Archive for the 'Behind The Scenes' Category

100 Stairs from the History of Cinema

Posted by on Aug 21 2015 | Behind The Scenes, Exhibitions, History, Motion Pictures, Other

Little more than a month remains in George Eastman House’s exhibition Peter Greenaway—The Stairs: Geneva, the Location (on display until September 20). Now that some time has passed since the show first went up, I’d like to take a moment to convey some thoughts about its execution.

Greenaway intended The Stairs as a decade-long international installation in ten parts, each focusing on a theme related to cinema such as framing, audience, and time. Stairs 1: Geneva dealt with the theme of location. Stairs are uniquely poised to address such a topic, for not only are they pivotal elements in countless classic films, but are fundamental to the shaping and sequencing of space. Just as stairs cut through and segment space, they also bring otherwise disparate spaces together. If this sounds rather cinematic, it is because stairs are especially visual media. (Consider the homophony of “stair” and “stare”.) Of all architectural passages (e.g., doors, hallways, vestibules), stairs are the most conspicuous. We are rarely conscious of the doors or hallways we pass through, but stairs make their presence felt. They can even be spectacles in their own right, to the extent that they become centerpieces of a room. What better evidence of this is there than the films of Hitchcock, Sirk, or Lang?

 Because The Stairs was intended as a reflection on the medium of film on its centenary, Greenaway wanted the number one hundred to operate as a frame tying together the installation’s various components. At the same time, this provided him with the opportunity to expand the purview of the project as a whole, for instance by staging a supplementary exhibit containing one hundred different types of the same object. We saw this as an excellent opportunity to draw a clearer link between the ideas behind Greenaway’s project and the mission of George Eastman House. This is how we came up with the idea for a display consisting of one hundred images of stairs from the history of cinema.

Detail of “100 Stairs from the History of Cinema,” a montage of frame grabs on display as part of the George Eastman House’s exhibition entitled Peter Greenaway—The Stairs: Geneva, the Location.

Detail of “100 Stairs from the History of Cinema,” a montage of frame grabs on display as part of the George Eastman House’s exhibition entitled Peter Greenaway—The Stairs: Geneva, the Location.

Because of their sheer ubiquity, it was not difficult to construct a sizeable collection of film stairs rather quickly. More difficult was the task of condensing that list down to one hundred stairs that function explicitly as “devices for display,” to quote Greenaway himself. My criteria for this was simple enough: the stairs had to occupy a central position in the mise en scène, to the extent that the shot in question would be unthinkable without them. One particularly expressive example of this can be found in the 1939 Technicolor classic Gone With the Wind.

Still from Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, US 1939)

Still from Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, US 1939)

The staircase is situated precisely in the center of the shot; one cannot even look at this image without looking at stairs. Everywhere around there is darkness, as if the stairs and the woman on them are all that exist in this world. This image attests to what a powerful stage stairs can provide, commanding and directing the viewer’s gaze. I mentioned earlier what a crucial role stairs play with regard to space, and this is no less true in film than it is in life. Consider this image from The Magnificent Ambersons.

Still from The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, US 1944)

Still from The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, US 1944)

The spatializing function of stairs in this case is clear right away. Here, we see two figures, each occupying opposite poles of a shot. Even without any familiarity with this film’s plot, we can deduce much from this shot thanks to the mediating role of stairs. The woman is explicitly positioned in a relation of power to the man, if only for the fact that she is located directly above him. But here that point couldn’t be made in a more visually literal sense, since (as with the previous case), image and stairs almost appear as one. Even though we don’t see the stairs themselves, they are as it were everywhere in this image. This notion of stairs as omnipresent and as activating deep space is brought to an even further extreme in this image from The Spiral Staircase, where stairs appear to decenter and consume even the human body.

Sill from The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak, US 194

Sill from The Spiral Staircase (Robert Siodmak, US 1945)

All routes lead to stairs. Look at this shot from Poltergeist:

Still from Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, US 1982)

Still from Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, US 1982)

In this image, the stairs are the content and the form, even to the point where they assume a fetish-like quality. Incidentally, this was the most “meta” of all the staircase shots I was able to find in my wild stair chase.

While there can be no doubt that stairs are spatially oriented media, they’re also uniquely temporal. A set of stairs places demands not only on our bodies, but on our time. Stairs take time. This makes them powerful dramatic devices, sites of tension and suspense. Think of how long it takes Norma Desmond to make her descent into final madness in Sunset Boulevard, or for Lord Hidetora to make it down the stairs of his castle to face defeat in Ran.

Still from Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, US 1950)

Still from Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, US 1950)

Still from Ran (Akira Kurosawa, Japan/France 1985)

Still from Ran (Akira Kurosawa, Japan/France 1985)

Elsewhere, in Tsai Ming-Liang’s ravishing video Journey to the West, a man dressed as a monk makes a painfully slow ascent up a flight of stairs. Each step becomes a measure of time. Stairs not only take time, they make it.

Still from Journey to the West (Xi you, Ming-liang Tsai, France/Taiwan 2014)

Still from Journey to the West (Xi you, Ming-liang Tsai, France/Taiwan 2014)

Or consider this shot from Nagisa Oshima’s 1968 film Death by Hanging. The image is extremely powerful: a young man sentenced to hang sits atop a set of stairs, totally enframed by a noose.

Still from Death by Hanging (K?shikei, Nagisa Ôshima, Japan 1968)

Still from Death by Hanging (K?shikei, Nagisa Ôshima, Japan 1968)

In this instance, stairs do not measure a concrete span of time so much as they represent the inevitability of death. Stairs are the very fatedness of an ending.

Of course, I could go on. Each frame from this montage of one hundred images represents a unique instance of “stair-ness” from film history. Each testifies to the diversity and importance of stairs as a subject of cinema, and the affinity that these two media have for one another. But from my perspective, ultimate meaning here lies in the many rather than any single instance. In other words, what finally defines the experience of this display lies in the curious relationships and dialogues that occur between its images. I should point out that we decided to arrange each of these one hundred images in chronological order. This seemed like the best course of action, in large part because we wished not to freeze these images within the frame of a given curatorial commentary. But even without much interpretive intervention on our part, when placed together these one hundred images came alive.

Detail of “100 Stairs from the History of Cinema,” a montage of frame grabs on display as part of the George Eastman House’s exhibition entitled Peter Greenaway—The Stairs: Geneva, the Location.

Detail of “100 Stairs from the History of Cinema,” a montage of frame grabs on display as part of the George Eastman House’s exhibition entitled Peter Greenaway—The Stairs: Geneva, the Location.

Still, we had some room to play. This is because many of the films contained in our list were released during the same year. In some cases, as many as six films shared a year of release, which meant that within a sequence of six or so images we could experiment with various configurations. This allowed us to reveal intriguing formal affinities amongst images, such as the relation between the stills from The Godfather and Rocky below.

Detail of “100 Stairs from the History of Cinema,” a montage of frame grabs on display as part of the George Eastman House’s exhibition entitled Peter Greenaway—The Stairs: Geneva, the Location.

Detail of “100 Stairs from the History of Cinema,” a montage of frame grabs on display as part of the George Eastman House’s exhibition entitled Peter Greenaway—The Stairs: Geneva, the Location.

These images are strikingly similar, but are inverted in a number of important ways. Both men have ascended a set of stairs, their arms now raised up above their heads. And yet, one man is frozen in a moment of triumph, while the other twists into a death pose. One body is heroic and lively, while the other is moribund. There is perhaps no better example than this to sum up my own conception of montage: clash through similarity.

I hope that you take the opportunity to visit our exhibition during its final month to experience Greenaway’s singular vision. While you’re there, I invite you to spend some time with our display of one hundred stairs to notice some of these relationships, and to discover some of your own.

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A Piece of History Reborn

Posted by on Jun 29 2015 | Behind The Scenes, Photography, Technology

In 1995, before I was hired to teach in the conservation department, my wife and I originally came to Eastman House to teach workshops. Back then, we brought a car load of equipment from home—cameras, studio stands, and other specialized photographic equipment—every time we held a workshop. Now, twenty years later, my full-time job at Eastman House is once again teaching public workshops in historic photographic processes . . . and, I’m still bringing equipment from home.

The technology collection at the museum holds more than eight thousand cameras. But as Todd Gustavson, curator of the technology collection, tells me, once an object is officially accessioned into the collection, it becomes an artifact available for study—not for actual use. It’s understandable. Damage to equipment is expected when a piece is handled by many or exposed to corrosive chemicals, particularly the wet collodion process used to make tintypes and ambrotypes.

In the past few years, I’ve been scrounging for original equipment for the workshop program so that eventually we’ll be fully equipped without the need for me to loan pieces to the museum. We run our workshop program without a budget for equipment, and the supplies are funded by an additional fee paid by the participants. A few months ago, I decided it was time to get an 8×10” studio camera for the program, and I used social media to get it.

I made an appeal to our friends. We host the Eastman House Historic Processes Education group page on Facebook with more than 2,800 subscribed friends. In less than a day I had two people willing to donate the type of camera we needed. One was in New Jersey and the other was in Ohio. The Ohio camera, owned by Jeannette Palsa, also had the original studio stand—both in need of restoration, but solid. Jeannette had taken an ambrotype workshop from us years ago and uses the process in her fine art photography.

On a Friday in April, my assistant, Nick Brandreth and I drove the four hours to the Akron area to retrieve the camera and stand. When we arrived, Jeannette’s friend Bob Herbst was also there with a second camera donation. Jeannette was kind enough to send us off with box lunches and we arrived back in Rochester with two cameras, a studio stand, and a speeding ticket from an Ohio speed trap.

That weekend, I disassembled the studio stand, made the necessary repairs, refinished the wood and iron castings, and had it ready for use by Tuesday of the next week. The better camera of the two, an 8×10″ Century 10A Studio Camera donated by Bob was chosen for use since the bellows were still in usable condition and it only need some minor repairs. I made a lens board for this camera and attached a large brass portrait lens from my personal collection so that we could use it right away. Eventually we’ll be looking for a replacement lens and new bellows to be made, but the camera was put to use immediately in a tintype workshop less than a week after bringing it back to the museum. It’s a great piece of history reborn.

_MG_2174 _MG_2187 _MG_2191 _MG_3343 _MG_3405

Brandreth (left) and Osterman (right) with the century 10A Studio Camera donated by Bob Herbst and original studio camera stand donated by Jeannette Palsa.

Brandreth (left) and Osterman (right) with the century 10A Studio Camera donated by Bob Herbst and original studio camera stand donated by Jeannette Palsa.

The workshop program is always looking for donations of equipment, from laboratory glass, to vintage photographic apparatus. Contact Mark Osterman at if you think you can help.



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Curating for the First Time

Posted by on Jun 08 2015 | Behind The Scenes, Photography, Student Work

After spending our first year of the Photographic Preservation and Collections Management (PPCM) graduate program at Ryerson University in Toronto, my classmate Andrew Murphy and I chose to move to Rochester, New York to spend our second year studying at George Eastman House. Upon arriving, we learned that we would be co-curating a rotation of the newly established exhibition series, A History of Photography. Under the guidance of the Curator-in-Charge and Associate Curator of the Photography Department, we developed another version of the complex history of the photographic medium through works in the Eastman House collection that conceptualize how photography can be used to represent information, whether scientific or artistic in nature.

Andrew and I had the daunting task of selecting only thirty photographs from the collection of over 400,000 objects. To narrow our options, we both identified key figures and movements that we felt deserved a place in our history of photography. Our goal was to find photographs that represented various photographic processes and conceptual uses of the medium.

Dr. Josef Maria Eder (Austrian, 1855-1944) and Eduard Valenta (Austrian, 1857-1937) Zwei Goldfische und ein Seefisch (Christiceps argentatus), 1896 Photogravure print from x-ray negative Gift of Eastman Kodak Company; ex-collection of Josef Maria Eder

Dr. Josef Maria Eder (Austrian, 1855-1944) and Eduard Valenta (Austrian, 1857-1937)
Zwei Goldfische und ein Seefisch (Christiceps argentatus), 1896
Photogravure print from x-ray negative
Gift of Eastman Kodak Company; ex-collection of Josef Maria Eder

Next, Andrew and I had to become familiar with the objects in the photography collection. We became fast friends with the Collections Manager and Assistant Collections Manager from our many visits to the Study Center to view objects from the vault. As we browsed through box after box of photographs, Andrew and I found direction for the exhibition. We were able to construct a preliminary checklist of items we felt would appropriately serve as our own interpretation of photographic history.

Selecting photographs is not as easy as it sounds. Certain objects were out on loan for another exhibition. Others were too fragile to display after consulting with the Conservator, so Andrew and I had to make substitutions. Because the collection is so vast, we did not have too much trouble finding replacement objects. In some instances, we found photographs that we had not previously considered, some of which we felt fit more appropriately with our concept

Then, the research began. Each photographic object requires an object label on the gallery wall to justify its place within exhibition. Andrew and I divided and conquered, completing our first drafts in early 2015. It was a challenge to choose the most relevant information about an object and its maker, and then to translate all that knowledge both concisely and accessibly.


The job of curating did not end there. We wrote a press release and article for Films & Events, cleaned up object records in the database for future researchers, selected mats and frames, determined the layout and design of the exhibition, and prepared a presentation of our exhibition (which will take place on Saturday, June 13, 2015). The week before the exhibition opens to the public, Andrew and I will make final placement decisions. Hopefully, every photograph will fit on the wall as we anticipated when we planned it on the model (see image below). After devoting so much energy to each object’s inclusion in the exhibition, it would be difficult to cut any photograph.


Our first curatorial experience has required lots of time, collaboration, and consideration. Seeing the results of our nine months of work will be very rewarding and we hope that our enthusiasm for photography is evident to visitors who see our iteration of A History of Photography.


Focus 45: PPCM Students, Rachel Andrews and Andrew Murphy, on A History of Photography
Saturday June 13, 2015 from 12:15 to 1 p.m., Curtis Theatre

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The Nitrate Picture Show Projectors and Projectionists

Posted by on May 02 2015 | Behind The Scenes, Motion Pictures, Other

Each introduction to a film at the Nitrate Picture Show includes special recognition of the projectionists in the booth who are the behind-the-scenes heroes making this entire festival possible. They certainly deserve an extra round of applause!


The Projectors
A gift of the Century Projector Company, the Century Model C Projectors have been installed in the Dryden Theatre since it opened in 1951. These machines are “closed head” projectors, so-called because the entire film path from feed magazine to takeup magazine is enclosed. This makes them safer for running nitrate print film. Other safety features on the projectors include fire rollers or fire valves located between the body of the projector and the film magazines and a fire shutter. The fire rollers help prevent a fire from spreading to the roll of film in either magazine. The fire shutter cuts off the hot beam of light when the projector is either slowed down or stopped, helping to keep the film from catching on fire.

The projectors were originally set up with carbon arc lamp houses, replaced in 1979 with xenon light sources as carbons were being gradually phased out. The Century projectors’ sound reproducers have also been upgraded over the years to ensure the best possible sound from vintage sound tracks.

Inspection report for CASABLANCA on display in the projection booth.

Inspection report for CASABLANCA on display in the projection booth.

Original release print of CASABLANCA (1942) queued up for opening night.

Original release print of CASABLANCA (1942) queued up in the booth for opening night.

The Projectionists
Spencer Christiano, projection specialist at Eastman House, is a graduate of the SUNY College at Brockport Department of Theatre (BS) and the MCC Visual Communication Technology: Photography- Television program (AAS). For nine years, he was chief projectionist at Rochester’s Cinema Theatre, and for two years, technical manager of the MuCCC theater, where he is currently an artist-in-residence. He is very active in the performing arts community, and has written, directed, designed, and managed more than two hundred theatrical, dance, mixed media, and conceptual art productions.

Jim Harte is a 1979 graduate of New York University Tisch School of the Arts Department of Film and Television. He has worked in New York City and Rochester as a film editor, writer, director, and archivist. He joined the projectionist team at George Eastman House in 2013.

Steve Hryvniak landed at Eastman House in 2004 after 25 years as a motion picture (later, entertainment) imaging technician at Eastman Kodak Company, where he contributed to new motion picture products and projection room support.

Projectionists Darryl G. Jones and Jim Harte.

Projectionists Darryl G. Jones and Jim Harte.

Darryl G. Jones has worked as a part-time projectionist since 1968. In addition to serving as a relief projectionist and service engineer for Eastman House, he was employed by Eastman Kodak Company from 1974 to 2007 as a systems development technician on traditional photographic, video, and digital cameras. He is the past president of the Rochester International Film Festival and has been their projection chairperson since 1975. He is a life member of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers (SMPTE).

Patrick Tiernan is a Rochester native and an avid film fan. He holds a degree in film studies from SUNY College at Brockport. He has been projecting film at Eastman House for four years.

Ben Tucker is assistant collection manager in the Moving Image Department at Eastman House. He is a graduate of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation and has been employed by the museum since 2003.

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1989 – Celebrating Joe Struble at Eastman House

Posted by on Mar 30 2015 | Behind The Scenes, Exploring the Archive, Other, Photography

After more than 25 years in the Photography Department, Collection Manager Joe R. Struble is retiring from Eastman House. On March 30, the staff had a party to celebrate Joe’s career at the museum and wish him well in the next chapter of his life. The following are Joe’s remarks to the staff:


George Bush was president… Not “W” but George H.W. Bush… Bush ’41… he and Dan Quayle had just been inaugurated that January.

A hit movie of 1989… Honey I Shrunk the Kids.

The Simpsons debuted.

And so did I, at Eastman House!
(This photo could have been an audition photo for the Ned Flanders role in a live production of The Simpsons)

Photo by: Chris Holmquist

Photo by: Chris Holmquist

I was 41 years old — well into “responsible adulthood.”

I had trained as a Social Worker, received an MSW degree in 1977, but after struggling to find my place and my voice in that field I decided at age 30 to “see what else I might do with my life.”

That period of searching (and not always an active one) took 10 years, during which time I clerked and stocked shelves at CVS Pharmacy (#285 on East Main Street).

I had some career counseling at one point and the one “take-away” from that was that I scored high in liking “synthesis.” (huh?)

“Synthesis: the combining of often diverse conceptions into a coherent whole.”

I had always liked art and history, so I volunteered first at the Visual Studies Workshop and then at Eastman House, in the Library and Photo Collection, which in 1988 were in the same area, on top of the Dryden Theatre. The turmoil of the late 80’s had passed, the collections were supported and a building (which I still sometimes call the ”New Building” was nearly done.

David Wooters, the Archivist in the Photo Collection hired me when a position of Assistant Archivist was created and I came on board. Until he retired in 2009, he was my mentor.

I remember telling him back then “I know a lot about toothpaste and all varieties of baby diapers…I can point anybody to the Halls Cough Drops or to the shower caps, but I don’t know much about photographers or where to begin to look for something in the vault. He replied (presciently) “you will learn.”

Some years later, when I was getting up to speed someone helped me characterize this experience. She said “You learned as an apprentice… a very good, time-honored way to gain new knowledge and skills.”

I look over the door of the Library sometimes and read the words from the Eastman House Mission statement:
“We build Information Resources to provide the Means for both scholarly research and recreational inquiry.”

Here’s where that “synthesis part” comes in.

I came to know a collection of 400,000 photos, with the potential to illustrate the history of the practice of photography.

David taught us (and by us I include Janice Madhu, my colleague) that the holdings here were not just a “collection of nouns”… not just pictures of flowers, fire engines, seashells or the Flat Iron Building, but a collection that could show how photography shows a flower, fire engines, seashells or the Flat Iron Building, how photography showed life events, wars, how photography sold a products, and ideas, and ideologies. The collection could preserve evidence of how generation of families presented themselves to the camera and also how some families organized this evidence into albums.

I synthesized all my experiences from all the questions asked of the collection and you know what, I slowly climbed to the top of the hill and could see and interpret the collection broadly and in its particulars. It is broad and can answer almost any question presented to it with the evidence of images… some questions more fully than others, of course.

I have been told many times: What a great job you have… you get to look at pictures all day long. To which I respond: well, not really, I get to look for pictures most of the time.

But what an adventure, what a privilege, really, to have a job that has given me such proximity to this Collection.

And quite simple, it has given me a Life, something to learn about and to know, and always to share with others. It has given me a community of others of like interest — here in the US and around the World. And finally, it has given me a few lifelong friends, as well as many wonderful colleagues, and a day-to day routine and sense of purpose that I know I will miss very much.

Just this last week, I thought of a way to characterize retirement from Eastman House for myself. It’s been like a plane, descending, gradual, getting closer to landing. In the last month, the “fasten seat belt” sign has been on and by late Friday, I’ll be on the ground. Many people have asked me what I’ll do next, and I have the luxury of saying “I don’t know.” I have to land first.

Congratulations, Joe! We wish you all the best!

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