I brag that I have the best job in the world — promoting George Eastman House — since the work and activities of our staff and schools, and the breadth of our unparalleled collections, impress me every day. And I am the lucky person who gets to tell the world.
My 10 years as public relations manager at Eastman House have presented me with incredible opportunities as a witness to the world of photography and film.
I’ve organized and moderated press conferences for the likes of Meryl Streep, Dennis Hopper, Jeff Bridges, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Janet Leigh. I’ve picked up my phone to have Spike Lee and Tony Curtis on the other end (two separate occasions, of course). I hung out for days with musician/photographer Graham Nash, when he was at Eastman House in 1998 to mount his exhibition Digital Frontiers. While we awaited the start of a press event, Graham plunked out some notes on the piano in the Eastman House movie theater. Spontaneously he and I began to sing a duet of his hit “Our House” (is a very, very, very fine house). He took the high part…
On more than one occasion I’ve witnessed an archivist unrolling, before my eyes, the original camera negatives to the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz. This is the film that was in the camera when the movie was shot, just feet away from Judy Garland. (Admittedly, I’m quite a fan of the film..my baby’s nursery is decorated in the Oz theme and I’ve actually met eight of the nine surviving munchkins).
The latest opportunity to be in the same room with these rare negatives was during an Associated Press interview about the Eastman House’s nitrate collection (films made before 1951). The oz negs had just returned from Hollywood, as they were beckoned by Warner Bros. to create a new Blu-ray disc featuring the Oz film.
The resulting AP article, issued in May 2008, was widely popular, picked up by hundreds of newspapers across the globe, from The Washington Times to The China Post.
The Wizard of Oz, however, is just one title in the motion picture collection for which Eastman House preserves the camera negatives. We also have the negatives to Gone With the Wind and, yes, I’ve been lucky enough to see those as well.
But as I “brag” about my amazing experiences on the frontlines at Eastman House, nothing compares to one, single moment that I will never forgot.
In 2001, Eastman House presented the exhibition The Girl in the Picture. The girl in focus was 9-year-old Kim Phuc (fook). The picture was the Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph taken by AP photographer Nick Ut in 1972 of a screaming and naked Viatnamese girl running down the road after a napalm bombing. She was naked because she had torn the fiery clothes from her body while she ran away from a burning temple where she had sought refuge.
This image became a symbol of the horrors of the war in Vietnam, as well as a powerful rallying point for peace — viewed as an anti- war symbol in the West and an anti-American symbol in Vietnam. Yet few people know the girl’s name or her fate.
Both Phuc and Ut agreed to attend the opening of the exhibition at Eastman House, having reunited in recent years and become friends.
The Girl in the Picture exhibition featured the famous photograph, but also a series of photographs of Phuc taken by Ut — who had set down his camera after photographing the attack and Phuc and ultimately saved Phuc’s life by transporting her to the closest hospital, since she had been severely burned.
When at Eastman House, I had the honor of escorting Phuc, now a U.N. delegate living in Canada, and Ut, still working as an AP photographer. Following lunch, we went to see the exhibition for the first time. Making our way toward the photographs, we talked casually about a variety of topics.
With a sudden jolt, Phuc and Ut halted upon reaching the display. The photographs before them were evidently jarring. They fell into each other’s arm and sobbed. Clinging to one another, they touched the photographs and shared memories about the “happy” photos taken by Ut, such as the one where Phuc was smiling in the hospital after a long recovery.
Almost three decades had passed since that tragic day, but the wounds were still deep. Two local TV crews, poised and awaiting our arrival, admirably turned off their cameras and gave Phuc and Ut privacy during this tender time.
Although emotional, Phuc and Ut continued with their public appearances that day at a press conference and a panel discussion with museum members. They were brave, eloquent, charming, personable, and gracious.
Also in attendance that day where former Eastman House trustees Hal Buell and Horst Faas — the ones responsible for sharing Ut’s photo with the world. In 1972 two-time Pulitzer winner Faas was the AP photo chief in Saigon who transmitted Ut’s image to Buell in AP’s New York office. Following some debate about its shocking nature, they readily put the photo on the wire. Together these four people made history, through both courage and the power of photography.
As I am fortunate to be a witness to such amazing happenings at Eastman House, I hope to share more accounts in the future on the Eastman House Blog.
Dresden Engle is the Public Relations Manager for George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.
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