Art Works Blog

Five Favorites from the George Eastman House

The George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, New York, is perhaps the crown jewel of photography collections in the United States. The Colonial Revival house and surrounding gardens were once home to George Eastman, founder of Kodak, and became a public museum in 1949. The George Eastman House is the world?s oldest photography museum, maintaining a collection of 400,000 photographs by 9,000 photographers.

The Eastman House?s still photography collection includes a significant selection of photographs by Alfred Stieglitz and portraits by Julia Margaret Cameron?s, while the motion picture collection includes the personal film collection of Martin Scorsese and a large and diverse assortment of silent films. Scorsese, an active supporter of the museum, noted, ?George Eastman House is at the forefront of what I consider to be one of the most important tasks of our time---the preservation of film as a part of our national heritage.?

For the more three-dimensionally oriented, the Eastman House is home to an extensive technology collection, including the largest collection of American cameras anywhere. You can check out a lunar orbiter camera developed in 1966 for NASA, an 18th-century camera obscura, or the only example of a Giroux daguerreotype camera in the country.

The George Eastman House has two special exhibitions on display this summer. Norman Rockwell: Behind the Camera explores the connection between the acclaimed artist?s work and the photographs from which he drew inspiration. Americana: Hollywood and the American Way of Life showcases a variety of publicity stills from movies such as It?s a Wonderful Life and Junior Miss. Both exhibits close September 18, 2011.

I have selected five of my favorite objects from the George Eastman House collection to share.

Joe Rosenthal, Old Glory Goes Up on Mt. Suribachi, Iwo Jima, 1945, Gelatin silver print, 34.5 x 26.7 cm, George Eastman House Collection.
Anniversary Speed Graphic Camera used by AP?s Joe Rosenthal to photograph the Flag Raising at Iwo Jima, 1940, George Eastman House Collection.

I have seen this photograph before---in history textbooks, reprinted in magazines and museums---yet I knew little about the man behind the camera or the camera itself. In February 1945 photographer Joe Rosenthal captured this timeless image of six American soldiers raising an American flag atop Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima. Rosenthal?s photograph actually documents the second flag to be raised on that day---the smaller, first flag was claimed by the Secretary of the Navy as a souvenir. Rosenthal?s image was sent home and immediately picked up by news outlets across the country; the image has since been reprinted countless times as postage stamp and poster, among other uses. The Anniversary Speed Graphic Camera that Joe Rosenthal used to take this Pulitzer Prize-winning image is also part of the collection at the George Eastman House.

Alvin Langdon Coburn, Portrait of Mark Twain Reading in Bed, 1905, Negative, Gelatin on nitrocellulose roll film, 9x12 cm, George Eastman House Collection.

Did you know Mark Twain was born Samuel Langhorne Clemens? Better known by his pen name, Twain was one of America?s most prominent 19th-century literary figures and his novels, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, remain popular and relevant today. I love that this is not a typical portrait: Twain is lying down, not looking at the camera, wearing his robe, totally lost in the world of his book. The Eastman House recently completed the restoration of the first film adaptation of Huckleberry Finn (1920).  You can watch a selection of other rare films restored by the George Eastman House here, or catch one at the museum?s Dryden Theatre.

Lewis W. Hine, Laying Beams, Empire State Building Construction, 1931, Gelatin silver print, 9.3 x 12.0 cm, George Eastman House Collection.

Stunningly beautiful yet slightly terrifying, Lewis Hine?s photographs of the construction of the Empire State building bring to life the beauty, bravery, and brains behind the iconic skyscraper. Both workers and the photographer went to great heights---and danger---to make both these spectacular photographs and the construction of this groundbreaking building possible. At 102 stories, the Empire State Building was the tallest ever built at the time, and Hine?s photos present the striking narrative of a building coming to life.

Eugène Atget, Boutique Jouets, 1910-11, Silver printing-out paper print, 22.8 x 17.8 cm. (trimmed), George Eastman House Collection.

?Paris is always a good idea,? said Audrey Hepburn in the 1954 film Sabrina, and it would seem photographers have long been in agreement. There is just something about Paris---the people, its streets, monuments, and lights---that lends itself to beautiful photographs, and Atget?s snapshot of a toy store window is no exception. I recently spent a few months in Paris and one of my favorite things to do was wander down old, small streets and discover unique shops and cafés, much like this one.

The George Eastman House described Atget?s ability to capture extraordinary images of ordinary life: ?Forced by economics and perhaps by his own nature, Atget concentrated his attention on the unspectacular, the overlooked, and the previously disregarded features of daily life. He photographed the edges and corners of Paris diligently and incessantly until his death in 1927.?

William N. Jennings, Photograph of Lightning, 1882, Gelatin silver print, George Eastman House Collection.

Thunderstorms usually make me want to run for cover---but this image stopped me in my tracks. The first photograph of lightning? Very, very cool. Philadelphia-based amateur photographer William Jennings became the first to document the patterns of lightning in the late 19th century. It?s a simple, beautiful photograph that captures that fleeting moment when lightning strikes and, just for an instant, the trees, nature, your surroundings, become clear.

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