A Photographer’s Pilgrimage to the George Eastman Museum

THE GEORGE EASTMAN MUSEUM IS MECCA FOR PHOTOGRAPHERS. There are plenty of must-see photography museums in the world – the ICP in New York City, the Fondation Cartier-Bresson in Paris, Antwerp’s FoMu, Foam in Amsterdam – but Eastman House, as it was known until three years ago, has the distinction of being a historical site crucial to the history of photography, in addition to being the home to a peerless collection of photography and gear.

I am a Kodak kid; my family worked for the company at their Canadian plant since the 1920s, and I grew up within sight of the Mount Dennis factory on Photography Drive, now demolished. So Rochester and George Eastman loomed large, long before I had a camera or took my first picture.


Mark Osterman with vintage view camera at George Eastman Museum

I had wanted to visit Rochester and the Eastman Museum for years, but what finally got me there was the work being done by Mark Osterman and his wife France Scully Osterman at their collodion.org website. Devotees of vintage photographic processes, they shoot work and teach classes in tintype and albumen and ambrotype and a dozen other processes that became rarer and rarer after George Eastman began his popular photographic revolution.

Mark works at the Eastman as a photographic process historian, teaching classes to photographers who travel to Rochester from all over the world to learn these arcane pre-digital photo processes, in the Eastman’s darkrooms and on field trips to places like the Erie Canal. He also drives his Ford Model T to work every day, and it was the first thing I saw in the parking lot when I arrived at the Eastman that morning. It’s a devotion to the past that requires real commitment.

There is a palpable passion to what people like Mark do at the Eastman, which involves more than just archiving and preserving old work. In a time when photography is made from nothing you can hold in your hands – I’ve seen teenagers turn over old film cameras of mine looking for the LCD screen to preview their images – these classes reconnect us with the science and even magic that surrounded photography at its birth.

Another place full of wonders at the Eastman is the vault overseen by curator Todd Gustavson, who takes care of the museum’s technology collection – over 16,000 pieces of photographic gear spanning the history of the medium from its earliest days of wood and brass and glass to the digital era.


Todd Gustavson with 1926 Ermanox. This is actually how you were supposed to hold it.

I arrive for my tour and pass through several rooms full of tantalizing pieces of equipment sitting on tables and shelves before Todd opens the door to the vault. It’s a big room with shelves that climb to the ceiling, and it takes me a few moments to overcome my awe and start picking out cameras I’d only ever seen in magazines and catalogues.

Todd starts walking me through the aisles. There are shelves of toy cameras, and aerial reconnaissance cameras from several different armies. We walk by a camera built for Skylab, the space station, and on our way to look at a tray full of rare Leicas whose value Todd can only guess, he points at a big old view camera and a Graflex sitting on a shelf. “Those are Stieglitz’s cameras,” he says casually.

It’s hard not to geek out several times a minute, and I found myself particularly transfixed by one shelf of cameras and lenses that Todd admitted weren’t particularly fine pieces of technology, though they once belonged to a photographic hero of mine:

It goes without saying that the photography collection is almost peerless; the museum has several shows running in its galleries, including a room devoted to the history of the medium that features cameras on display along with photos chosen by its curators to illustrate themes. On the day I was there the gallery featured the work of women photographers, and one of the photos on display was Margaret Bourke-White’s shot of the Peck Dam that featured on the cover of the first issue of Life magazine in 1936.

And then there’s the house – a mansion that George Eastman built between 1902 and 1905, after the success of his box Brownie camera turned Kodak into a phenomenon and made him truly wealthy. It’s a vast place, built on a scale that testified to his wealth, with not one but two pipe organs that would be played by a discreetly hidden organist in the morning while Eastman prepared for his day.


George Eastman’s conservatory. The elephant trophy is a replica of an original that was lost.

It has to be understood that Kodak – along with David Sarnoff’s RCA and Hollywood – were the major transformational technology companies of their day. Kodak was like Apple, Rochester was Cupertino and Eastman was Steve Jobs – an executive whose eye for both talent and innovation was the key to his company’s success selling something that people didn’t imagine they wanted or needed a few years before.

So it’s no surprise that the man had eccentricities and demands that either fed or complimented his genius – like the hidden organist, or his surprisingly small and tidy library and inner sanctum. Or the fact that when he decided to enlarge the house by 9 feet and 4 inches in 1919, he had it cut in half across the conservatory and moved with jacks and railroad ties. The cost was more than twice what the house had cost to build just fifteen years earlier – Eastman could have built a whole new house for the price.


George Eastman’s study.

The many holdings of the Eastman are impressive, like the archives of the Technicolor company, which means that Eastman’s vaults contain camera negatives for some of the most important musicals produced by Hollywood golden era, including Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz. One by-product of these holdings is a very Instagramable wall of film chemistry bottles on display in the museum foyer:


Technicolor chemistry in the Eastman foyer

Finally, on the way out of the Eastman (don’t skip the gift shop, which has an incredible selection of photography books at unbeatable prices) I notice a building in the parking lot. A very solid and impressive brick and stone structure with a series of metal doors with the name of Henry Strong, an early investor in George Eastman’s fledgling company, chiseled on the pediment. It’s the former storage space for the museum’s collection of film negatives and prints, including notoriously flammable silver nitrate stock that will decay and burst into flame if improperly stored.


The former Henry Strong Archive building

They’re now housed in climate-controlled vaults in the Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center, fourteen miles from the museum, though the Eastman will showcase a few films every year in their Dryden Theatre for the Nitrate Picture Show – a must-see destination for cineastes around the world. What’s left behind at the museum, however, is one of the most impressive garden sheds you’ll ever see.

Rick McGinnis was hosted by Visit Rochester, which has not approved or reviewed this story.

Photos and story © 2018 Rick McGinnis All Rights Reserved