NSG Visit May 22, 1999
International Museum of
Photography & Film
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
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
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
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.