Shutterbug 2000
George Eastman House--A Fascinating Collection

The stately George Eastman House, built in 1905, is a 50 room, 35,000 square foot Georgian style mansion set on 10 acres of landscaped gardens. It still ranks as the largest private house ever built in Rochester. The mansion has been recently restored with about 85 percent of the original furnishings identical to those when Eastman lived there.
Photos © 1999, Robert E. Mayer, All Rights Reserved

If you are a typical Shutterbug reader you have a keen interest in all aspects of photography including the history of images and cameras, still and motion picture. If that's the case, then a day or two visit at this interesting location in upstate New York would have you drooling like the proverbial kid in a candy store. The exhibit halls are crammed full of displays of early and current cameras and the images produced by them. One of several current exhibits actually combines specific historical cameras along with the memorable image they produced. This is a novel and different approach that I have never heard of or seen before in many decades of looking at photography exhibits all over the country and overseas.

Anyone with an acute interest in photography of all types, or its 160 year history, should make an effort to tour the George Eastman House Museum of Photography, the world's oldest museum of photography located in Rochester, New York. Previously called The International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House when it first opened half a century ago in 1949, this fascinating facility is the archival storage home of a wealth of cameras, images, and data on all types of photographic imaging. The immense collection includes still images and equipment used to produce the pictures from the very beginnings of daguerreotypes from the 1850s to recent manned shuttle missions. Motion picture photography from its inception in 1895 to the present is also well represented with more than 21,000 motion picture titles from early silent films to recent spectaculars. In addition to the actual films, posters, stills, scripts, and other related memorabilia are available for the general public to view. Two current major exhibits warranted our recent trip to Rochester.

Before the advent of electricity, projectors, such as this German Lantern Projector, were powered by gas lanterns.

The Eventful Camera Exhibit. This interesting exhibit joins photographs with the cameras that captured the image along with other materials from the huge George Eastman House collection. It is on display through early February 2000. The title and idea for this unique exhibit was proposed over 40 years ago by Beaumont Newhall, Eastman House's first curator. He envisioned a display including cameras used by eminent photographers, cinematographers, and innovators that were actually used to record significant events. That is, cameras that "have a story with them." The current exhibit takes his idea and expands on it by showing the interrelationship of the museum's extensive individual collections, linking the equipment along with photographs and other artifacts of the era when they were used.

This is the original Eastman Kodak Brownie camera of 1900. It used 117 roll film, which is similar to today's 120 film, but shorter in length. The last Brownie model was produced by Kodak in 1965.

James A. Conlin, registrar, who works with the extensive collections every day, curated this exhibit. This was the first time a registrar put together an exhibition at George Eastman House. The cameras were used as a point of departure for combining with other artifacts and images from the various collections making a comprehensive overview of 104 monumental years of photography and cinematography. It is laid out chronologically from a daguerreotype outfit sold in 1840 to the raising of Old Glory at Iwo Jima in 1944. Included are more than 20 cameras and 60 photographs from names that are synonymous with memorable photography.

The exhibit starts at the beginning of photography in the U.S.A. with a daguerreotype outfit sold in 1840 to Samuel Bemis a Boston dentist who had acquired a serious interest in photography. This is believed to be the first camera sold commercially in the US. Documentation on exhibit proves it was sold by a Francois Gouraud who had traveled to this country to promote the new process. This huge camera is displayed along with the first photograph made by it and the original bill of sale for $76, a considerable sum of money at this time.

The expanded Archive Building, which opened on the 150th anniversary of the birth of photography in 1989, is a three-level 73,000 square foot which enables the museum to properly display and inventory their vast holdings. Two of the three levels are underground and each storage space has individual temperature and humidity controls best suited for long-term storage of the rare and valuable contents.

Mathew Brady's Civil War era portraits of Generals Custer and Ulysses S. Grant are shown by his Sliding Box Plate camera of 1860. Early motion pictures are represented by Billy Bitzer's Mutograph 35mm motion picture camera (1898) that was used to film Birth of a Nation in 1915 starring Mary Pickford. In fact, her signature can be seen in the wood on the top of the camera. Displayed nearby are publicity stills of this historical film. One of Alfred Stieglitz's cameras and lens are shown with photos he took of Georgia O'Keeffe. You better appreciate the simplicity of easily making full color photographs by just clicking a shutter today when you see the bulky one-shot color camera that exposed three 9x12cm plates at once. This was what was needed in the 1930s to make color portraits of movie stars Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, and Elizabeth Taylor. One of the most famous images of WWII was that of Old Glory being raised at Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima, near it is the 4x5 Speed Graphic that Joe Rosenthal used to make the picture.

Inside Out Exhibition. Another concurrent exhibit that will run through March 2000 is titled "Inside Out: 50 Years of Collecting." This most interesting array spotlights 210 images from the George Eastman House collections showing how photography and the hobby of collecting have intermingled since the advent of photography in 1839. Images include daguerreotypes, albumen prints, tintypes, and gelatin silver prints. Diverse subjects represented include: tourists viewing Niagara Falls (1855); the execution of the conspirators of the Abraham Lincoln assassination (1865); the very first photograph of lightning (1885); the 1906 San Francisco earthquake; the Hindenburg disaster (1937); troops storming Omaha Beach on D-Day (1944); and a color image of Saturn from NASA (1980).

One of the approximately 3500 French-plate daguerreotypes in the vast collection is this 1850 view of a horse-drawn sleigh in Geneva, New York.

Therese Mulligan curator of photography at George Eastman House arranged these images on view in six categories. "All Things Under the Sun" shows how photography has the capacity to create a universal collection of things both familiar and unknown. It surveys photographs past and present of curiosities, inventions, and discoveries that stimulate the imagination. "An Art of Its Own" expands on how photographers through the years have attempted to raise the status of the medium to that of other visual arts.

"Artful Science" shows how photography since its beginning has been indispensable in scientific inquiry. "Collecting the World" depicts how photography was merely one of many inventions that assisted in the amazing progress of the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century and the subsequent Technology Revolution of the 20th century.

"Private and Public Lives" vividly depicts how photography has penetrated every facet of life as we know it, with no respect to social class, age, or gender. It is the prime method individuals utilize to collect and preserve personal memories of their family and times.

Finally "Public Eye" shows how photography has become a primary tool of news and entertainment journalism, social reform, and propaganda.

When dry plate films were introduced photography could be done by practically anybody since wet plated no longer had to be coated in a darkroom and immediately exposed and processed. Even so, the hobbyist of 1890-1900 had to have an extensive collection of chemicals and equipment for his makeshift darkroom where developing, printing, and enlarging were done by gaslight.

Expanded Archival Facility. Until 10 years ago most of the exhibition and storage area was located in several above ground additions at the rear and inside of George Eastman's turn-of-the-century mansion just east of downtown Rochester, New York. Storage conditions then were deplorable, often musty since there was no temperature or humidity control which was needed to properly preserve the priceless artifacts.

The overall collection at George Eastman House is massive. There are nearly 600,000 photographic prints and negatives; 6000 films; 3,000,000 movie publicity stills; 11,500 cameras and other necessary items related to photographic and cinematographic technology. There is also a library of 40,000 volumes, all on various aspects of this discipline. Each of the four collections contains a sizeable quantity of "rare" or "one-of-a-kind" items that keeps the museum in the front ranks of other prestigious collections around the world.

The photographic print collection is particularly noted for its historical photographs including many 19th century French and British holdings. In addition, there is the most extensive collection of daguerreotypes found in North America. Naturally, there are many 20th century American prints and negatives. The work of more than 8000 photographers are included in the collection.

The technology collection is based on quality not quantity. Of the more than 11,500 cameras and other pieces of photographic equipment including lenses, viewers, and projectors, the entire evolution of the camera can be seen.

Impressive Eastman Mansion. The large Eastman mansion itself is very interesting to tour. Built in 1905, the 50 room, 35,000 square foot Georgian style mansion is set in 10 acres of landscaped gardens. The original estate included working farmland, nursery greenhouses, and formal flower gardens, but the area surrounding it today is residential. It still ranks as the largest private house ever built in Rochester. The mansion has been restored with about 85 percent of the original furnishings identical to those when Eastman lived there from 1905 to 1932 when he committed suicide.

Although most of the major exhibit space is now located in the recent expansion at the rear of the mansion, second floor galleries in the home document Eastman's life and times and have some interesting displays. Contemporary and classic films are screened in two theaters six times each week with matinee and evening programs. A museum shop by the entrance (which can be visited without paying admission) offers a wide range of merchandise related to the museum's six collections. There is a staff of 100 that runs the museum.

Many interesting historical facts about Eastman came out when Dresden D. Engle, public relations coordinator, escorted me around the mansion. For instance, the name Kodak was coined by George Eastman since the letter "K" was strong and it could be easily pronounced in all languages. It is said to be the second most known brand name after Coca-Cola. Eastman, a former bank clerk, introduced the first Kodak 100 exposure box camera in 1888, which cost $25--a sizeable sum when laborers earned just $1.50 per day. A few years later a pocket version sold for $5 and in 1900 the first of many Brownie cameras came out for only $1. He was a philanthropist giving many gifts to academic institutions such as the University of Rochester, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tuskegee Institute, and music schools.

For further information about George Eastman House and current exhibits, call (716) 271-3361 or write for a brochure to: George Eastman House, 900 East Ave., Rochester, NY 14607. Believe me, this is a museum trip well worth taking.

This one museum showcase displays a myriad of cameras and lenses dating from the 1920s to the early 1980s along with some brochures, books, and posters of the era when each camera was introduced.

Visiting The Underground Storage Vault
To make my most interesting day at George Eastman House even more memorable, I had the privilege of gaining access to and having an hour-long personal tour of the new underground equipment storage vault containing samples of nearly every camera imaginable. Floor to ceiling storage cabinets and a unique elevator-like robotic retrieval storage shelf system with computerized access to where items are stored. This device contains 120 2x3' shelves each of which can hold 200 lbs. It is said to offer 50 percent more storage for the area it occupies. Even so, all areas of the huge vault were bulging at the seams with wonderful old equipment. It was enough to make a photographer drool. Todd Gustavson the Curator of Technology, let me peer into many of the cabinets and pulled out a number of interesting oddities for me to look at. There surely have been a wide and eccentric variety of sizes and types of cameras introduced and marketed worldwide. This seems especially true around the turn of the century whenever smaller and more portable cameras were the major new items marketed to whet early photographer's purse strings and seemingly insatiable appetite for something different to record images for posterity.

As would be expected, there is an extensive archive of old Kodak products of all sizes, many with the original boxes, which makes them even more valuable. I learned that early Kodak Brownie box cameras all have two finders, but the Hawkeye has just one. Many counterfeit copies of popular cameras are also in the collection. There are many other samples of items made by the 150-200 different companies based in Rochester that produced photo products through the years. Not only cameras are in the collection, there are also related items needed to produce images in any given era. For instance, for the daguerreotype cameras, there are wooden plate boxes, iodizing boxes, polishing vices, fuming boxes, retouching items, etc.

Many items in the museum's vast camera collection were willed or donated to the museum to keep them accessible to the public. The fabulous collection presently consists of about 11,500 inventoried and cataloged items (about 5000 of which are cameras of all sizes) plus another 3000 items that arrived recently from the Kodak patent collection which are presently being inventoried. If it's photographic, it's here, would be an apt slogan for this remarkable museum that should be on every photographer's must do list.