On November 18, Paige Sarlin joined 100 others at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, to give the Kodak Carousel slide projector a proper send-off to the great darkened family room in the sky. The last of the trusty machines, which had been in continuous production since 1961, shuttled off the assembly line on October 22, 2004, deemed obsolete by Kodak brass in an audiovisual future dominated by digital cameras and PowerPoint.
At the gathering the last two Carousels were presented to the Eastman House and the Smithsonian, and the assembled dealers, sales reps, employees, and slide projector buffs celebrated with toasts and tributes. Sarlin, a grad student at the Art Institute who's working on a documentary about the changing of the AV guard, was the last to speak, and the only amateur user invited to do so. She talked at length about the slide projector as a device of wonder and magic, as a vehicle for "cultural memory and expression," and as, above all, an agent of communication and a manifestation of human imperfection in all its glory.
"I did that talk for them using my old family slides," she says, "about 60 images with scratches and dust and burned-out Ektachrome orange, and by the end of the talk people were crying. It was a corporate event and there I was emoting, and they needed that. What they had done had affected people so intimately, and they knew it."
A self-described slide geek, Sarlin was working on a series of slide-based performance pieces when someone forwarded her Kodak's November 2003 announcement that production of all the company's slide projectors, including the Carousel and the higher-end Ektagraphic, Ektalite, and Ektapro models, would end the following year. At the time, she says, "I really wanted to turn the whole world on to think about the medium of the slide show. I was feeling a little evangelical. . . . So I get this announcement and I'm like, holy cow, here it is--this is ending. And I thought: how often is it that we get to picture an actual ending?"
She wrote to Kodak asking for permission to film the last day of production in Rochester, and soon struck up a correspondence with Merri-Lou McKeever, the general manager of the slide projector business, peppering her with questions about the product's manufacturing history. As she slowly learned more--that, for example, the production of many parts had been outsourced to China, and that Kodak's entire slide projector output was now controlled by just six managers and ten assembly workers in Rochester and Stuttgart, Germany--she started to think she might be onto something great. "It's not just a story about the shift from analog to digital," she says. "It's a story about the change in manufacturing, about the impact of outsourcing on the industry, and on this entire area of the northeast."
Kodak, however, wasn't so sure. Though McKeever was enthusiastic about the project, after a month or so of discussion the verdict from corporate came back negative: Sarlin couldn't film inside the factory. Ironically, the Kodak facility was a "secure" building, and cameras were prohibited.
The setback, however, only piqued Sarlin's interest. "Of course, in the back of my mind I was like, 'Now I really want to get in,'" she says. She called McKeever and told her she was coming to meet her anyway.
She never did make it inside the building, but over the next year, especially after Kodak announced in January that it was planning to shift its focus to digital media and lay off 10,000 workers, she traveled to Rochester, Stuttgart, and New York City to meet and interview a slew of workers, dealers, sales reps, admen, photographers, audiovisual professionals, teachers, and artists whose lives had, in one way or another, been affected by slide projectors. In Stuttgart--where she and her crew of two were allowed to shoot on the assembly line--she filmed a two-day wake for the product's German business complete with lots of drinking, toasts, 12-projector multi-image slide shows, and pallbearers somberly carrying an oversize model of a Carousel draped with white roses and a sash that read rest in peace.
"I tried to follow through and find ways to tell the story knowing that I wasn't going to have the access I wanted," she says. "And over time the story morphed. Initially I thought I had this Roger and Me situation, with the big corporation laying off people: 'What's going to happen to Rochester-slash-Flint, Michigan?' But then I realized that this has been going on for a long time, and it's not the same story, because we're no longer in a place where we actually think that corporations have our best interests at heart. No one I talked to was surprised that Kodak was no longer paternally taking care of them. No one. That's a different era and a different question. So I started investigating it more broadly, to think about this as a much bigger story than just about Kodak."
To Sarlin, whose father worked in advertising and whose grandfather was an avid Carousel user, the story of the slide projector is as much about the construction of memory and community as it is about the globalization of industry and the relentless march of technology. "Unlike a page of an album that can be turned quickly with little distraction," she said in her speech at the Eastman House, "a slide show image is hard to escape or live down. Often quite embarrassing and funny, these slides are now as imperfect and human as we are. Scratched and dirty, flawed and fading like our memories. But slide projectors don't just offer pictures of past moments; they create experiences as well. The experience of watching these images dissolve into others in the company of family and friends and strangers who become friends is as memorable as the images."
The Last Slide Projector is slated to be finished by May, when the 50-minute film will be included in an exhibit of slide-related art at the Baltimore Museum of Art; Sarlin's also hoping to get it shown on PBS. Shot on digital video and 16-millimeter film (donated by Kodak), the movie has a budget of $46,000. She still needs to raise the last $15,000 of it; with a benefit at the Hideout this weekend she hopes to scrape up $2,000 to free ten rolls of developed footage from the processing lab in New York. She also hopes to negotiate permission from Kodak to use some archival advertising images--the company is still not totally convinced she's not making "a Michael Moore film."
Sarlin's optimistic about the future of the humble Carousel. "It started out as a magic lantern, and there's been a lot attached to what I refer to as 'familiar magic,'" she says. "The slide projector is familiar magic. Incredible colors. You don't see that in digital projectors yet--at least at any kind of reasonable price point."
The machines themselves, she adds, are pretty tough. Her grandfather's Carousel 600, purchased in 1976, only gave up the ghost two years ago, and in the film, she says, "I have a story from [a guy] who said someone came in and had dropped his projector from a three-story building, out a window, and the only thing that was broken was the bulb!
"The end of production has happened, but there are going to be projectors out in the world that will outlast all of us. There will be projectors out there that will be pulled out of closets that will outlast me."
Benefit for "The Last Slide Projector"
When: Sat 1/15, 9:30 PM
Where: Hideout, 1354 W. Wabansia
Info: 773-329-0899, www.hideoutchicago.com
More: With Fancy Lads, P1xel and the Chronic Network, DJ Major Taylor
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.