CNN Photos

Capturing life with ‘the last roll’

Photographer Jeff Jacobson has never let anything keep him from making pictures – not the end of film or the arrival of cancer.

Even during treatments for lymphoma, when he was too weak to leave the house, Jacobson simply discovered a new world inside with his camera.

But as his treatments subsided, Jacobson faced a new challenge: In 2009, Kodak announced that it was discontinuing production of his favorite film, Kodachrome.

Photography is an industrial art, dependent on its products, but Kodachrome’s uniqueness had helped craft his photographic vision, Jacobsen said.

The rich, wonderful colors created a layered film, which he pushed to the limits, rating it higher to make the end result grainy. It became his style, how he presented his work to the world in books like “My Fellow Americans” and “Melting Point.”

“Kodachrome had been used as almost the official color palette of post-war America,” Jacobson said. “I found a way to turn that on its head. It’s a very unique film, and if that’s the way you see the world, it becomes integral to your vision.”

With the help of his friends, Jacobson stocked his fridge and wine cooler with between 500 and 600 rolls – the last of the Kodachrome.

Eventually, he reached the end of his collection and processed what would become the basis for his book “The Last Roll.”

But he didn’t want to do things any differently than before; he just kept shooting.

And somewhere, between cancer treatments and collecting rolls of Kodachrome, Jacobson learned to look for the “gifts” in dealing with his diagnosis.

“One of those major gifts is understanding that things don’t last forever, they constantly change, and that’s the only truth. Life doesn’t last forever; Kodachrome doesn’t last forever; photography doesn’t last forever.”

Accepting that universal truth with equanimity, Jacobson felt his life, and his photography, deepen. Rather than making geopolitical or cultural statements, the photos have become emotional and psychological meditations, he said.

And for the first time since leaving the life of a lawyer behind to become a photographer in the 1970s, Jacobson stopped accepting photojournalism assignments. He didn’t want to waste the time he had left doing things he didn’t want to, and he hasn’t since 2004.

He also picked up a Lumix digital camera as a transition from film, despite his initial distaste for the style. The small camera fit into his new photographic lifestyle of shooting anything, anywhere he wanted.

“What I hated about digital was the plasticity of it: Everything looks alike. Big SLRs are so sharp and crystal clear, and life doesn’t feel like that to me. Life is grainier; life is noisier. And in digital, noise has been labeled as bad. I don’t think it’s bad.”

But the transition has allowed Jacobson to continue doing exactly what he loves, even though his cancer has returned and he’s receiving treatments again. The camera is around his neck, going with him everywhere, even to the hospital.

“Everybody deals with cancer differently. There is no right way. I’ve been fortunate to have the camera. It’s just a place where I feel safe, feel connected and feel good, even if other parts of my life are not going so well. When I’m photographing, it just feels right to me.”

- Ashley Strickland, CNN

The Last Roll” will be part of the Daylight Books launch party at the International Center of Photography in New York on March 8, and a panel discussion with Daylight Books artists, including Jacobson, will be held March 10 at the Museum of Modern Art.