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)
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!