Paul Simon’s “Kodachrome” is one of my favorite songs. It has been stuck in my head for the last 10 days or so. I have been humming it in the shower, singing it in the car, belting out an enthusiastic “Kodachroooo-ooooo-oooome!” while reading for class. I can relate when he sings, “I got a Nikon camera (me too!). I love to take a photograph (so do I!), So, mama don’t take my Kodachrome away….” Wait! Kodachrome? What’s THAT?? My generation is probably the final generation to go to a camera shop and buy Kodachrome film into our fully manual SLR cameras, so I know what Kodachrome is…but even I am on the outer fringes of that experience. However, aside from a current affected hipster affinity for all things retro, I doubt anyone more than a decade younger than me has any experience with Kodachrome film.
Every time I hear “Kodachrome” I ask (and usually out loud, to my husband’s chagrin, as he’s heard this question hundreds of times now), “If Paul Simon were to write this song today, what would he say instead?” Film cameras have gone the way of record players – rendered quaint and irrelevant by digital technology – so I think the most appropriate current day substitution for Kodachrome would be Photoshop, which digitally enhances “those nice bright colors” and brightens “those greens of summer” the way Kodachrome film and chemical reactions did in Paul Simon’s 1973 analog world.
I think Paul Simon tapped into something with his song that is still true today. It is an idea that Susan Sontag explores in her collection of essays On Photography, which, coincidentally, was first published the same year “Kodachrome” was released. It is the idea of how the reality of the photograph has replaced the reality of individual experience. How we capture, arrange, and display our lives in the form of photographs becomes the de facto record of our lives. Representation, in the form of a photograph, is privileged over experience.
Before the photograph, the one and only way to record an experience was through language, which is a subjectively fickle thing. All experience, all reality, passes into memory and words have always been the communicator of memory. But the photograph changed all that. As Sontag observes, “The photographic exploration and duplication of the world fragments continuities and feeds the pieces into an interminable dossier, thereby producing possibilities of control that could not even be dreamed of under the earlier system of recording information: writing”
Control is the key word. There is a precision to the image that the written word lacks. Even those who are illiterate can take a photograph or view one and immediately understand something about it. Reactions to a photograph can be instantaneously life altering. Sontag herself describes this when she writes of viewing concentration camp photos at age 12, “When I looked at those photographs, something broke. Some limit had been reached, and not only that of horror; I felt irrevocably grieved, wounded, but a part of my feelings started to tighten; something went dead, something is still crying.” Words can break things, but it takes time. Even Sontag’s description about how something broke in her took longer for her to describe than it would take to view the image that broke her.
Like I have wondered how Paul Simon would rewrite “Kodachrome” today, as I read On Photography¸ I wondered what Sontag would make of photography today with the advent of the digital camera and social media. She presciently writes, “Photograph collections can be used to make a substitute world” without a clue that Facebook and Instagram would change the way people interact with one another forty years later. For many people, who they are as a person is who they are on Facebook or the collection of photos they string together on Instragram. Social media, fueled by the ubiquity of digital cameras, has changed identity and reality in ways she never could have imagined when she wrote those words. I think an interesting essay topic would be to take up Sontag’s arguments and adapt them to the current social media environment of today. What still holds true? What’s changed? What can we expect in the future?
I think one of the reasons that “Kodachrome” has been stuck in my brain for close to two weeks is because my Nikon camera has been stuck to me as well. This spring break, between reading Sontag and contemplating Paul Simon lyrics, I traveled through Iceland – hiking snow-slicked glaciers, facing off with Icelandic horses, warming bar stools in quirky Reykjavikian pubs – and my camera was with me to record all of it. I don’t agree with Sontag though – I did not have a camera with me because I was an uncomfortable tourist trying to distance myself from unfamiliar experiences. Instead, I think my photographs are the best memento I could have of the land of the ice and snow (to quote Led Zepplin), and the surest way to “remember” my experiences there.
Sure – words can describe this inlet where I watched the Northern Lights
or these horses, who I nicknamed “The Canoodlers”
but, I had a lot more fun taking these pictures instead. (To say nothing of manipulating them in Photoshop. Mama, don’t take my Photoshop away….)