As I have mentioned before, I am a dedicated and long-time stereo photographer. The rugged Stereo Realist is my camera of choice. It was Made In the USA, in Milwaukee to be exact, and is one of those American built-to-last wonders of the post WWII-era. Other companies introduced more sophisticated stereo cameras with more features and simpler operation, but the good-old Stereo Realist just keeps taking the pictures I want it to take.
Shooting with a 60 year-old stereo camera means, obviously, that I use film. Very retro compared to the current mode of photography. This year I am shooting my way through my last supply of Kodachrome 64. Last summer, after 75 years, Kodak announced they are suspending production of that wonderful film. -- One of the earliest posts on Plumwood Road, June 23, 2009, dealt with the subject of Kodachrome's passing.-- I found a cache of this film at PJ's Camera in Glen Ellyn, Illinois and bought a brick of it. My camera has been souped-up in such a manner to enables it to shoot "wider" views, but that means it burns through a 36-exposure roll in only 20 clicks. I am trying to make my supply last through the year, which is also the last year that processing will be available.
As it happens, we have very few Kodachrome slides of any kind from my youth. My Dad was not a slide shooter. He shot black and white print snapshots. Nothing fancy. Although, some of the shots he took in World War II in China and India are pretty dog gone amazing.
My introduction to Kodachrome slide film came in the mid-1970s, when I was a motion picture camera assistant. I was working in the California desert on a car commercial. The still photographer's assistant saw that I was using some commonly available "vacation-type" slide film in my personal camera and gave me a roll of Kodachrome 25 to try.
"This is called 'The Good Stuff'", he said. "Use it once and I guarantee you'll never go back."
And he was right. Kodachrome is/was rich, vivid, crisp, sharp...and permanent. Properly stored some estimates claim it to be stable for 500 years. It is perfect for documenting for viewers in the distant future a record of the images we see around us now.
Most people remember slide shows when they were kids. It was a common form of entertainment in the 50s and 60s; gather in the living room, dim the lights and project last summer's vacation pictures for the neighbors.
The Kodachrome slide shows that I remember seeing were photographed and projected in 3-D.
Long time friends of my parents from our church were Emil and Stella Miller.
Emil Miller was corporate/portrait/wedding photographer in the post-WWII years in Dayton, Ohio. Stella ran the business. Though it may be hard to picture now, Dayton, Ohio was once a booming industrial center, home to NCR, Delco, Frigidaire, Mead Paper, Lau Industries and a host of other manufacturing businesses. It was a very prosperous Mid-Western city that was full of engineers, machine shops, factories, and aerospace firms. All of this provided Em and Stella with work and interesting photographic subject matter. During his assignments Em would often switch out his view camera or 6X6, and mount his Stereo Realist on the tripod and click off a few shots in 3-D for his personal collection. He had nifty views taken on the plant floors, inside offices, at the mill...the lady at the switchboard, the guy in the bow-tie with the clipboard, the sparks flying as the molten metal was poured, the line of bottles rattling along at the local Coca-Cola plant... all preserved in that perfect You Are There effect that only 3-D can capture.
Emil's business was very profitable. It allowed him and his wife to indulge their interests in art and antiques. They restored an old frame house and filled it with paintings. They enjoyed nice vacations, too; road trips in the summer, ski trips in the winter, as well as European or Asian travel. This they covered extensively in 3-D as well.
In the winter they hosted parties where they would project their slides; the kids sitting on the floor up front and the parents comfy on furniture in back and everybody wearing cardboard glasses. These shows were a lot of fun, not only due to the interesting subject matter but for the unusual 3-D effect. As the images clicked by, Stella or Em would narrate and tell us what we were seeing and who was in the picture. If you've never seen well-shot, well-projected 3-D pictures, it's quite an experience. We would look at the pictures and feel like we could step right into the screen and stand in front of the Eiffel Tower, or walk through the gates of the newly opened Disneyland. The pictures made quite an impression.
Years later, I began shooting Stereo pictures myself. This common interest put me in contact with the Millers who would phone from Ohio occasionally with questions like "where can I find supplies", or "who do you recommend to repair my projector?"
Sometime in the early 1990s, my wife and I, visiting family in Dayton, were invited to attend one of Emil and Stella Miller's 3-D shows. They had found a few boxes of old slides and thought we would enjoy seeing them.
That evening's show came as almost a shock: All of the views were shot on Kodachrome and projected as beautifully as the day they were shot. We saw pictures of my brother and me as boys, my parents as a young couple, adults and kids from church, There was a shot of Dave Rothman when he was about 10 years-old, standing next to his dippy sister, Diane, who had cooties. But, what did I know then? For the record, she was a dish the last time I saw her.
There were slides taken inside our old house, at a picnics with people long gone, of Dayton, bustling and decorated up for Christmas. In the mid-50s my brother and I had a pet raccoon and there were a couple pictures of him, still a young pup, sitting on my brother's shoulder or standing up on his hind legs mooching a handout. The pictures were so life-like I felt I could reach out and give the fuzzy little guy a scratch behind the ears. The show went on to highlight some of Emil's commercial work, views of Dayton, Ohio as it used to be, and of some of the travel Em and Stella enjoyed; all of it was interesting. The over-all effect was this: Emil Miller had taken a shovel and scooped up a load of random memories and flashed them on the screen.
The evening concluded with refreshments of soft-drinks, with ham and rye, sweet pickles, veggies with potato chips and dips -- all smells and tastes associated with the era in which most of the pictures had been taken.
In 2002 my wife and I were in Dayton. Stella had passed a few months earlier and we found Em packing boxes in the dining room. He was breaking up their art collection and selling the house in preparation to move into a retirement community.
"While you're here, I have something you may be able to get more use out of than me..." Em opened a closet, shifted a few boxes around and got out his Stereo Realist projector, which to this day is the only genuine "Realist" projector I've ever seen. It was a phenomenal gift and one for which I was very grateful.
Along with the projector he gave me four boxes crammed with stereo slides.
"These are not my best slides" he said. "But I won't have room for them in the new place. Maybe you could look through them and see if there is anything you want to keep."
It took my wife and me several days to get through all the slides. They were all interesting and fun. Yes, I could see that some of them were misfires or out-takes, but there were some gems in the collection as well.
I stayed in touch with Em, over the next few years and on visits would stop by his apartment and say hello. He was a handy fellow with tools and kept busy hanging pictures and making repairs for the widows in the community.
After a while I began thinking about the rest of his stereo slides, the ones he'd shot at church functions, of my parent's 50th wedding anniversary, the views inside factories and old airliners, "the good ones" that he had kept. I wondered if he had any idea what he planned to do with them. I knew they were more personal to him, so I put off any questions. I would have loved to have had them. But, as it turned out, I never got the chance to ask.
In the fall of '07 Em didn't return a couple calls I had made. When we stopped by at Christmas time his apartment was empty. We were told that Em had died several months earlier. An auction had been held for his remaining artwork.
But, sadly, all those slides were tossed into a dumpster.
This article was published earlier by The Kodachrome Project. If you are a photographer you will enjoy going to that site and taking a last look at that wonderful, soon to be gone, film...Kodachrome.