Issue 35, Final Fringe

The Cancelled Life

by Jon Chopan Issue 35 06.24.2013

“This city was meant to be photographed,” our tour guide tells us.  “A hundred years after the founding of Kodak and the rise of photography as an art and Rochester is still the center of the world for film.”  I expect, on this tour, that we will not hear about layoffs or the digital age or the buildings Kodak is leveling to save money on taxes.  In the slide show we watch there are pictures of all the important landmarks: the brewery, the Erie Canal, both the upper and lower falls.  The documentation is meticulous.  “You know,” our tour guide, says, “the future happened here.”

My father calls me on a Tuesday and says that they are razing some of the Kodak buildings on Friday and would I like to come watch with him.  He is excited by the prospect of the explosion and the precision with which they will take the building down.  A few seconds and it is over and all that is left is a pile, like snow plowed into the corner of a parking lot.

Photographers know no building will stand forever.

In a separate room designed to look like the future there are computers showing a history of the Kodak camera over the ages.  It is set up like a peep show, wedding the old and the new, feeding coins, which are set alongside the computers in a basket, into a slot so the film will play.  On screen, pictures of the first Kodak cameras appear and then decade-by-decade the film slides forward.  Every other decade the machine requests another coin.

I am fascinated by the equipment.  In one slide there is the first Kodak camera and in the next a disposable and even further down the line the digital equipment of today.  Watching these screens gives the impression that with every passing year, with every new turn, Kodak has been cutting edge, has never fallen behind the curve.

I am led to believe that the future is happening here, now.

Kodak has factories along the river, liquid pouring from them and into the water below.  In the summer, boaters pass the factories, and signs warn, “Eat No More Than Two Fish Per Season.”

When we were little our father would dress us up, my brother and me, and take pictures of us.  We would wear our baseball equipment or cowboy hats or glasses with big rubber noses attached to them.  My father would work for hours on the lighting before he’d pose us.  Like my GI Joe’s, I liked to think.  We might be holding up our fists or pointing a cap gun at the camera.  From the basement where we’d wait, toys spread all around us, we could hear our father; “Damn it, that’s not right,” or “I wonder if I moved this here?”  Before the advent of the disposable camera, and then digital, photography was real work.

There are a group of photographers there on Friday when they bring those dormant buildings down.  They have been there for hours, maybe since yesterday, I suspect, setting their equipment at the right angles, working on exposure and how they expect the morning to frame their shots.

My mother remembers certain things about this city.  She remembers Midtown and going there near Christmas with her roommates and watching the monorail circle the Christmas display and Santa Claus who sat high up on a fake mountain listening to kids and their wish lists.  My mother, when we are kids, tells us about this every Christmas because it is gone now, one of those wonders that disappears from your life.  She says that it was something to see, that building and all the lights and all the people.  “Nothing like it is now,” she says, staring out the kitchen window, “a kind of abandoned version of what I remember.”

The whole city looks to the sky as a cloud rises and hovers.  The news reports:  “Nothing Left But Rubble.”

Before I leave the room with the coins my father makes me watch it a second time.  He points out the old cameras he used when he was taking courses at the state university in Brockport and before that the camera he used to take pictures of his buddies when he was in Vietnam.  After the cameras he knows best, my father does not put another coin in the machine.  He walks away without saying a word.  He wants nothing to do with the world and its change.

At the senior ball, the school hands out a pint glass and a disposable Kodak camera.  This, too me, is a mixed message because prior to prom we signed forms that promised we would not drink.  Still, the camera seems useful.  How will you remember this night? the packaging asks.

I take pictures of girls I have had a crush on since grade school and some of my favorite teachers dancing.

But I never develop the roll.

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Jon Chopan

Jon Chopan

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Jon Chopan is the author of the novel Pulled From the River, which was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2012. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in such places as Glimmer Train, Post Road, Hobart, Hotel Amerika, and Redivider. He teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, FL.