I became a photography nut rather recently, with my purchase of a Canon ELPH. My previous digital camera was rather bulky for such a basic device (no extra lenses or anything), which meant it came out only for special occasions: traipsing through foreign cities, touring Disney World, weddings. Day-to-day sights I marveled at remained only in my memory. Nowadays, I keep my tiny camera in my messenger bag or tuck it in my pants pocket. Slowly I have been replacing cheap purchased prints with framed 8x10s of my own photographs. They may be far from professional, but they’re real.
When considering the museum/gallery options in Rochester, New York, the George Eastman House
was a no-brainer. Fortunately, I know my industrial history well enough to recognize his name... But I wonder how many high school seniors outside Western New York have any idea who founded Kodak.
Thursday (Sept 28) was a miserable day in Rochester. The rain started around eight and continued throughout the day, teasing us with interludes of calm between torrents. Normal Girl had the rental car and was making her rounds at area high schools. The front desk at the Marriott ordered me a taxi.
My driver was jovial. He told me all about how his wife (she’s 62) wouldn’t get to take her walk (she walks three miles every day, you know) on account of the rain. He noted that he would be lucky to walk one mile. He has been driving a cab twenty years (he’s about to turn 65). Though born and raised in Rochester, he has never visited the George Eastman House. He figures it must be good, though, since he takes a lot of people there.
East Avenue is one of the more scenic roads in the city, presumably once the wealthy part of town. Several other museums, including the Rochester Museum and Science Center are on this road, and had it been sunny, I would surely have wandered it sidewalks. Oh well.
I arranged for Butch (real name) to pick me up after two hours. It made me nervous to have a deadline like that, but it was better than standing in the rain. I’ve learned that calling a cab in a city that doesn’t have many of them can be a nasty ordeal, characterized by many elongated minutes of frustrated pacing.
Upon arriving, I learned the museum comprises two parts: a photography museum and the actual mansion George Eastman called home. I started with the museum.
The front room of the museum hosted an exhibition of Pete Turner’s color photography, Pete Turner: Empowered by Color
. It blew me away.
For examples of his work, you should check out his website
. The colors are more vivid than anything you can imagine, and the Internet does not do them justice. My favorite piece, “Push,” depicts a yellow trash barrel on a white sand beach
. It derives its title from the word embossed on the red door of the barrel’s cap.”Giraffe” (1967)
, his most famous piece, features the eponymous beast in motion on what appears to be the shore, the sky beyond him fiercely red. It raised quite a stir when displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York... I can see why.
Across the hall, a dozen glass cases held 19th century wet plate cameras, ornate teakwood cameras, the actual Speed Graphic used by Joe Rosenthal at Iwo Jima, a Technicolor motion picture camera, and dozens of varying models of the “Brownie” (the model Kodak built its reputation around).
[The cynical part of me expected to find the display limited to the Kodak brand, but I was pleasantly surprised.]
Some of the more elaborate cameras were most intriguing:
- A decorative box lined with pink felt, mirror on the inside of the lid, lipstick and a compact in their places, and mounted on a hinge, a small camera. (Why?)
- A revolver holding film in place of bullets. That this was described as a “spy” camera rather flummoxed me. Nobody would be suspicious if, instead of pulling a box camera from your coat, you tugged a revolver from your belt, pointed it across the room, and pulled the trigger. Ingenious idea.
- A reconnaissance camera to be mounted on the underbelly of a plane had a propeller on its butt, which I dismissed as silly until reading the placard, which explained that it was there to power the camera, like a miniature windmill.
In the next gallery, “Why Look at Animals?”
runs until January. It takes that simple question and answers it several different ways: because they’re part of our family, because they’re funny, because they’re beautiful, etc. Each answer is flanked by examples, many of them dated before 1900. It turns out that some of the people who could afford photography in the 1860s held their puppies in high regard.
The second half of this special exhibit took the question and provided various avant-garde responses.Harri Kallio’s
unusual dodo series features “life-sized” models of the extinct bird placed, as if living, in its original habitat (Mauritius). Dodos gather on the beach, in the jungle... Interesting, if creepy.
I was, admittedly, freaked out by Chip Simons’
series of people wearing bunny heads and carrying giant carrots.Rebecca Norris Webb’s
“The Glass Between Us” was especially powerful. These photos feature animals in captivity, but the glass reflects the gawking masses. For example: a young girl super-imposed on a captive chimpanzee. One photo stopped me in my tracks: a giraffe pressing his lips to two-dimensional leaves painted on a two-dimensional tree painted in a two-dimensional savannah. Wow.
In the hall outside the exhibit room, the staff assembled a community response exhibit, where real people had photographed their real pets. An interesting idea, but I opted to proceed into the mansion.
The George Eastman House (the mansion part)
Once you have visited Newport, Rhode Island, your definition of mansion sharpens. Visit the Hearst Castle in California, the Biltmore Estate in Asheville (NC), Versailles in France, and you really start to expect a lot from your mansions. Compared to those palaces, I see why they call it the George Eastman House
. This isn’t to say that it isn’t a little “m” mansion; it is a lovely home, with many lavish touches. The hidden player organ in the conservatory was worth a glance, and the stuffed elephant head, harvested from one of Eastman’s African safaris is impressive.
Fortunately, the purpose of the house is not is to observe opulence (unlike those other big “m” Mansions), but to learn about how Eastman came into his business. In this effort, the house succeeds.
Did you know there was a major effort by leading businessmen (spearheaded by Mr. Eastman) to change the calendar into 13 28-day months? Or that Kodak actually operated according to this calendar until 1989? Yup, it’s true.
Did you know that rumors of Eastman’s possible homosexuality are so rampant that there is almost an entire room devoted to the matter? It’s even part of the Frequently Asked Questions
on the website.
The strangest single piece in the entire house, however, has to be the suicide note. Yes, the actual
suicide note, scrawled in nearly illegible blue ink on a piece of standard wide-ruled notebook paper:
To my friends, My work is done, why wait? GE
Somehow it struck me as odd that the actual note was there before our eyes. It didn’t seem right.
Gift Shop and Café
I will say this about the café: when I pulled a bag of potato chips from the wicker basket, there was a dust bunny attached to the plastic. Seriously.
The hot food looked okay, but after seeing that dust bunny, I opted for hunger.
The gift shop, on the other hand, is exceptional. The various novelty cameras were especially fun to look at. You can buy disposable cameras that will take eight simultaneous images, or place four consecutive shots onto a single negative, produce three-dimensional images... Very cool.
When it’s all said and done, I bestow a Qualified Recommendation on the George Eastman House: it’s worth a visit if you find yourself in Rochester with a spare 90 minutes, but I would not go out of my way for it.
I would keep my eye on the forthcoming travel calendar for Pete Turner: Empowered by Color. If it rolls into your town and you don’t see it, shame on you.