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My direct experience with the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, to give it its full name, began with their latest major restoration project, the recently rediscovered footage Orson Welles shot for the cinematic interludes in his Mercury production of Too Much Johnson. Apart from being a tour de force of conservation, the project underscored one inspiring aspect of the institution. George Eastman House is a museum, but, unlike virtually all art museums, which pride themselves on avoiding acquisitions in compromised condition, it actively seeks out films in need of conservation—that being its primary function, both to fill in the documentation of the history of photography and cinema, and to make lost works of art available to the public. This activity justifies itself of course, but its importance is heightened by the fact that motion pictures in particular were not considered worthy of preservation. Few were considered worth screening after the period of their initial release, and the criterion for this was basically commercial. This changed as the film programs on and around university campuses encouraged the expansion of art and revival cinemas—a phenomenon richly attested by Dave Kehr in his collection of reviews, When Movies Mattered. The emergence of home video cassettes, Laser Discs, DVDs, and Blu-Rays completed the transformation of cinema from an ephemeral commercial medium into an art form, both popular and high, privileged by constant general availability for enjoyment and study. Too Much Johnson has been screened as found, incompletely edited. In the future, George Eastman House will produce versions for public exhibition and home viewing.
This tells us not only about how the way we view cinema has changed over the past fifty years, but how George Eastman House and institutions like it—the Cinémathèque Française, the Munich Film Museum, the Cineteca Bologna, the British Film Institute, the Library of Congress, the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and the Museum of Modern Art—have shaped this change. You may enjoy a film restored by George Eastman House at home, but, if you visit Rochester, you can see an original nitrate print in the Dryden Theatre. Only three archival cinemas in the United States are equipped to project this dangerously flammable material, and this is worth the trip, even if you see only one in your lifetime.
Movies make up only one part of GEM’s activities. The preservation, care, and presentation of photographic images are also among the original missions. However, since photographs, whether considered either as works of art, family heirlooms, or scientific records, were generally kept and preserved, the conservation of damaged material is not as generally urgent a task as in cinema. The photography collection, which consists of over 400,000 photographs and negatives, is predicated on both the documentary, commercial, and artistic functions of the medium. It embraces one of the largest collections of daguerreotypes in the world (over 350,000), nineteenth century French and British photography on paper (calotypes, etc.) and other supports, nineteenth century American photographs of the West and the Civil War, the work of Eadward Muybridge, important late nineteenth and early twentieth-century art photographs by Eugène Atget, Frederick Evans, Alvin Langdon Coburn (his own personal collection, bequeathed by the artist), Lewis Hine, Steichen, Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, Paul Strand, and Edward Weston. The comprehensive collection of European Modernists includes work by Brassaï, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Frantisek Drtikol, André Kertész, August Sander, and Lazlo Moholy-Nagy. The collection of photography since 1945 up to the present day is equally comprehensive. Other aspects of modern photography fall under the rubric of “Documents of the Popular Impact of the Photograph on Modern Culture,” including “thousands of conventional nineteenth-century studio portraits in a variety of formats; stereocards; lantern slides; travel albums; amateur snapshot albums; and press photographs. There is also an extensive selection of American combat photography from World War II, primarily the work of Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard photographers, along with Air Force aerial reconnaissance images taken over Europe during and immediately after the war.”
All this, as well as the materials in the superb research library, is made eminently accessible to gallery visitors and scholars in the house George Eastman built for himself in Rochester between 1902 and 1905, which brings in yet other aspects of the museum’s work, architectural preservation and landscape design. There is a constant stream of film screenings in the Dryden Theatre and exhibitions in the galleries, including a new program, continuing on into 2018, of rotating installations illustrating the history of photography. There are also lectures, visits by master photographers, and courses in historical methods of photography. This is more than enough to inspire a visit to Rochester, but unless one happens to live somewhere between Buffalo, the Finger Lakes, Syracuse, and the southern shore of Lake Ontario, it must be an occasional pleasure.
We in New York City can only wish George Eastman House had some permanent home in the city where we could enjoy at least a sample of its treasures on an ongoing basis. Aside from its New York City Collector’s Club, it has recently established a presence in the city through its Light and Motion Gala, a benefit event first held in November 2012 and repeated just a few weeks ago, on May 5 at Three Sixty at 10 Desbrosses Street in Tribeca. One organization and five people, both established and young, in cinema and still photography were honored in a celebration of George Eastman House’s work in restoration and preservation, as well as its role in supporting living artists.
The corporate award went to Eileen Gittins’s Blurb, a pioneer in the quality self-publishing of illustrated books—well-deserved, because the service has in fact democratized photographic publishing and brought exceptional projects to light, which would have otherwise remained buried.
The Light and Motion Award went to Leonard Maltin for his lifelong work bringing classic and contemporary movies to contemporary audiences—general, enthusiast, and specialist, through his teaching at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, his many accessible books, including the indispensable annual Movie Guides, and his activity with many of the most important organizations and festivals.
A Lifetime Achievement Award in Film went to Alexander Payne, who first began to attract praise in the late 1990s and early noughts with movies like Election and About Schmidt, with Jack Nicholson. His recent masterpiece, Nebraska, proved an almost unexpected hit with audiences and is destined to become a classic.
In photography Mary Ellen Mark was so honored for her portraits and documentary photography, well-known from magazines like Life, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Rolling Stone.
Younger workers received awards as “Emerging Icons,” a flattering title if there ever was one. In film it went to Julia Loktev. Born in St. Petersburg, she emigrated to the United States as a child. So far, she has directed three films, Moment of Impact (1998), a documentary, and Day Night Day Night (2006) and The Loneliest Planet (2011), both dramatic films. All of these have won important awards.
Chris McCaw, was the Emerging Icon in Photography. Born, raised, and still living in San Francisco, he entered the world of photography in his early teens, with skateboarding culture as his subject. Over the past twenty years, he has used, among other things, a homemade panoramic view camera and unconventional film and printing techniques (especially platinum/palladium) to create fresh, stylish black and white work, which has already been shown in major museums, like the Met and the Nelson-Atkins.
Apart from the excellent company and cheer, the introductions of the awards were interesting and meaty, especially Paul Giamatti’s chat about Alexander Payne. Unlike many directors, he avoids channeling film sessions to monitors, thereby preserving an intimate connection and concentration among his crew and cast, as well as independence from potentially meddling producers! We were also treated to excerpts from Welles’ Too Much Johnson, as one of the most triumphant conservation efforts of recent years.
On a personal note, I was especially happy to meet Bastienne Schmidt, an extraordinary younger artist and photographer based on the Connecticut coast, as well as one of my own photographic heroes, George Tice, the great master of black and white printing of his generation and the classic interpreter of the urban landscape of New Jersey.
I had always hoped to study with him at the Maine Photographic Workshops, where he has taught for many years, but, unfortunately I could never get up there at the right time.
Clearly this second Eastman House Gala brought together a great many of the best eyes and minds in photography and film, and I hope there will be many more, and that this will be a stepping-stone to an expanded presence in New York City.