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.

London: The Photographer’s Gallery – Mass Observation Exhibition


This might seem another somewhat unlikely blogging choice for me, as I think I’ve established that I’m certainly no art critic (well, I WILL critique art, but not in any educated sense, only because I like to complain), and I don’t exactly frequent galleries, but when I read about a Mass Observation exhibit at the Photographer’s Gallery in The Times, I knew I had to see it.

For those of you unfamiliar with Mass Observation (MO), it was a project conceived in Britain in 1937, whereby its members walked the fine line between observing and spying on ordinary people in order to create a profile of quotidian British life.  They used written reports, surveys, and, most importantly for our purposes, photography, to build a picture of the average British citizen.  The project carried on through the war, even though the observers were at some risk of being considered actual spies, and I would imagine that the resulting records are pretty much a dream come true for social historians studying the 20th century.  I only wish something this comprehensive was around centuries ago, though I suppose having to sift through Pepys and Boswell for glimpses of routine existence isn’t the worst thing that could happen.  But even though I’m not a scholar of modern history, I find MO fascinating, and I wanted to learn more.

The Photographer’s Gallery is on Ramilles Street, which is a side street coming off Oxford Street that I’d never noticed before (probably usually too busy gazing into shop windows at things I can’t afford).  The gallery is perched right on the corner, and you kind of can’t miss it.  After confirming with the man at the front desk that entry was free, I bounded up several flights of stairs to check out the exhibition.  (They do have a lift, but I don’t like to take them unless it’s more than 3 or 4 floors up, or I’m with other people, because I feel like I could use the extra exercise.  As my mother would probably say, my legs aren’t broke.)

The full title of the exhibition is “Mass Observation: This is Your Photo,” but it consisted not only of photographs, but of written reports, and some newspaper clippings and magazine articles as well.  Most of the photographs were taken of working class people in Bolton and Blackpool, by Humphrey Spender, but there were a few other themed collections from the revivals of MO in the ’60s and ’80s, including panoramas of circus life and personal objects.  Because I am, at heart, attracted far more to words than pictures, I especially enjoyed the supplemental material, even taking the trouble to squint over the hand-written field reports.  I liked that the observations of strangers were so detailed as to include a description of a woman scratching her right buttock with her right hand (which she had to move shopping to the opposite hand to achieve), though it did make me a little concerned that a modern observer had ended up walking behind me at some point!  There was also an enthralling magazine article on war-time pin-ups, where soldiers were given ten different nudie shots to look at, and rate them in order of preference, and a few of the original response sheets were included in the case.  Their top choice was for a wholesome looking naked young lady scaling a rock, in case you were interested.

In the 1980s, MO changed into a project focused on self-reflection, rather than observing others, and the gallery a few floors above contained more written reports from participants, this time of their homes, and the history of their interest in photography.  Again, I took the time to read through most of the reports, and learned about wedding gifts in the 1950s, and the trials of living with a ferret, amongst other things. There was yet another gallery upstairs, which held a Mark Neville exhibition on the town of Corby, where 16 children were born with birth defects as a result of improper waste disposal by the local steel companies, which was interesting, but not really what I’d come for.

Now, I’ve read some scathing reviews of the MO exhibit, most notably in the Metro, where they described the photography as “terrible,” and stated that they couldn’t see the point of the exhibit.  I strongly disagree with that assessment, and I rather think they were missing the point of the whole thing.  Spender was a professional photographer, and as such produced some iconic photographs, and as for the rest of the collection, it was indeed an amateur effort, because it was done by amateurs!   To expect something else from MO is frankly ridiculous, and contrary to the spirit of the project.  Besides, I am a terrible photographer myself, and their photographs were certainly a big step above mine.  (I didn’t even bother photographing the galleries, because I didn’t see the point of producing blurry, crooked photographs of other photos). From a history perspective, this is truly an invaluable archive and if you’re interested in MO, or 20th century social history, I think the exhibit is well worth seeing.  I was inspired to join the modern incarnation of MO myself after visiting, but unfortunately they’re only taking young male volunteers at this time (seems a bit sexist, really, but what can you do?), so I suppose I must have found it inspiring.  4/5