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NSG Visit May 22, 1999

International Museum of
Photography & Film


Donovan A. Shilling

Rays of bright Spring sunshine shone pleasantly through high gallery windows warming fifteen members of the New Society of the Genesee. It was Saturday, May 22, 1999, and the small crowd of history explorers were gathered in the tall, two-story entrance atrium to the International Museum of Photography and Film which is connected to the George Eastman House. This unique museum at 900 East Avenue in Rochester is celebrating its 50th Anniversary this year.

The Society's guide was Grant Romer, distinguished Director of Conservation and a member of the museum's staff for over a quarter of a century. Grant graciously greeted us, remarking that he'd been a part of the Eastman House for as many years as Mr. Eastman himself had lived in it.

Eastman retained fourteen servants in his house and another fourteen as grounds-keepers, chauffeurs, and handymen. He left his grand residence to the University of Rochester as a home for its presidents. Evidently the families of the university presidents found the house too large for comfortable living or tastes and living styles had changed. Not only was the mammoth African elephant head discarded and some furniture set out on the curb (neighbors saved much of it; many pieces have come back), but also the university replaced molded-plaster ceilings, and filled in the outside reflecting pool. At the end of World War II, the house, no longer wanted by the university, became the ward of the Kodak Company who with ardent encouragement from prominent Rochester individuals refurbished the house and opened it as a museum to show George Eastman's collections in Rochester, rather than letting them go to the Smithsonian as had been considered.

The photographic museum addition, built in 1989, is behind the original residence and not noticeable from East Avenue. It has more than 75,000 square feet of exhibit floor and underground storage space for the print and film collections.

Mr. Romer took us first to the North Gallery, which is titled "Through the Lens." Here he showed us a photographic image, valued at $10,000, of Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre, father of photography. The discovery or invention of photography was first announced in Paris in January, 1839, and proclaimed to be a "spontaneous act of chemistry and light."

By 1840 Rochester had its own photographic galleries where portraits were made by lengthy exposures of rigidly held poses. Also exhibited in this gallery is the earliest photo of Rochester, dating to 1852, showing the intersection of State and West Main Streets. There were other early images produced by different photograhic processes. Grant remarked that probably ninety percent of the 19th-century photographs have been destroyed. However, after our tour it seemed as though the Eastman House Museum has recovered a good share of what is left.

"New Treasures" was the title given the contents of the South Gallery exhibiting recent museum acquisitions. Behind a series of glass cases were many of George Eastman's belongings: a dressing table, a fly-fishing reel, cigarette lighter, and shotgun. And, in wall displays, there was a wide assortment of items to which photographic images had been added. Among the objects to which photos had been affixed were, a spoon bowl, a vase (with photo applied), a pillow to which thirty cyanotype images had been sewn, a half-tone reproduction in a walnut shell and other less esoteric items such as an identification badge. Along with these photographic novelties was a wonderful photograph of Eastman's employees assembled at an early firm outing. Taken with a "circuit camera," the photo was over a yard wide. Mr. Romer suggested that the museum's collections represented both "the attic and the basement of the Kodak Company."

Heavy, floor-to-ceiling glass panels circle the Mees Gallery. Here, jam-packed together were hundreds upon hundreds of photo-related "treasures" that were tangible reminders of the evolution of photography. The rear wall of the gallery presented an immense mish-mash of cameras, (one of our party spotted the Brownie Starflash, she'd had one) film packages, brochures, advertising flyers, colorful Kodak ads and candid-camera photos. Here too, Grant pointed out the world's first film video cassette It was dated 1919.

At this juncture Mr. Romer excused himself to travel to RIT's graduation ceremonies where several of his photography students were receiving degrees. We had only skimmed the surface of what was available to visitors at this point. Within the building complex were the sub-level repositories of vintage photographs and fragile, early films and a vast collection of old motion picture film and related material, as well as the restored rooms of George Eastman's residence. Outside, dazzling sunshine beckoned all to the delightful terrace and west gardens, the rock garden, grape arbor and reflecting pool all enhancing the broad lawns surrounding the museum.

Back inside is a diminutive tea room for those who wanted, as we did, hot tea and freshly baked scones. Patrons could pick their own tea cups from an assortment of more than two dozen filling an antique sideboard. Small, fat-bellied pots of hot cinnamon spice and green tea were served by a cheery waitress. The heart-shaped scones came on fancy plates with a thick slice of orange and a small metal cup holding spicy apple butter.

Following this treat society members drove to the historic Spring House for a pleasant lunch with plenty of time to hear about the latest endeavors of the individual Society members. For some a trip to Rochester's Lilac Festival was next on the agenda. It was a great day.

© 1999, Donovan A. Shilling
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