcy — a stunning descent for a photography giant that had once been the source of 60,000 steady jobs in the city.

Home to about 200,000 people (and down by a third from its postwar peak), Rochester is now a city of extremes — the economic antithesis of San Francisco. The poorest U.S. city of its size, Rochester has 25,000 children living in poverty, and 16 percent of its residents living in extreme poverty (which, for a single person, is defined as earning less than $5,885 a year). And New York State deems 14 Rochester schools "failing." Still, greater metropolitan Rochester's unemployment rate is just 4.8 percent — its best in almost a decade — as other area employers, including startups, fill the jobs gap left by Kodak's demise. And the city's residents have found a way to survive — and thrive — without leaning on the venerable maker of cameras and film.

This is the environment that photographers Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb encountered in their visits to Rochester after Kodak's bankruptcy. "Memory City" is their photography exhibit at San Francisco's Koch Gallery, and the title of a well-received book they published in 2014.

"Ultimately what surprised me about Rochester was not the impact of Kodak's decline — I expected to find a somewhat depressed upstate New York city — but the city's soulfulness and the discovery of its rich cultural history, a history not solely of photography, but of poetry and music," Alex Webb said in an email interview."This was utterly unexpected and I think is part of what drove both Rebecca and me to continue returning to the city to photograph."

The Webbs are husband and wife, with contrasting styles that can be entirely complementary. Alex Webb is known for his street photos from around the world and is a longtime member of Magnum Photos, the distinguished photographers' cooperative co-founded by Robert Capa and Henri Cartier Bresson. With a background in poetry, Rebecca Norris Webb is more interpretive with her images, which can be almost painterly. So in "Memory City," we get both a dreamlike Rochester and a more realistically portrayed city.

Even as Alex Webb's photos celebrate Rochester, they hint at its segregated areas. In Fourth of July Fairport, a convertible flaunts two American flags in its front seat, parked in a bucolic suburban neighborhood of lawns and single-family homes while two middle-aged people walk by. In 14621 Neighborhood, a depiction of an area of Rochester with large African-American and Hispanic populations and a high unemployment rate, Webb shows two young boys meeting in a similarly flagged scene of camaraderie and patriotism. In his Downtown, a young man waits pensively by himself at a transit stop. Behind him stand other people who, slightly blurred, look almost like apparitions in the reflections of the stop's clear enclosure.

Rochester's women were a focus for Rebecca Norris Webb, who used Susan B. Anthony's tenure in the city as a jumping-off point to explore current women's doings — and relate it to an important fact she discovered about Anthony. In Amanda and Her Flower Girl Dress, 14621 Neighborhood, a young woman holds her dress as she peers from a window that seems to be broken. In Peruvian RIT Student Marcella, RIT Housing, Rebecca Norris Webb captures a student at Rochester Institute of Technology who's behind a window that reflects an overcast day. And in Blue Secondhand Prom Dress, South Wedge, a blue dress hangs on a Rochester porch, ready to sway in the wind or — when it's worn — on the dance floor.

"Photographing in Susan B. Anthony's hometown, it seemed fitting to focus on women, especially those ordinary women history has long overlooked," says Rebecca Norris Webb."As I read more about Anthony, I was surprised to learn that, although a Quaker, she'd spent her first paycheck as a young teacher on a brightly colored dress, a wonderfully human contradiction that made her come alive in my eyes."

After studying Rochester's history, Rebecca Norris Webb also realized that the idea of memory — of cementing moments in time — was deeply ingrained in the city by Rochester's writers.

"In Rochester, I was nicely surprised to discover so many poets had called the city home — including John Ashbery, Marie Howe, Cornelius Eady, and Ilya Kaminsky," she says. "In fact, Kaminsky's line, 'Time, my twin, take me by the hand through the streets of your city,' was one of my first windows into the project. It made me first realize that 'Memory City' was more than a book about Rochester and the fading days of Kodak and film. It was also a kind of meditation on time itself, a concern of both poetry and photography, which share so many traits I call them 'sister arts.'"

Founded by George Eastman, Kodak is still a viable company — albeit severely diminished. After emerging from bankruptcy, it still employs about 2,000 workers in Rochester, generating about $2 billion in sales worldwide for its products, including printing plates. For those who were alive in the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, Kodak film and cameras were as ubiquitous as iPhones are today. But while Kodak invented the digital camera in 1975, the company's undoing was its reliance on analog products. Camera phones finished Kodak, which essentially disappeared from popular culture.

Not in Rochester, though: Echoes of its place in history are everywhere — including the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, and in the Kodak Tower that still anchors downtown. For "Memory City," Alex Webb used his last rolls of Kodachrome, formerly one of Kodak's most popular color films, and one that required special processing. Kodak discontinued Kodachrome in 2010.

"I used Kodachrome, with its deep reds and impenetrable blacks, almost exclusively for some 30 years," Alex Webb says. "It was a film that helped define my vision as a color photographer ... So it seemed appropriate to pay homage to the film by using it in Rochester the only way it still can be used: by processing it as black and white, which comes out slightly distressed, almost weathered, like a fading memory."

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Jonathan Curiel

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