For Memory City, Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb took five trips to Rochester, NY over the year following Kodak’s bankruptcy, when Kodak, and, indeed film photography in toto, seemed almost certainly on its last legs.
Thankfully, by the time Webb and Norris Webb finished their trips, and certainly by the time Memory City came out, Kodak emerged from bankruptcy as two businesses: Kodak, which handles movie film, print kiosks, and consumer product branding; and Kodak Alaris, which handles document solutions, photo paper, and print and reversal films: Tri-X and T-MAX, Portra, P3200, and now Ektachrome. Long live film!
But back in 2012/13, things looked grim…
For Memory City, Alex Webb shot color digital and Kodachrome (which he processed as black & white), while Rebecca Norris Webb stuck with film, as is her usual practice. (If you’re curious, some included contact sheets reveal that she shot Portra 400 & 800, as well as Fuji Pro 800Z).* Webb stuck with his usual, excellent street photography (though I still don’t quite get his color and saturation), and while his color digital work is excellent and right in line with his regular production, his black & white Kodachrome work adds a grit and soulfulness to the book. Norris Webb focused on women and girls, statues and monuments to Susan B. Anthony and other activists, as well as dresses: wedding, confirmation, flower girl, Quinceañera, favorites, dresses that were saved and handed down, or found in second hand shops. Together, the photographs seem to present a pretty good view of Rochester, NY and its citizens.
Having never been to Rochester, however, I don’t know much about it or its history, and I expect most of the audience is in the same position. Webb and Norris Webb (and maybe some people at Radius Books) likely knew this, and they helpfully included a fold-out card thing in the back cover, showing a timeline of Rochester, from Iroquois and Seneca migrations there in the 1300s, through the birth of the United States, the birth of photography, abolition and suffrage (Rochester was a final stop on the Underground Railroad, and Frederick Douglas lived there for awhile, Susan B. Anthony was a resident, and Emma Goldman worked in a garment factory in Rochester after arriving in the US),the rise (and fall) of Xerox and Kodak, and including other activists and poets who lived and worked in Rochester.
Additionally, tucked into a pocket behind the timeline fold-out, there’s a sort of zine, “Notes on Film and Memory,” with a few pages from Webb about Kodachrome and, following Louis Kahn, asking the medium what it wants, and then a fully realized sort of photo/poem from Norris Webb: a Cento-form poem illustrated with contact sheets, each featuring multiple shots of a single dress, plus some selects from those contact sheets and and hand-written text, and I think it’s probably my favorite part of the whole book.
Taken all together, the book, timeline, and zine thing make a comprehensive elegy for the Rochester, Kodak, and the heyday of film, both celebrating the history and the medium, and examining the population that is left behind as capital shifts. It’s a great thing.
Overall, I give it 4.3 stars.
Memory City remains available direct from Radius and at various booksellers. This is amazing to me, as it came out over 4 years ago, and is still, as far as I know, in its first edition. Get one before they’re gone.
Webb and Norris Webb have a great website where you can check out work and find our more about both, and they’re active on Instagram too. At time of writing, they’re working on a third collaborative effort, Brooklyn: the City Within expected from Aperture in late 2019, so keep your eyes open.
*Interestingly, despite all the fear of Kodak’s demise, Portra 400 & 800 persist, while Fuji had already killed off Pro 800Z, and as of 2018 has also discontinued Natura 1600, Acros, all of its 800 and 1600 speed films, and, most of its other products. Superia is still around in 200 and 400, as is Velvia and Pro400H, but many suspect Fuji intends to exit film sooner, rather than later, to focus on Instax and their Digital cameras. Time will tell, but Kodak Alaris appears to be in it for the long haul, as is Ilford and some other, smaller producers, so long live film!