Rochester, NY: The George Eastman Museum

The final stop on our trip to upstate New York was Rochester, home of the George Eastman Museum. One of the curators at work had just been there to do research a few weeks before and had recommended it to me, and I also wanted to see Mount Hope Cemetery, where Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass are buried (along with 350,000 other people). So after fortifying ourselves with very delicious waffles from Funk ‘N Waffles in Syracuse (I can highly recommend the banana bread waffle), we made tracks for Rochester.

 

The museum was very large from the outside, consisting of a theatre building, the museum building, and George Eastman’s former mansion, so I was expecting the inside to be huge! However, it wasn’t quite what I was anticipating. Admission was $15, and I’m not sure if it was because the site was undergoing construction at the time of our visit, but there didn’t seem to be quite as many galleries as the exterior would have implied, and virtually no permanent collections on display, which was a surprise. Because Eastman was the founder of Kodak, I was expecting the museum to have more of a comprehensive history of photography, and it didn’t really. But let me tell you about what actually was there.

 

Because the museum building solely has temporary displays, almost nothing that we saw is still there, save for Tanya Marcuse’s “Woven”, which was a collection of photographs of leaves and other things taken from nature. Her pieces were actually quite cool and tapestry like, but it was a small gallery, so it didn’t take very long to see (and by the way, I hope you appreciate the fact that there are photos in this post, since my brother took photos there with his fancypants camera (so I didn’t bother to take many photos with my phone) that I then had to spend the subsequent two months asking him to send to me. He finally did the day before this post was published).

 

The museum does admittedly have a History of Photography gallery, but it is only one room, and also has changing themed exhibitions of artefacts taken from the permanent collections. At the time of our visit, it was all about the moon, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11. There were some very cool images in here, but we didn’t spend as much time as we would have liked due to some very annoying fellow visitors. We tried coming here right after entering the museum, but it was full of a very noisy tour group, so we decided to come back later. But when we returned, there were a couple in there who were basically shouting at each other about the photos, and then a tour guide came in, and they shouted questions at her too. So irritating. There was also a display of historical cameras in here, which I suspect is probably here all the time, but I didn’t spend much time looking at them because I couldn’t wait to get away from the shouty people.

 

This meant we headed to the special exhibition pretty quickly, which took up all of the museum’s main galleries. This was “The Art of Warner Bros. Cartoons,” which wasn’t necessarily photography related, but obviously did relate to moving images, etc. I had mixed feelings about this going in. I absolutely loved the classic Looney Tunes growing up, and spent many a Saturday morning happily watching them. But then there was some weird Warner Bros. revival in the mid-90s, where everyone got obsessed with Taz and got lame tattoos of him, and it just kind of put me off. There’s also all those wartime cartoons that Warner Bros. produced that are hella racist. But this exhibition reminded me of all the good things about the classic cartoons, and I was quite happy to stand and watch some of the best ones, which were being projected on screens throughout the exhibit.

 

The exhibit mainly featured the cartoons themselves and a lot of animation cels, along with captions explaining how each character evolved over time. For example, Elmer Fudd was originally called “Egghead,” yet bizarrely, had hair at that time, and also simply wanted Bugs for a pet, rather than to shoot him. Porky Pig is the oldest continuing Looney Tunes character, and he went from being a child to an adult, and from being Bugs’s antagonist to sometimes being on his side, though those cartoons where Porky was hunting never made any sense to me. Why would a pig hunt a rabbit? My favourite Looney Tunes were always the ones with the monsters in them, like Witch Hazel and the Big Red Monster, who is apparently named Gossamer. We both really enjoyed this exhibit, and also the fun photo ops throughout (especially appreciated because you weren’t allowed to photograph any of the animation cels).

  

These exhibitions were all that was in the main museum building, but we still had to visit Eastman’s mansion. This was an attractive Colonial Revival building accessed by cutting through the garden behind the museum. The building itself is interesting because Eastman decided to enlarge the conservatory about fifteen years after the house was built, but he didn’t want to ruin the symmetry of the house so his architect cut the house in half, jacked up half of it and moved it forward 9 feet on tracks, a process that took three months. This should give you some indication of how much money Eastman had to burn.

 

The house itself was nice, but nothing really stood out in way of decoration except for the pipe organ. If I had one in my house, I would definitely wake guests up every morning by playing some kind of Phantom of the Opera music, and I swear there was a sign that mentioned Eastman doing something similar, though I can’t find proof of it! This was the only place in the museum where there was biographical information about Eastman himself, and he seems to have been an intriguing man. He never married, but had a long-term platonic relationship with a woman with the unfortunate name of Josephine Dickman. The museum did seem to be implying that Eastman might have been gay, and based on the evidence that does seem likely, but I’m not about to posthumously out someone. He gave to a number of philanthropic causes which strangely included both dental clinics for underprivileged children and historically black colleges, but also the American Eugenics Society. So in some ways he was kind of a shit, but in others not. He killed himself at the age of 77 as he had developed a number of degenerative health conditions and didn’t want to lose control over his own body. His suicide note, which was inside the house (in facsimile form), read, “To my friends, my work is done – Why wait?”

 

On a less depressing note, the house was also home to an interactive room probably intended for children that included a giant zoetrope and a room sized camera obscura (the earliest form of camera, basically a pinhole in a darkened room that projects an upside down image of whatever’s outside inside the room) and one forlorn room at the back of the second floor that (finally!) had some information about the history of Kodak. Other than the rooms downstairs, which you could peek into, the rest of the house is used as a research room accessible by appointment only, so we headed back to the main museum building.

 

There is of course a shop with some pretty good camera themed merchandise, and a small cafe that we did not visit. Although it wasn’t at all what I had expected, I really enjoyed myself, though I probably could have done with some more examples of early photography, which is what I had been hoping to see. Because the exhibitions have changed now, your experience will be different from mine, but hopefully it will still be worth the visit! I also have to mention the car that was parked outside during our visit, which is apparently not Eastman’s (per the sign attached to it), but belongs to a member of staff. Based on the sign and the skeleton astride the car, I suspect we’d get along. 3.5/5 for the museum.

 

We did also briefly visit Mount Hope Cemetery, and it was a bit too manicured and sunny for my tastes, but still worth seeing, though the map I found online wasn’t much help when it came to actually finding the graves of famous burials (I only managed to find Susan B. Anthony). We were disappointed in our quest to find ice cream in Rochester when the pretentious chocolate shop downtown only had the grossest of flavours (fig and wine? Blech!), but we did manage to grab excellent doughnuts outside Buffalo at Paula’s Donuts, which were a sweet end to our road trip, and helped keep us from starving to death when stuck in traffic most of the way back.

17 comments

  1. I would have expected more photography. But the good news for me is that the annoying visitors you encountered have now seen it so they probably won’t be there if I visit.

    1. I know! I overheard some guy telling his wife that the house had been moved as we were about to go in, and it honestly sounded like he was making it up until I read the story for myself! I think I would have just built an extension, symmetry be damned!

  2. Jessica, if we wind up in the same nursing home one day, I’m making sure they don’t let you anywhere near the organ!😆

    I thought this an excellent review. You’ve whet my appetite for a visit to upstate New York.

    1. I’m not naturally an early riser though, so it is probably far more likely I would annoy guests (or fellow nursing home residents) by playing late into the night rather than waking them up in the morning. Since I really hate having guests, this might help to drive them away!
      And thanks!

  3. Never made it to the museum during my years in upstate NY. It’s been on my list (hubby is a big photography fan and has a collection of old cameras). Thanks for your info-I’ll definitely make sure to check on the current exhibit before we go. Without your heads up, I would definitely have been disappointed with the lack of historic stuff.

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