Getting the shot: Rochester and its High Falls

THE GENESEE RIVER RUNS THROUGH THE MIDDLE OF ROCHESTER, and while there are plenty of cities with a river or two, few of them have a spectacular waterfall in the center of town. I’ve wanted to photograph the High Falls since I heard about them, so this was my first stop after getting off the train.

The Genesee gave Rochester the gift of industry – for the flour mills first, and then hydroelectric power when its boomtown growth was extended with manufacturing and the explosive growth of Kodak at the turn of the 20th century. It’s why the city crowds up against the High Falls and straddles it with bridges. You can tell much of Rochester’s story from the falls, so the city provides a helpful walking tour.


Beer tasting flight at the Genesee Brew House, with the High Falls in the background

My High Falls shoot begins at a table on the balcony of the Genesee Brew House with a view of the falls. Genesee Beer has been part of Rochester since 1878, and when the company was bought by new owners in 2012, they decided to capitalize on the historic brand by opening a restaurant and a gift shop in one of the brewery’s old buildings to celebrate its history.

James Montanus meets me here for drinks and dinner. Montanus is a Kodak kid like me, but his father, Neil, had a much more glamorous job at the company than my mom in the coating rooms in the Toronto factory. Neil Montanus was one of Kodak’s principal photographers, hired to shoot portraits before moving on to virtually every other type of photography, from underwater work to the massive Colorama photo murals that the company displayed in Grand Central Station.


James Montanus and the High Falls

After a career in marketing, James joined the family business and specializes in shooting his hometown, so he’s the right companion for my High Falls shoot. We enjoy a tasty dinner and a sample flight of Genesee beers then head out on to the Pont De Rennes bridge, just outside the Brew House, to get the classic shot of the falls with most of the city’s skyscrapers in the background.

The sun is just starting to set, and James tells me how, at the height of summer, the sun will be almost directly behind our backs. I notice that James is using his tripod, so I decide to see if I can use a longer shutter speed to get the water in motion over the falls. I use the railing of the bridge to stabilize my camera and am lucky enough to get a freight train crossing behind the falls when I hit the shutter. (I also make a mental note: Buy a travel tripod.)


High Falls and freight train

James motions for us to move off the bridge and over to a viewing platform to our left, where we can get a view of the falls and the older downtown with the Kodak Tower dominating the skyline. By now the sun is starting to set and magic hour begins, bathing the scene in warm light.


James tells me that his favorite time of the year to shoot the falls is in the winter, which has its challenges. “The wind whips out of the northwest and blows the freezing spray from the falls into your face and onto the front of your lens,” he says. “But when the wind isn’t blowing, it can be beautiful.”

“During winter, the sun moves to a position where sunsets can be viewed directly over the falls. This is my favorite time of year to shoot the falls – usually at dusk, but night shots can be dramatic as well with parts of the city skyline in the background.”

I notice that Rochesterians (Rochesterites?) are remarkably blasé about the High Falls. There’s a Middle and a Lower Falls as well, downriver, and they have their own natural beauty, but there’s something about this urban waterfall that I find arresting even after I spend two hours shooting it as many ways as I can, including close-ups of the water tumbling over the edge.

James Montanus is lucky to have this dramatic scenery literally right in his backyard, and I imagine that almost any city would be immensely improved with a waterfall within walking distance of its office towers and restaurants. The evening has provided a spectacular sunset as well, and as we start packing up our gear, I notice those other two icons of Rochester, the Kodak Tower and the Genesee Beer sign, silhouetted by the setting sun. Two more for Instagram, I say to myself as I snap a few last shots in the fading light.

Rick McGinnis was hosted by Visit Rochester, which didn’t approve or review this story.

Photos and story © 2018 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved