In the 1970s, Jeff Jacobson gave up practicing law with the American Civil Liberties Union to become a photographer and subsequently enjoyed a successful career as a photojournalist. He published his pictures – noteworthy for their poetic and experimental approach – in major national magazines, exhibited his work in museums all over the US and Europe and produced two books. His pioneering technique using a strobe influenced subsequent generations of photographers.
But after he picked up his camera while recovering from treatment following a diagnosis of lymphoma in 2005, his work began to take on new emotional resonance. Initially he was only capable of photographing from inside his house in Mount Tremper, capturing his wife standing in shadow by the window, a view of a tree framed by red curtains, a candle in his bathroom. Ordinary objects and scenes were transformed into images whose graininess and bleary, impressionistic color suggests a fleeting quality, as if only light itself is palpable.
Over the next six years, often he depicted scenes from nature, such as Cooper Lake at dusk, sandhill cranes in flight and a view of a Mount St. Helens’ slope covered with toppled trees (as Jacobson got better, he resumed his travels); or an odd juxtaposition, such as an escalator in the desert (actually a faux desert, taken inside a Nebraska museum). The pictures convey intimacy in their directness and also an eerie isolation, since most are devoid of people or depict a solitary object or figure, whose context is uncertain.
The photographs were significant for another reason: They were the last that Jacobson took with Kodachrome, since Kodak had announced that it was discontinuing its production of the premium color film. He had stockpiled rolls of it in his refrigerator and wine cooler, but in 2010 the only lab that was still processing the film (it was located in Kansas) closed down. Both his illness and the death of Kodachrome dramatically changed Jacobson’s perspective on life.
“I began to come to grips with the fact I was a mortal being and not going to live forever,” he said. “The only constant is change. If you get attached to stuff and think it’s real and solid, it just isn’t. There really is no ground underneath your feet.”
His last Kodachrome photographs have now been collected in a book, titled The Last Roll, which was published last month. Selections of the 50 photos will be exhibited at the Center for Photography at Woodstock from April 13 through June 16. The opening reception will take place on April 13 from 5 to 7 p.m., and Jacobson will be giving a talk at the gallery on May 4.