Kodak Legacy Fades into ‘Memory City’

Photographers Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb visited Rochester during Kodak's time in bankruptcy and captured a city in transition.

In the city that birthed film and the handheld camera, Kodak leaves a lasting legacy that spills outside of Rochester, New York, and reaches all photographers inspired to capture a moment.

Kodak resisted embracing digital technology, culminating when it filed for bankruptcy in February 2012. As the iconic brand faced restructuring and modernization, so too did photographers dependent on its film.

Photographers Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb visited Rochester that spring after Kodak filed for bankruptcy.

Throughout his career, Webb relied on Kodak’s iconic and now discontinued Kodachrome to document complex worlds using the film’s rich intensity.

When Kodak stopped producing the film in 2009, he was forced to make the transition to digital. But over a hundred rolls of the film remained in his fridge.

“I ultimately decided to pay homage to my long relationship with Kodak by using my last rolls of Kodachrome,” said Webb. “Which these days can only be processed as black and white, giving the film a slight distressed look, as if weathered over time.”

John Vokoun Fire Dragon Color

As the husband and wife team explored the streets of Rochester, Norris Webb was drawn to the ephemeral nature of both wedding and prom dresses and their parallels to a roll of film.

“Thinking about that slip of celluloid that’s accompanied me to every event I’ve ever photographed brought to mind the metaphor of women’s special occasion dresses, worn only once to a memorable event,” said Norris Webb.

Rebecca Norris Webb

As Kodak faced downsizing its business during bankruptcy and moving past its film origins, its influence in the city remains ingrained.

“Throughout our time in Rochester, we kept running into people who had worked at Kodak and who were eager to tell us their experiences with the company,” said Webb. “One day, as I photographed a line of people waiting for a ride, a man turned to me and, looking at my digital Leica, said, ‘You know, I developed the sensor for that camera.”

Alex Webb

The photographers' explorations in Rochester come together in their book "Memory City," capturing the city while Kodak was undergoing bankruptcy.

“Film has left an indelible mark on my work,” said Webb, while recognizing that his most recent project suggests a transition as he further embraces digital photography. “But remember, my primary ultimate end product — books and prints — remains tangible. I still like to touch things.”

Alex Webb

Similarly, Norris Webb’s time reflecting in Rochester provided “the creative space necessary to meditate on the ultimate disappearance of this very tactile medium that I’ve worked so closely with for the past 25 years.”

Rebecca Norris Webb

Kodak emerged from bankruptcy in September 2013 as a commercial imaging company, but its influence remains in the physical reminders of its heyday scattered throughout Rochester buildings and institutions named after the company and in the work of photographers.

Exhibits on Memory City are currently on view at the Robert Klein Gallery in Boston until November 29 and the Stephen Daiter Gallery in Chicago until December 27. Alex Webb and Rebecca Norris Webb’s book “Memory City” is published by Radius Books.

— Natalia Jimenez

John Vokoun Fire Dragon Color