NEAR ZION NATIONAL PARK, Utah — “Everything is digital now,” a young clerk explains to me when I ask to buy a roll of film. She speaks in a faux-patient voice, quite loudly, the way you’d talk to a Martian, or a nursing-home resident.
I stubbornly hold up my point-and-shoot film camera purchased off eBay for $3 years ago and say, “No, not everything.” And then, rather gratuitously add, “Film was good enough for Ansel Adams.”
This day, when I should be admiring big red rocks in five national parks that dominate Southern Utah, I spend far too much time stopping at combo service station and souvenir shops trying to find a roll of film. I’ll admit that at some point I began perversely enjoying the reaction to my quest.
Young clerks all but sneer. Older clerks usually admit that somewhere they, too, still hoard a film camera. But, one says, “The purchase-by date on film passes before we can sell it.”
That’s when I remember Mister P.C. Burnett and his ammunition-box story. Mister Burnett was my college photojournalism instructor — not to mention my teacher for about six other journalism classes at Auburn.
The department during my era only had two professors. Size didn’t matter. Both Mister Burnett and Mister Mickey Logue were seasoned newspaper men who recognized a news story when it bit them in the press pass, and they respected deadlines. They taught us to do the same.
Mister Burnett had a story about finding a roll of film in a World War II ammunition box where it had been forgotten for a couple of decades or longer. He processed it and printed the photographs as if the film had been exposed the day before. He was making a point about the long shelf life of film — forever, if you keep it cool.
At the national-park store I finally locate and buy a few rolls of film. I now am free to shoot the Court of the Patriarchs, the Temple of Sinawava, The Grotto and a distant condor with my Fuji autofocus camera. The children in my life often ask to use it because it’s such an antiquated novelty. I wish they could see the twin-lens reflex cameras we checked out for our photo journalism class projects.
Mister Burnett is dead now, no longer advising his students to have their wedding photographs shot in black and white so they won’t fade, or teaching greenhorns how to write an obituary — “All deaths are sudden; ‘sudden death’ is a redundancy.”
What would he think of the dearth of film in stores, and the relatively new practice of paying for obituaries that can say anything the customer wants them to say? In the 1970s we thought him old-fashioned, of course. Maybe so, but turns out he was right about those color shots that faded even quicker than the marriages. And most of us have seen firsthand by now that all deaths are sudden.
Hoodoos, spires, arches, monoliths and rocks balanced precariously on one another — magnificent scenes created by 100 million years of natural erosion — all lend perspective to what’s around to stay and what’s but a blip on the radar, including us.
I put film on a par with the Skyline Arch.
To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.