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John C. Browne (American, 1838-1918) A Children’s Play (Bluebeard’s Wives), ca. 1866, printed ca. 1975, modern gelatin silver print from the original collodion negative, George Eastman House

This rather haunting image is a modern day gelatin silver print made from the original collodion glass plate negative, and was created by John Coates Browne around 1866.  Browne was an amateur photographer who maintained a prominent role in the Photographic Society of Philadelphia. 

The morbidity of the image may come as a shock—five of the six young girls are play-acting dead. Hung by their hair, their faces are painted white, matching their ghostly gowns. The play is based off of a French fairytale, about a nobleman who has a penchant for killing successive young wives. An outcast, he is feared for his ugly blue beard. He has been married several times, and each of his young wives mysteriously disappears, frightening the village girls. The story takes place when his most recent wife, still alive, discovers his secret cellar where he keeps the bodies of his murdered former wives, and recounts her attempts to escape.

Browne stages this as a genre scene, not unlike those created by Oscar Gustave Rejlander or Henry Peach Robinson, masters of allegorical or staged photographs. However, unlike Rejlander or Robinson’s images, this one was not made using multiple negatives, rather the entire scene was captured in one shot. 

–Anne-Marie Walsh–

I Lost It at the Eastman House

Growing up in a Non-Aligned, West-leaning socialist utopia, I belong to a generation of cinephiles who saw moving images on the big screen for the first time in the eighties. For better or for worse, our Jimmy Stark, racing a stolen car over a cliff and wailing and wallowing in angst while being torn apart by parental love, was Ferris Bueller, a healthy teenager taking a regular joyride. Our Lassie was E.T., our Bogie was Arnie, and our Marilyn was Molly, pushing sixteen.

And nitrate was way out of circulation for well over three decades.

For those of us who later learned to appreciate Molly as Cordelia, experiencing a projection of nitrate film became something akin to the Holy Grail of our movie-going crusades. A prospect of near-mythical proportions, an impossible wish. We knew, of course, that miles and miles of nitrate film were still stored somewhere. And we knew that the practice of projecting it, like cockfighting, was still alive somewhere out there, but probably illegal in more than just 49 states. As years went by, our hopes of ever seeing light through a nitrate film diminished to the level of pious hopes of ever laying eyes on Theda Bara as the very first 35mm Cleopatra.

We could not help it; even our first silent film was projected from polyester! We could only read the accounts of older, learned colleagues and mentors, all of them wisely claiming that until you’ve seen nitrate, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Flash-forward.

One of the more important unadulterated joys of working at the George Eastman House is a simple fact that we handle nitrate. On a regular basis. We don’t only store it, and stroke it, and smell it, and think it, and discuss it, and generously share knowledge about it. We also project it. On a regular basis. Our nitrate prints are preserved well enough, our machines are modified enough, and our amazing team of projectionists is trained enough for that.

The unavoidable – the long awaited dream projection, in my case – happened less than a month after I started to work here. I was so excited I could barely speak, so I sneaked in the theater after the lights went off, to avoid talking to anyone before the projection. This solitary maneuver, strangely enough, carried a promise of exactly the opposite. I was overwhelmed by a sense of an inherently social experience on the horizon; a sense of finally being given an opportunity to see precisely nothing more and nothing less than what was actually seen by millions of film-goers in the first sixty years of cinema’s history.

Assuming, in the dark, my favorite position in the front row, I thought of Serge Daney and his quoting of an “unknown somebody” from a nitrate age: “There must have been a sense of belonging to the world when you went to the cinema.

The paradoxical, rare beauty of nitrate and the medium of cinema in general!

I only felt privileged when I first laid my gaze upon an original Michelangelo, Titian and Leonardo, but here I am now, in the dark, trembling with privilege and a sense of belonging to the world. And the projection hasn’t even started yet!

And then it did.

The title will – and probably should – stay shrouded in mystery. Let’s just say that I consider it to be an early sound masterpiece by a filmmaker whose vast body of work I respect immensely, and whose achievements still haven’t been given their proper due. Technicolor. Thirties. Beautifully preserved nitrate print. From our vaults. Enough be said. Two weeks have passed since the projection, and I still dream it. I will probably never know – and I actually don’t care to find out – if my impressions are valid and based on facts, or if everything was just a spectacular illusion based on years and years of wild expectations. In any case, it worked. When those moving shapes and colors, light through nitrate, cut through dark and appeared in front of my eyes, they didn’t look at all like projected! They were so dense, so unbelievably, so unexpectedly dense, they appeared like a moving oil painting. The familiar white screen, all of a sudden, became something unfamiliar, coated with layers of thick, smoky, greasy, dripping, moving paint. Yes, sure, I have seen better cinematography before, I have seen brighter colors, I have seen sharper images, I have seen more imaginative framing… but I have never ever before seen anything like this.

And you can, too. Three words: Nitrate Picture Show!

Jurij Meden
Curator of Film Exhibitions, Moving Image Department
George Eastman House

Happy #IndependenceDay to our fellow Americans! RT @eastmanhouse : Who’s ready for some fireworks? Happy 4th of July from George Eastman House and the Moving Image Stills, Posters, and Paper Collection! #colleenmoore #film #photography #museum #archive #fireworks #classicfilm #4thofjuly #eastmanhouse #rochester #rochesterny #museumviews

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My Life with Nitrate

I have worked with Nitrocellulose film my entire working career at George Eastman House. I began as a young 22-year-old, just out of school. I have seen nitrate film projected, carried it, wound through it, cared for it, and been mesmerized by it.

It was 1974 when Alan Bobey, my direct supervisor at the time, gave me a tour of the Strong Archive. This was the name of our nitrate vaults at the time, located on the George Eastman House property, just north and east of where the main entrance is today. The vaults were built in 1950 as the first private archival nitrate vault built specifically for that purpose in the United States. The Strongs were a preeminent Rochester family, as well as friends and advisers of George Eastman, and the vaults were named in their honor when they funded construction of the vault building.

[Photo: James Card, the Eastman House’s first curator of motion pictures at the Strong Archive]

I also learned where I stood in the department at that time because Alan told me to tie a rag on the door of the vault I was in. It seemed a strange request, and when I asked what the rag signified he smiled and told me that if the fumes over-powered me and I became unconscious or died, they wouldn’t waste time checking each vault. This was, of course, before air exchange became a requirement for nitrate vaults. This was state of the art in 1950.

[Photo: James Card, the Eastman House’s first curator of motion pictures at the Strong Archive]

I later had much more pleasant interactions with nitrate. George Pratt, our Film Curator at the time, taught me how to identify certain facts and history about individual titles on this stock. I learned what to look for, how to treat it, and consequently how it was frequently mistreated. As I became the department film technician and later the vault manger, I learned to respect and love this material that was the carrier for the dreams and the fantasy of the movies. I still look forward to every time I handle nitrate and the new secrets it holds.

Ed Stratmann
Associate Curator, Moving Image Collection
George Eastman House

#HAMuseumW #HugAMuseumWorker including the #curator of #photography via @eastmanhouse : Andrew and Associate Curator Jamie M. Allen working on the exhibition layout - can’t wait to see everything on the wall! Check out the #eastmanhouse blog at blog.eastmanhouse.org to read about our curatorial process #gehtakeover

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Format Is Essential/Music as Object

Starting off small, I will begin by talking with my partner, Lauren Alberque, film archivist extraordinaire. Working all day with film as an object, she is dedicated to preserving art in its physical format. Sound familiar? What she does is basically like working with records (as in maintaining the objects in the way they were intended, cough vinyl is the format music was intended for cough), only with film. She, too, is a lifelong devotee of the arts.

Photo taken by myself in front of the Technicolor exhibit she helped install at George Eastman House in Rochester, NY.

Me: Do you remember your first vinyl listening experience?

Lauren: I vaguely recall not my parents, but maybe an aunt, having a record player and seeing it on top of their entertainment center. I thought it seemed intriguing and distinctly remember opening the clear plastic lid and pressing my hand down. I remembering feeling the grooves and how the turntable’s texture was rubbery, and wrapping my fingers around the metal spindle in the center, but not seeing a record and feeling very curious into how this alien technology worked. It was immediately a very tactile thing and I was very curious as to how it operated.

Do you remember the first record you ever bought?

I want to say it was an AFI 7", I wasn’t entirely sure if I knew how to play it, I just thought it was cool and knew I wanted it. I was probably 13 or 14. I bought it at Hot Topic in the mall. Secretly, of course, because my mom didn’t let me shop there. I didn’t even have a turntable yet. I think my second one was probably Bright Eyes’ Lifted on vinyl. That was the first time in my life that a new album came out and I immediately purchased it on vinyl. I got it through Saddle Creek’s [record label] mail order.

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My Nitrate Memory

I admit it. I had never even heard of nitrate film, much less seen it or inspected it or seen it projected until I became a student in The L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation in 1998. And when nitrate and Idid meet, it was indeed memorable.

In our first semester, Kevin Brownlow came to lecture at theschool and to do some research. One of the items he came across was the nitrate negatives (original and duplicate) for The Big Parade (King Vidor, US 1925). My classmates and I, twelve in all, were given our first experience at the Louis B. Mayer Conservation Center inspecting those negatives on back-to-back horizontal rewind benches. Oh, I should mention, that this was in 1998, a year before the center was upgraded and six new vaults were added. The inspection room – what is now the holding room – is set for 50 degrees Fahrenheit and there we all were, taking turns weekly, bundled up in coats and sweaters, hats and boots, sitting for hours, reeling slowly through the negatives, making notes of any damage or decay and freezing our noses off. I ran through a lot of Kleenex that week. The experience was a revelation: I learned about nitrate decomposition, weak splices, edge damage, base shrinkage, warping, and the difference between a silent full camera aperture and a sound negative. My rotation partner was Deborah Stoiber who was a projectionist and had lots of experience handling film. She was the hare who hated the cold (Deb’s from sunny California) and I was the tortoise from Rochester, resigned to living in cold climes. It was tough getting in sync, but we managed. Deborah was not enamored of nitrate inspection – then. Now she runs the place and is known in archival circles as an expert on nitrate film! It is satisfying to know that all of our work was critical, as The Big Parade has now been restored in both its original 1925 silent release and its 1931 re-issue with an added musical soundtrack.

I enjoyed the nitrate so much - the hand-tinted prints reminded me of stained glass windows - that I did my final student project on a large collection of nitrate negatives and prints. I inspected 44 reels and every single one seemed to have decomposition issues. The final reels that I worked on were the negative for the silent version of The Bridge of San Luis Rey (Charles Brabin, US 1929). They were in very poor condition, but thankfully there is good safety stock material on this title, because as of this writing, those beautiful negatives have completely decomposed. Every once in a while I go out and visit Deb and inspect a reel or two or three - just to feel the nitrate!

Caroline Yeager
Assistant Curator
Moving Image Department
George Eastman House

6 historic photograph processes

I recently posted a video from George Eastman house about the woodburytype. Here are the rest of the wonderful videos (just click on the image). My favourite historic photo technique will always be platinum prints, nothing beats their tonality. 

Enjoy!