The Last Week of the Year

For the author, shooting a roll of ten-year-old black & white slide film underscored the uncertainties of our strange time, as the concept “post-pandemic” has come to seem ever more elusive.

West Philadelphia, late December, 2020. All photographs by Frederick Steiner.
West Philadelphia, late December, 2020. All photographs by Frederick Steiner.

When I moved from Austin to Philadelphia several years ago, a few items in the fridge made the journey with me. Among them were three rolls of Agfa Scala 200x black & white slide film which had nested between the mustard and ketchup for over a decade as I had gone digital. Back in the day, I’d been attracted to the film because of its resolution and sharpness.

Last year, in the midst of the pandemic, the film caught my eye as I rummaged one evening for a bottle of Tabasco. “Does anyone still process this stuff?” I wondered, since Main Street Photo, the place in Los Angeles that I knew sold and processed the film, had gone under. A Google search produced an answer, a location, an outfit, and a guy named David Wood.

For over a decade, as I was going digital, three rolls of Agfa Scala black & white slide film nested in the fridge between the mustard and ketchup.

So I took the film from the fridge and, on the last week of last year, shot the three rolls. But while once I might have used the camera to record the new scenes of a trip around the country or across an ocean, I was then (like so many of us) limited to the physical world of a mere few dozen blocks; in my case, West Philadelphia. In the early months of lockdown, I crossed the Schuylkill River to center city Philadelphia — once a near daily event — just a few times. Weekly trips to the dry cleaner to fetch slightly starched dress shirts had come to a halt, as had lunches at a popular restaurant near the Penn campus. Last year and this, I’ve found myself spending a lot more time on my porch, even in cold weather, and wandering through the Woodlands, a nearby cemetery built on the grounds of a once grand estate with English-style landscape gardens. Most Saturdays, I visit the local farmer’s market. A new close-to-home routine has set in, and, like the pandemic, has persisted.

Some changes were unsettling. When I set out with my camera, the sidewalks seemed grittier. There was the palpable sense of abandonment. The campus appeared emptier than in past winters. The cold and the virus were keeping many people (the more fortunate among us who could work from home) indoors. Some came out to walk the dog, to smoke, or just to be outside. Our masks made us all strangers to each other.

Light, precious in the winter, like sunny days, created dancing shadows. Taking photographs forced me to walk more slowly and to look more closely at my surroundings. Was it my imagination or was it because I was working in black & white, but had the city become one giant gray scale? The shadows of trees reinforced the muted tones. I often walk early in the morning before the shadows emerge.

When the slide film was developed, I could see right away that the old Scala sharpness and resolution were gone.

“That morning the silence woke him. … The city was gone.” So Italo Calvino’s protagonist Marcovaldo observes in “The City Lost in the Snow,” one of the chapters in Marcovaldo, or the Seasons in the City. Marcovaldo has awakened to a snow-blanketed city: what at first appears to be a clean slate. As he looks closer, Marcovaldo perceives lines that are “almost erased,” the remains of a “familiar view.” Venturing outside, he walks to work in streets that are more silent, “stretched out, endless and deserted.” The story came to mind for its depiction of someone seeing the world anew, a sensation which seemed especially apt in the early months of lockdown and which somehow still does, as we struggle with variants and a new wave of restrictions on public gathering and closures of national borders. The very concept “post pandemic” seems increasingly elusive.

I shot my last three rolls of Scala in the gray days of winter. There was no snow on the ground, but the city felt blanketed. I wrapped and shipped the canisters to the photo-processing shop run by David Wood that I had found online, in Stuart, Iowa. The film returned, developed, and I could see right away that the Scala’s sharpness was gone. Inside the package I found a note from David that read “old film.” Old film? Or did he mean, “old photographer”? Or are the muted images simply a record of what I saw in a city that felt, at least temporarily, lost?

Frederick Steiner, “The Last Week of the Year,” Places Journal, December 2021. Accessed 10 Jun 2023.

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