Books On My Desk: Kodachrome Himalayas and the Great Digital Convergence

The stack grows a little shorter.

Travels Across the Roof of the World: A Himalayan Memoir by William and Anne Frej.
Additional texts by Edwin Bernbaum, Michael Tobias, and Jane Gray Morrison.
Published in 2022 by George F. Thompson Publishing in Association with the Center for Places.
You may remember The Center for American Places—this is a later incarnation.

Part travel picture book, part memoir, Willam and Anne Frey’s Travels Across the Roof of the World (photos by Bill, memoir text by Anne) is a luxuriously printed book. It is heavy in the hand, its pages are thick, and the printing, the design, and the maps are superlatively done.

Reading through it, flipping its pages one of the words that come to mind —I’ll be painfully honest here—is “jealousy.” Bill and his wife Anne made, if I’m counting correctly, twenty trips into the Himalayas over a forty-year period with one lasting twenty months. This isn’t unachievable-for-mere-mortals mountain-climbing, big-swinging ya yas stuff, but trekking, which sounds at first like mere hiking. It’s a bit more than that. You can take an organized tour or, when you are more confident, make your own arrangements. Those arrangements turn out to include severe altitude sickness, all manner of sharing beds with strangers, and you can just imagine the rest in terms of comfort. There is a surprising amount of “infrastructure”—the local economies turn out to be highly aware and in some cases dependent on travelers—but that infrastructure does not (yet) include any Holidays Inns in those mountain passes. The jealousy here is a tempered one.

Another word that echoed in my head as I read the texts and scanned the images was “life.” Jared Diamond—I think it was in Guns, Germs, and Steel?—talked about the sense of sophistication we have about ourselves (and thus the unsophisticated nature of other people) but put us in their environment and we would be as lost as (I paraphrase here) a Tibetan porter in Manhattan. How much of what goes in our heads that we think of as so important is just us navigating our particular environment? How much of it means all that much? Looking at the faces of the portraits in the book—portraits of the various people the Frej’s encountered on their travels–I was hit with the realization that that man in Mongolian clothing doesn’t want to be me and would not trade places if given a chance, that his life is not less fulfilled because he isn’t writing little book reviews on a five thousand dollar laptop, that maybe there is a different way to live.

All of that, of course, is what travel is all about, and perhaps the past few years have heightened my need for it. I’ll admit, while writing this short post I’ve already taken two breaks to google trekking trips. I want a change and I need a change, but what that change needs to be I do not yet know.

A third word that I hear in my ears—or, if it makes any sense at all, in my eyes—is the word “Kodachrome.” We’re taking a kind of religion here so let me explain to the uninitiated.

In the film days, there was black and white film and color film, and in color film there was negative film (which most people used, the orange-colored stuff that made prints) and there was slide film (also called reversal film or just transparency film). Slide film came in two types: Kodachrome and then all the rest. For many photographers of the color film era Kodachrome was less choice and more sacrament.

There is sad news here. They no longer make Kodachrome nor process it. It is gone.

But not entirely gone. Bill Frej knows Kodachrome, knows its special color palette, feels its warm presence, and he has had his Kodachrome slides lovingly scanned and then sequenced along with his digital files (apparently set to mimic Kodachrome colors the best that they can), printed in ink with much of the glory of the slide film right there on the page. The mountains reflect more color than seems possible, the faces of people are radiant, the skies too blue to be any real skies of this Earth. Some of the images hint at a brightness and a richness last seen on a glass-beaded screen in a dimly lit room.

Books are funny things. You open them thinking you are going to see one thing and then you feel something else quite altogether unexpected. Bill and Anne chronicle their many wanderings in the highest mountains, decades of adventures, and I’m looking at those Tibetan faces and those mountains and I’m casting about for what is missing, not inside the book but outside of it.

Biography of a Pixel by Alvy Ray Smith
Published in 2021 by MIT Press
only in softcover (though a heavy, high-quality softcover)

Alvy Ray Smith—as the book’s cover says, a cofounder of Pixar—has in his later years developed an intense interest in genealogy. It shows. Biography of a Pixel is disguised by its title as one of those ‘splainers that tackles some technical topic and presents the core ideas and key insights, minus the math, to all the rest of us. In fact, it is much more, though Smith shows great discipline in keeping his topic narrowly focused on the origins of the animated movie the backstory is sprawling. It starts with Fourier Waves and Sampling Theorem—much more interesting than it might sound—and Smith explains it all with clarity while also diving into the interconnected biographies of the players. Unexpectedly he does original research here (which he will do much more of as the book proceeds).

There are several double-page “family trees” in the book graphically connecting the key names (both individuals and companies) and lots and lots of discussion about who did what first and when and where. Smith keeps it all under control but the close-up detail (again, much of which is outlined here by Smith based upon his own research) tempts the reader throughout the middle third of the book to skim. It’s the kind of book where at the end of every chapter the author summarizes the text you have just read—and, in this case, that summary is welcome.

Smith is writing about the pixel but he is really writing about the bigger picture, what he calls the Great Digital Convergence—the transformation of all media into digital, displayed now as Digital Light, made up of an abstraction called the “pixel” which is displayed to the viewer using a variety of technologies but always utilizing those Fourier Waves and the Sampling Theorem. 

The last part of the book talks about his role in this Convergence and the origins of Pixar. Steve Jobs makes an appearance, although it is unflattering to Jobs, and so do many others as they both strive and stumble toward the first full-length digitally-created movie (that is, Toy Story). It’s impossible for younger people to appreciate now but when those animated lamps appeared in an early effort by Pixar it took another nine years, until 1995, for Toy Story—the ideas were there and the demonstration had been made but the computing power took a while to catch up (a situation repeated throughout the book). Smith recounts those difficult years—such a short time ago!—when the future of digital animation was not at all clear and the money was tight. Few could see the creative and financial promise of computer animation in filmmaking. It seems bewildering now but true.

Biography of a Pixel is many things, perhaps too many things, but what it does best, whether you discover that a pixel is not a little square is useful to you in any way or not, is to tell the story of the technology of our screens, which now forms much of our experience of the world.