Rochester Plates

My inquiry into the origins of photography finally took me to Rochester, New York. Nominally a part of New York State, yet actually more than seven hours away by car from Manhattan, the town appears quite close to the border of Canada on the map. As it is the very place where Kodak was established, this means that until recently, almost all the residents were working for the company or its affiliates. Kodak used to be the synonym for a photo industry giant but, today, most of its film factories have been closed, and it is just a vast parking lot, like a huge hole that unfolds across all those sites.

 

The former mansion of the founder of Kodak has been renovated into the George Eastman Museum, whose archive would, as I anticipated, be of some help for my inquiry. However, it quickly turned out that although it contains an enormous amount of documents and items regarding photography and photographic techniques, its main focus is on photography after it had become industrialized, which meant that in terms of the experiments during the infancy of the medium, I would have to find a way all on my own, by trial and error. With no original procedure manuals or anything like that existing, I could only refer to surviving letters and notes written by the inventors, namely Niépce, Daguerre, and Talbot. Around the end of the summer, I began reading those documents intensively; as leaves changed colors, I collected all the necessary tools one by one; and when snow had started to fall, I executed an initial photo shoot based on my research. While it was still absolutely unsure if any photographic technology would ever be possible, the inventors developed their ideas by relentlessly trying out every potential of every material, yet the trajectories of their thoughts have been preserved only in the form of texts. Even before the word photography was coined, they attempted, in trial-and-error processes, various unnamed and amorphous experiments, products of which, guided by their words, now found their way to the bathroom and kitchen of my temporary apartment.

 

While experimenting by heating up and cooling down different materials to combine them chemically, applying and rinsing away the resultant compounds over and over again, and trying to produce images with both photograms and a camera, most of which ended up being failures, I recalled a sentence from one of Daguerre’s letters addressed to Niépce:

 

Je brûle de désir de voir vos essais d’après nature.

(I am burning with desire to see your experiments from nature.)

 

It was exactly this “burning desire” which would be later named “photography,” and also the very factor that would eventually build up, and then break down, the town of Rochester itself.

 

In the bathroom of my apartment, in an entirely snowbound, hushed Rochester, with a plate in my hand, on which an image had just formed, I was feeling a residual heat of that desire, ignited around two centuries ago.

 

​(Translated by Yuki Okumura with Ian Monk, 6.11.2019)