With a “click” of the shutter, camera perched atop a sturdy tripod, and the flick of a dial, the film advances! There’s a roll of Kodak in the camera, black & white, ISO 200. There have to be some labs that still process the stuff, right? Art students must still use it. . .
I recall the hours spent in the darkroom with nostalgic fondness, as if I’m once again hearing the clunky metal rotating door, squinting under the red safety light that won’t ruin my work, and breathing in the distinct and pungent smell of photo-processing chemicals.
As much as I miss capturing images on film, holding onto the delicate strips of negatives and the drippy wet paper, and endlessly cleaning and re-cleaning the plastic darkroom tools of the trade, I’m becoming a bit of a dinosaur. Recently I had to explain to a young photographer, in her early 20s, what film was. . . well, I tried to explain it. It was something I’ve never had the occasion to “teach” before. It wasn’t easy, and I resorted to using Google to search for images of rolls of film, darkrooms, and out of date cameras to show her what I was talking about.
Fortunately, the history of film cameras lives on at the George Eastman Museum, in Rochester, NY. I was delighted to discover signs declaring that in this museum photography is permitted, and even encouraged. Keeping up with the times, and the ubiquitous nature of social media, large scenic backdrops are in place, where visitors are encouraged to take selfies and group photos, then share them using #GEMparks.
Named for entrepreneur, and 1880s Kodak founder, George Eastman, the museum is located on what used to be the Eastman family’s estate. The estate has undergone renovations over the years, and has found its way onto the list of National Historic Landmarks. The museum itself was founded in 1947, is an independent non-profit institution, and has served as educational facility, performance space, archive, conservation center and exhibit space.
On exhibit until October 2nd is “Photography & America’s National Parks”. With a trip to Glacier National Park planned next month, I was very interested in the images of these remarkable places, captured over the years. This year is the National Park Service’s 100th anniversary, so there has been much celebration of this Centennial. History buffs will make slow progress through the exhibits, reading the stories behind the photos, the artists and the places they captured. Tourism exploded with the advent of photography, as Americans were first exposed to wild places they hadn’t dreamed of visiting. Now they could “see” themselves there, through the lens of pioneering photographers.
Some artists were specifically commissioned to spread the message of the grandeur of the National Parks, others were drawn there by the same beauty and untouched wilderness. Iconic images were captured, celebrating the vast differences in the landscape as one travels across the nation. These days you can purchase a National Parks Passport, and chronicle your adventures from one coast to the other. State-by-state portions of the land have been set aside for our appreciation, recreation and preservation. The exhibit does more than chronicle a slice of history. It inspires a continued dedication to keeping these spaces intact and accessible.
Beyond the boom to tourism, as an artist, it was nearly impossible to walk away from the exhibit without an appreciation of nature as art. Intricate visual patterns, textures you could almost feel, and vibrant colors fill the exhibit. As film technology evolved to become less grainy, and the cameras found their way into the hands of more and more artists, viewers of these images were repeatedly drawn in. Those interested in the more technical side of photography will be just as much at home at the museum, with displays of the earliest camera, and generation after generation of the cameras that followed.
Outside of the National Parks exhibit there is so much more to the museum complex. A café awaits those who come to the museum for an evening film showing, or music concert. A gift shop at the entrance sells everything under the sun in the shape of a camera, film reel, lens or tripod, including coffee mugs, Christmas ornaments, postcards, thumb tacks and backpacks. For someone in the midst of a Minimalist challenge, donating and eliminating excess clutter, it was a struggle to walk away with only memories and photos of this artistic center.
At the other end of the museum, the Eastman home itself is stunning, on display as it would have been when the family lived there. There is a mix of elegant furnishings, well-preserved decorative items, and places to dine quite formally or relax casually with a pipe and a brandy. A large greenhouse-style atrium opens up to skylights, and the otherwise bright and lively space comes complete with a rather large elephant head on display, as a trophy. Greenery and artwork with a botanical theme bring the outside world indoors.
Kodak’s slogan was “You press the button, we do the rest.” There’s a bit more to it than that, and on the second floor of the Eastman home is an Educational Hands-On Interactive Exhibit. Visitors, both children and adults alike, are implored to touch! “Everything in the Discovery Room is meant to be explored and played with.” the sign on the wall reads.
With little time left to explore, before the museum closed for the night, I came upon the Discovery Room. I decided there was time to make a “Sun” Print, but the white haired security guard who’d worked there for decades was hovering. To ease the tension I chatted with him, asking if he thought my print was ready to pull from the water. He admitted that in all the years he’d worked there he’d never made one, and didn’t really now much about it. I explained the process, and we finished up together.
Outside, behind the family home, is an elaborate garden that has been restored to replicate, as closely as possible, the design, colors and plant varieties that would have been on display when George Eastman entertained guests there. Today there are music performances in the courtyard, surrounded by well manicured lawns, fragrant seasonal flowers, and fountains busy bubbling away, with a cheerful sound that invites you to linger. The only shade in sight is under a long covered corridor, supported by evenly spaced columns. Seated on a stone bench, I’m able to relax, cool down, and listen in on the tail end of a tour of the home and grounds.
It might be surprising to learn that I only had 2 hours at the museum. I arrived after work, close to closing time. Given more time, I would have slowed my pace in order to make sure I didn’t miss anything. It would have been a beautiful day to pack a picnic lunch, sit in the gardens, and catch up on some reading of this month’s book club selection. The café stayed open past the museum hours, so I was able to enjoy a cup of coffee and look through the selection of art books available for purchase. I own a few of them already, and again, since I’m minimizing, I made note of the titles, to search for at my local library.
I’ll definitely return, given the chance. It’s the oldest photography museum in the world, after all. Even if I weren’t so interested in photography, I’d be taken in by the man behind the museum. The write-up at the entrance to the museum reads: “During his life George Eastman donated more than $100 million to educational and arts institutions, public parks, hospitals, dental clinics, and charitable organizations around the world.. . His bequests encouraged education, appreciation of the arts, and expansion of medical services in our community.” An entrepreneur and a philanthropist, Eastman will be remembered far beyond Rochester, NY and far beyond the world of photography.
His Death and Legacy: “An avid cyclist, Eastman noticed a progressive immobility, the result of a degenerative condition that involved a hardening of the cells in the lower spinal cord. He also suffered from sever diabetes. So on March 14th, 1932, at age 77, he took his own life with a single gunshot to the heart. A note he left said, “My work is done. Why wait?” (biography.com)
Join me on my next adventure!
National Parks Service Centennial: http://www.nationalparks.org/our-work/celebrating-100-years-service
George Eastman: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Eastman
Glacier National Park: https://www.nps.gov/glac/index.htm
George Eastman Museum: https://eastman.org/