Yesterday I visited the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film. Someone that I know once called George Eastman “the big yellow father.” And he is! If the name George Eastman doesn’t sound familiar, the name Kodak probably does. George Eastman invented roll film and changed photography forever by making it accessible to the general public. Kodak’s slogan in the early days was: “You push the button, we do the rest.” Many people regard him as the father of consumer photography. I visited the museum once as a student, but it was wonderful to go back as an adult and see it again. I got a lot more out of it this time!
First we were given a tour of George Eastman’s mansion. He was a hunter and a music enthusiast in addition to being an amateur photographer. All of his passions are apparent in his house, especially his love of hunting and going on safari. The elephant bust in the sitting room was a real elephant back when old George lived here, but it was taken down and replaced with a fake one when the house was turned into a museum.
George Eastman was never married (although our tour guide assured us that he had plenty of female company), and his mother lived with him. I enjoyed browsing the items in her closet and bathroom immensely. I imagine that she was a very classy woman.
And, of course, everywhere you look in the house you find old Kodak cameras and paraphernalia, as well as other vintage items. I was in heaven!
In addition to a house tour, we were also given a small tour of the archives. The George Eastman House keeps archives of images created with different photographic processes and buy out large collections of images when the price is right or the subjects or photographers are too good to turn down. One of the archivists took us down to one of their work rooms and showed us 10 prints from their massive collection. All of them were just in mats without glass, so it was a unique opportunity.
I saw a Julia Margaret Cameron albumen print of Sir John Hershel (he invited cyanotypes and fixer, among other things). It was such an engaging photograph. It had so much emotion and energy! I’ve admired Julia Margaret Cameron since I first learned about her as a student. It’s such an inspiration to see her work up close and without glass!
They had also brought out 2 massive prints of the Hotel De Ville in Paris. One showed the building before the war and one showed it after, so that you could compare the two and understand the scale of the damage. They were contact printed from glass negatives, which would have been an amazing amount of work! The detail in them was unbelievable!
And they showed us a large daguerrotype, which was the very first photographic process. Most daguerrotypes are quite small – usually the size of a business card or post card – but this one was larger than 8×10! Daguerrotypes are always amazing to look at. They’re prints that are made directly onto a polished silver plate, so they’re actually negatives, not positives, but the way that the glass plate reflects light they look like positives. They also look almost 3D! The archivist talked about the fact that they seem to have more of a sense of the person in them than other images made with negatives, because with these daguerrotypes the plate that you’re looking at was actually in the room with those people and their energy.
We also saw an Ansel Adams print. I’ve seen his work before when the Art Gallery of Ontario had an exhibition, but I’ve never seen it out of glass! The piece that we saw showed a mountain range with snowy evergreen trees in the valley and dark, wispy clouds in the sky. The dynamic range of that image was unbelievable. And the detail in his images was stunning as well. He also did most of his work through contact printing (he would press the negative right against the paper to expose it, rather than using an enlarger), which meant that he had to take massive box cameras with him when he went on his hikes. Imagine!