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Eastman Retires and Goes on a Safari


In 1917, Eastman, having given the world permission to smile, decided he might be permitted himself, and put it exactly that way. "I never smiled until I was forty," he said. "Since then, I have tried to win back something of the fun that other men had when they were boys."

This remark is rather curious, in that Eastman had been dedicated to the fine art of the vacation for decades. Having first thrown himself into his career after an trip to Hispaniola fell through in 1877, he had been traveling ever since--at first to London, then on bicycle tours of Europe and Russia, camping trips out West and, if all else failed, getaways to Oak Lodge, his North Carolina retreat.

But there was also a certain frustrated quality to his constant globetrotting. Upon returning home, he was typically quick to let people know how much fun his trips had been, yet fun is the one thing that seemed to be lacking. Eastman's notion of relaxation was to plan out every moment in the itineraries of his traveling companions, right down to the courses of their meals. In this respect, it makes some sense that he would feel the urge to make his final expeditions more dramatic than usual. If he was going to break through his own net of control, it would take more than a bicycle tour through St. Petersburg.

Fittingly, the plan was linked to film. In the early 1920s, Martin Johnson, an exclusive sales agent for Kodak cameras and supplies in Missouri, and his wife, Osa, traveled to Africa and returned with a film, "Trailing African Wild Animals." Martin Johnson approached the motion-picture department at Kodak, asking for backing for another safari. When Eastman gave them $10,000, they began tempting him to join them sometime.

Shortly after retiring from his own company in 1925 at the age of 72, Eastman took the Osa and Martin Johnson up on their offer, and once again, the Eastman mode of travel came to life. Martin Johnson wrote Eastman that he could travel as if going to London, and so he did. More than 200 small boxes of uniform size were shipped out of Kodak Park, assembled and numbered so as to end up on the appropriate native porters' heads. Once they were in the Kedong Valley of Kenya, far from civilization, Eastman rolled out the day's fare: corn meal and graham flour that had been sterilized back at Kodak Park, caviar and vintage wine served in crystal goblets on linen-spread table.

At the time, big game hunting was on the wane, and many species were already considered endangered. As it was, however, Eastman managed to have plenty of excitement without firing a shot.

While out on the hunt one day, the party encountered a rhinoceros. Eastman saw that its horns were unsuitable for trophy-taking purposes, so he decided to film it instead. As the Martin and Osa Johnson looked on, he moved within 20 feet of the beast, filming as he approached. Apparently, the camera was giving him trouble, because he failed to react at first when the rhino lowered its head and charged. He simply stood there, waiting until the animal came within 15 feet before stepping out of the way. For a moment, the rhino became more enraged and, in a second charge, came within two paces of Eastman, at which point it was brought down by a shot from one of the horrified onlookers.

A second safari in 1928 garnered Eastman several trophies for his wall, but after his brush with death, it was all an anticlimax. Inevitably, whenever he showed his rhino film to viewers back in the States, he was admonished for his foolhardiness. For once, he seemed to enjoy the reaction. To a friend he wrote: "The affair could not have been more perfect if it had been staged and was the opportunity of a lifetime."

Indeed, after a lifetime of heavily engineered adventures, George Eastman had finally experienced his Kodak moment.


written by David Lindsay

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