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My Love For Cameras Comes From Somewhere

Somewhere called home.

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SOFIA, Bulgaria- I’m not sure if I ever imagined such a place. It’s two old traditional-style buildings side by side. On the ground floor of one building is a professional photography shop with a photo-themed cafe above it. In the other building there’s a photography gallery. In the alley between them there’s another cafe / bar that has a retractable glass roof over it.

When I first walked into the photography shop I was looking for a Metabones speed booster, BMPCC to Canon EF, and figured they wouldn’t have one and may not even understand what I was even talking about. Instead, they directed me to an entire display case full of them…

… Which was right next to a display case full of Blackmagic cameras. Not common.

I go to camera shops all over the world, and this one was among the best. I passed on the speed booster — if I wanted to spend $650 to use Canon lenses I would just buy a Canon camera. Anyway, adapters complicate the process — although the super 16 sensor in the BMPCC means a crop factor that’s impossible to work around, I suppose “style” is 50% working around limitations.

I choose to use a BMPCC for a reason. It’s a small video camera that produces the closest images resembling film that I’ve observed yet from a digital camera.

I’m from Rochester, NY, the birthplace of Kodak, the birthplace of film. My father worked for 20 years at Kodak. When I was a kid I believe he boxed film on an assembly line, then he drove a forklift in a warehouse, then he did an apprenticeship and began working as a sheet metal technician. Then he got laid off along with everybody else in the city.

I can remember going to Kodak to pick my dad up from work or meet him for lunch with my mom. It was just this fortress of a place — this strange other world where all kinds of magical things would happen. My dad told me about the machine that made film that was three stories high and as long as a city block. The factory was an entire city within the city. My mother worked there for a while as a mailman and she’d bring home the maps of the place to show me. All of the buildings were referred to by their number, and everybody in Rochester knew what someone meant when they said “Building 48” or “Building 29.” The place was its own society.

When you’re a kid from this city whose dad works at Kodak you come into the world with an inherent taste for photography. There is this certain proclivity to love cameras, to love film —  love the act of capturing light, archiving time, preserving memory, basking in the ephemeral. Kodak was a company who built its business model on nostalgia — they were the first to package photography and deliver it to the masses — and now when you make a mention of what this place was, when they tear down the factories one by one, nostalgia is what my city feels.

I’m not sure if there are multi-generational factory towns in the world anymore. Big factories now pop up in places fast, shut down fast, and then move on to somewhere else. The jobs that they provide are those that people do “for a while” and then go on to doing something else. Most of the fishermen of Penang were factory workers a generation ago, and then the plants closed so they went back to fishing.

When Kodak effectively shut down in Rochester one of the places they moved to was Xiamen in the southeast of China. They had a factory in an industrial zone next to a Black and Decker plant, but by the time I showed up in Xiamen in 2013 they both were already gone without a trace. I wouldn’t even have known about it if it wasn’t for some old expat who told me. Before Xiamen, Kodak was in Shantou.

The identities of cities were once inseparable from the things they made. All through history this was to the point where you’d say a city name and immediately follow it up with, “You know, the place were they make ___.” Today, these connections rarely exist. Sure, Seattle is Amazon and Mountain View is Google, but these are exceptions — and are in no way guaranteed to last very long into the future.

More often than not we have no idea where our stuff comes from and even the people who live in the cities that make it often don’t really have any clue either.

Your iPhones come from a place called the Zhengzhou Airport Economic Zone. Your iPads come from a place called Tianfu. By the time you read this there is a reasonable chance that they will no longer be made there anymore … but somewhere else, like Horgos, perhaps.

It’s kind of ironic, but most people in Rochester don’t know that all motion picture film is still made in Building 317.


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Filed under: Bulgaria, New York, Photography

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3715 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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