On this date in 1884 George Eastman (July 12, 1854 – March 14, 1932), was granted two related patents for roll film, revolutionizing photography and bringing it into the mainstream. Roll film was also the basis for the invention of motion picture film in 1888 by the world’s first film-makers Eadweard Muybridge and Louis Le Prince, and a few years later by their followers Léon Bouly, William Dickson, Thomas Edison, the Lumière Brothers, and Georges Méliès. Prior to the invention of roll film, photography required certain expert knowledge in physics and chemistry, with a strong background in practical engineering. Only the dedicated few knew how to manage it. In 1888 Eastman patented a box camera that used roll film, and completed the revolution. He was also one of a rare breed of industrialist philanthropist (as opposed to a robber baron), and, by all accounts, was a decent employer even though he hated trade unions.
Eastman was born in Waterville, New York to George Washington Eastman and Maria Eastman (née Kilbourn) on the 10-acre farm which his parents bought in 1849. He had two older sisters, Ellen Maria and Katie. He was largely self-educated, although he attended a private school in Rochester after the age of 8. In the early 1840s his father had started a business school, the Eastman Commercial College in Rochester, New York. As his father’s health started deteriorating, the family gave up the farm and moved to Rochester in 1860. His father died of a brain disorder in May 1862. To survive and afford George’s schooling, his mother took in boarders.
Eastman’s sister, Katie, had contracted polio when young and died in late 1870 when George was 15 years old. The young George left school early and started working to help support the family. As Eastman began to have success with his photography business, he vowed to repay his mother for the hardships she had endured in raising him.
Eastman’s roll film was not the first patented but it was the first that proved practicable. He tinkered at home to develop it in his spare time, not in some sophisticated lab or R&D department. The days of the home inventor are almost entirely gone, although a few linger on. Science and technology are generally too sophisticated for the talented amateur these days, but there’s still a smidge of breathing room here and there.
In 1888 Eastman perfected the Kodak Black camera and founded the Kodak company following the “razor and blades strategy” of selling inexpensive cameras and making large margins from consumables: film, chemicals, and paper. As late as 1976, Kodak commanded 90% of film sales and 85% of camera sales in the U.S. I used Kodak film in my first camera (a plastic box from Woolworths); my second camera was a Kodak; and my first developing kit for black-and-white was made by Kodak. I stopped using Kodak products when I switched to digital about 10 years ago. The end of an era for me and for most photographers. I don’t lament the passing of film as some photographers do. I haven’t had a dark room in decades, and I was never particularly good at developing anyway. My skill – such as it is – lies in my eye for composition and subject matter. I do lament (slightly) the access to digital photography of the masses, but only because I am thoroughly sick of endless selfies on Facebook. Eastman’s revolution with the box camera and roll film certainly changed the world of photography, but nowhere near in the same way.
Even with a digital SLR I still maintain a certain Spartan roll-film aesthetic. What my camera captures through the viewfinder is what you get. I don’t crop images or use PhotoShop. The technology changes what my eye sees quite enough without me adding to the manipulation. Using a camera at all changes everything you see. This stark fact was brought home to me years ago when I was attending a pig slaughter in the Catskills near my home. The actual events were quite horrifying, but when viewed through a camera’s lens and frame they were contained and manageable emotionally. My presence as a photographer, as opposed to an idle observer, was also acceptable to the participants.
George Eastman never married. He was close to his mother, and to his sister and her family. He had a long platonic relationship with Josephine Dickman, a trained singer and the wife of business associate George Dickman, becoming especially close to her after the death of his mother, Maria Eastman, in 1907. The loss of his mother, Maria, was particularly crushing to George. Almost pathologically concerned with decorum, he found himself unable for the first time to control his emotions in the presence of friends. “When my mother died I cried all day,” he explained later. “I could not have stopped to save my life.” Due to his mother’s reluctance to accept his gifts, George Eastman could never do enough for his mother during her lifetime. He opened the Eastman Theater in Rochester on September 4, 1922, which included a chamber-music hall dedicated to his mother’s memory: the Kilbourn Theater. At the Eastman House, he maintained a rose bush using a cutting from her childhood home.
Eastman was one of the outstanding philanthropists of his time, donating more than $100 million to various projects in Rochester; Cambridge, Massachusetts; at two historically black colleges in the South; and in several European cities. In 1918, he endowed the establishment of the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester, and in 1921 a school of medicine and dentistry there.
In his final two years, Eastman was in intense pain caused by a disorder affecting his spine. He had trouble standing, and his walk became a slow shuffle. Nobody knows the exact nature of the disorder. Eastman suffered from depression due to his pain, reduced ability to function, and also since he had witnessed his mother’s suffering from pain. On March 14, 1932, Eastman committed suicide with a single gunshot through the heart, leaving a note which read, “To my friends, my work is done – Why wait? GE.” Eastman’s ashes are buried in the grounds of the company he founded at Eastman Business Park, formerly known as Kodak Park in Rochester.
I wouldn’t call Rochester a culinary epicenter, but it does have a few specialties that are well known locally. Rochester chicken French is probably the best known among locals. It was probably around in Eastman’s day. Chicken French is a mutant form of the Italian vitello francese which migrated with Italians to New York City, thence to Rochester, with the veal being replaced with chicken somewhere along the way. The method is to coat the meat with flour and egg, fry it, and serve with a lemon and wine reduction.
Rochester Chicken French
salt and black pepper to taste
2 eggs, beaten
1 tbsp white sugar
1 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
2 tbsp olive oil
4 skinless, boneless chicken breasts
¼ cup butter
2 tsp minced garlic
¼ cup dry sherry
¼ cup lemon juice
Mix together some flour with salt, and pepper to taste in a wide, deep, rimmed plate. Whisk together the beaten eggs, sugar, and Parmesan cheese until the mixture is thoroughly blended and the sugar has dissolved. Pour into another wide and deep rimmed plate
Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
Use the dry hand/wet hand method to dip the chicken. Use one hand (dry hand) to roll each chicken breast in the flour until completely coated. Without touching the egg, place each breast in turn in the egg. Roll the breast around with the other hand (wet hand) until it is thoroughly coated. When coated, lay each breast into the hot oil in the skillet.
Fry the breasts on each side until they are golden brown all over. Remove with a slotted spoon and reserve on a wire rack.
Turn the heat under the skillet to medium-low. Melt the butter, and stir in the garlic, sherry, lemon juice, and a small amount (around 2 tablespoons) of chicken stock. Simmer until reduced and smooth, scraping any brown bits off the bottom of the skillet as it cooks. Return the chicken breasts to the sauce, and gently simmer until heated through (5 to 10 minutes).
Garnish with lemon slices and parsley.