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The Wizard of Photography | Article

Key Figures in Eastman's Life

Maria Eastman, George Eastman's mother

Josephine Dickman
George Eastman was a confirmed bachelor, and there is no evidence to suggest that any secret trysts remain to be discovered. But perhaps this is beside the point, because short of consummation, Eastman was eventually as intimate with Josephine Dickman as any lover could be.

The manner in which they met says a great deal about Eastman's relationship to women. In 1889, he made a trip to Europe with his mother -- her first and only transatlantic trip, though her son often invited her to join him. In London, the Eastmans attended a dinner organized by William Walker, then Eastman's London manager, which included the American expatriates George and Josephine Dickman. Perhaps the combination of their interests -- George was an international businessman and Josephine, a trained singer -- spoke to the musically inclined businessman in Eastman. More likely, Eastman felt a certain liberation, as the fact the Mrs. Dickman and his mother got along famously. 

In any event, Eastman quickly attached himself to the Dickmans, whose lifestyle opened up a new world for him -- a world of private clubs, theater, art, and antiques. In appreciation, Eastman appointed George Dickman to replace Walker as his London manager in January 1893. And so the uneven menage continued through the meeting rooms and galleries of Europe until tragedy, which had visited Eastman so often, again came calling.

In 1898 Eastman was in England looking for investors to form Kodak, Limited, an international company that, once formed, would virtually guarantee a world monopoly. This goal was within reach on November 9, when Dickman visited Eastman at the London office with some business to review. Then, suddenly, Dickman began to complain of severe abdominal pain.

As the pain continued, Dickman was laid out on a table in the board room; Eastman called an ambulance. Dickman was taken to his Hampstead home, followed soon thereafter by a surgeon. Eastman, who had ridden in the ambulance, stood by helplessly as the operation was performed. He was relieved to see Dickman's health rebound. But as so often happens, Dickman's condition took a turn for the worse a few days later, and on November 15 -- the very same day that the formation of Kodak, Limited, provided George Eastman a sum of $900,000 -- he died.

  With the passing of George Dickman, Eastman's relationship with Josephine took on a more intense cast. Her husband's wealth (part of which stemmed from working with Eastman's company) allowed her the luxury of an apartment in New York, a summer home in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and winter quarters at hotels in Boston and Toronto, not to mention frequent vacations in Brussels. As she moved about, Eastman tracked her whereabouts relentlessly and even defied his usual injunction against ever using the telephone to locate her. His trips to New York often coincided with her presence at her apartment there, and often they would return to Rochester together. As often as not, when he went on camping trips, Josephine would take care of his mother. In 1904 he felt entitled enough to ask her to cut short a stay in Minneapolis and come to Eastman House to interview prospective housekeepers. Whatever their relationship boiled down to, it was enduring and deep.

Certainly they shared common interests. Both were music lovers -- she being a trained singer and he a dedicated listener -- who complemented each other well. Both were dedicated philanthropists as well, and gradually they began to give to the same charities. In this way, Eastman contravened another rule of his. He had always resolved not to donate money to schools for women. Yet in 1913 he sent a check for $5,000 to the Lowthorpe School of Landscape Architecture, Horticulture and Gardening for Women at Groton, near Petersham, Massachusetts -- one of Josephine's benefactors. 

Of course, the primary woman in Eastman's life had always been his mother, who had raised him after his father's death until he could afford to support her in turn. When Maria Eastman died in 1907, then, it was only natural that he and Josephine should become even closer.

It was at this time that Eastman started taking Josephine along on his vacations. In October, 1907, they went on a trip together to Oak Lodge, Eastman's home-away-from-home in Halifax County, North Carolina. She came to his Rochester home for Christmas of that year, and in the spring of 1908, they made another trip, this one to Wyoming. There, they spent their days trout fishing, camping and horseback riding. One night, while they were sitting around the campfire, Josephine decided to sing, and when the coyotes joined her, she witnessed a very rare sight indeed: George Eastman doubled up in laughter.

The relationship between George Eastman and Josephine Dickman practically begs for psychoanalysis, and perhaps the closest expression of its meaning can be found in that he loved to photograph her. He caught her in almost every setting imaginable: at the billiard table, at the archery range, on picnics, in canoes, in the woods, on fishing expeditions. To what end? As his biographer, Elizabeth Brayer, has noted, "Considering his shyness, perhaps all this photographing was a way of making love without making love."

Maria Eastman
The central person in George Eastman's life, without a doubt, was his mother. She was born Maria Kilbourn on August 22, 1821, on a farm on Paris Hill, between Waterville and Utica, New York. The youngest of seven, she grew up knowing a rural, self-reliant life. Her religious leanings were Calvinist and moderate, her social life next to non-existent. On September 25, 1844, at the spinsterly age of 23, she married George Washington Eastman in Kingsville, New York, and they soon moved to the relatively bustling city of Rochester.

G. W. Eastman taught bookkeeping and was an author of such titles as "Fulton and Eastman's Bookkeeping, Single and Double Entry," and the "Complete System of Penmanship." These pursuits were not enough to put bread on the table, however, and the Eastmans were compelled to move back to Waterville, where he took a second job while still maintaining his school in Rochester. The young George Eastman, born on July 12, 1854, was thus raised mostly by his mother, as his father spent half the year in Rochester on business. 

To these difficulties fate conspired to add the pall of mortality. G. W. died when his son George was only eight. George’s sister Katie, who suffered from polio, followed in 1870. Struck with poverty, Maria began taking in boarders, one of whom, Henry Strong, would later become a leading player in the Eastman company. Doubtless, these circumstances brought Maria Eastman and her son George uncommonly close together when he was still quite young. As George Eastman began to experience success with his photography business, he vowed to repay his mother for the hardships she had endured in raising him. She did not make this easy, however. Long accustomed to doing without, she went shopping with him only under vigorous protest. If he bought a fur coat for himself, she would make a point of choosing a cloth coat with fur trim. He once did everything short of beg her to make a trip to the dressmaker for new clothes. 

George knew that his mother would show the same resistance when he decided it was time to buy her a new house. Rather than enter into a protracted debate, then, he simply purchased a 15-room house for her on Arnold Park, in Rochester's fashionable East Avenue district, then went off to Europe on business.

Maria had no choice but to move in, but she didn't have to like it. Her son sent back telegrams and letters from Europe detailing his adventures. He had attended to the Royal Lyceum Theater and met with famous architects. He had met the famous Nadar, a balloonist and photography pioneer who had once started an "aerialist" society with novelist Jules Verne.To these reports, Maria responded with complaints about the wallpaper, the plumbing, the heating. When George tried to tease her or offer reassurances, she became slow to respond to his letters. Finally, just before returning home, he wrote "I am afraid you are worrying yourself sick."

His fears were prophetic. Not long after he returned to Rochester, they received word that Maria was suffering from uterine cancer. An operation was performed, successfully, but her recovery was slow, and George's became more devoted to her than ever. 

By the turn of the century, Maria Eastman was perhaps the happiest she had ever been. Lavished by her millionaire son, she became almost jaunty and was quick to reassure him that everything would be all right even if his various business "schemes" fell through. When he went away on business, she was a familiar presence around Kodak Park, where she kept a well-attended bed of flowers in the engine room. Only in the last two years of her life was she completely confined to a wheelchair. 

The death of one's mother is always a cataclysmic event, but Maria's passing on June 16, 1907, 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."  

Of course, Eastman could never do enough for his mother during her lifetime, and so it was after she was gone: When he opened the Eastman Theater in Rochester on September 4, 1922, among its features was a chamber-music hall dedicated to her memory: the Kilbourn Theater. And long after that, a rose cutting from her childhood home still flowered on the grounds of the Eastman House.

Thomas Edison
When Thomas Edison and Eadweard Muybridge crossed paths in February 1888, Edison was already world famous for his phonograph, his light bulb and his singularly mesmerizing manner of engaging the world. But Muybridge was not entirely unknown. Ever since he had invented the zoopraxiscope, an early advance in the field of moving pictures, he had been promoting it on both sides of the Atlantic to growing interest. By the time he arrived in West Orange, New Jersey, to deliver a lecture, he was famous enough to get an audience with Edison -- and smart enough to suggest that the phonograph and the zoopraxiscope might be combined.

Edison agreed, and together they worked to capture actors Edwin Booth and Lillian Russell in both sight and sound, thus creating the world's first talkies. The effect was laughably crude, as synchronization was achieved simply by starting the two machines at the same time. What's more, the phonograph had yet to be adapted for large audiences. For Muybridge, this drawbacks were enough for him to abandon the idea on the spot.

Edison, however, was not so quick to give up. He filed a caveat (a preliminary announcement of intentions) with the Patent Office in October, 1888, in which he described what he called a Kinetoscope: a cylinder with photographic images arranged in a spiral pattern around it. These images were meant to be viewed with a magnifying glass, but they proved blurry when enlarged.

Pressing forward, Edison obtained some heavy sheets of celluloid coated with photographic emulsion from John Carbutt of Philadelphia, a pioneer in dry-plate photography, for use as a flexible motion-picture film. By wrapping a 15-inch celluloid sheet around his cylinder, Edison was able to expand the number of photographs for each individual "movie" and succeeded in recording five seconds of living movement.

By late 1889 Edison and his main assistant on the project, William K.L. Dickson, decided that they would have to develop an entirely different kind of apparatus if they were to achieve truly meaningful results. As they zeroed in on their next step, the principle behind the Eastman-Walker Roll Holder, which had been introduced several years earlier, clearly influenced their thinking. Instead of using a cylinder, they cut the celluloid into strips, which could then be fed across the focal plane of the camera. This method of viewing motion pictures proved durable enough to survive the entire twentieth century and, even with the introduction of digital movies at the dawn of the new millennium, promises to remain in use for many years to come.

Carbutt's celluloid had the drawback of being stiff (celluloid having first been developed as an ivory substitute), but George Eastman had developed a tougher, lighter and more flexible version of the material exactly when it was needed. Upon hearing of it, Edison coaxed Eastman to provide him with specially designed 50-foot celluloid specimens. As the story goes, Edison was "seraphic" on receiving these specimens. Then, snapping out of his reverie, he sent a message back to Eastman: "That's it -- we've got it -- now work like hell!"

Edison took his own advice and proceeded with all due speed. The experiments went on in West Orange laboratories, first in a locked and darkened Room 5, then in a compound building that was closed to everyone but Dickson, Charles Batchelor and Edison himself. But because Edison was involved in so many different projects at once, progress was slow. The first practical motion picture device was the Kinetoscope, which was a peephole machine rather than a movie projector. It was not delivered to the public until April 14, 1894, when the first Kinetoscope parlors were opened on lower Broadway in New York.

In the meantime, Edison had seen Dickson defect to a rival company and a welter of other movie companies using a wide variety of technologies spring up around him. Indeed, Edison was only one of many inventors who held important claims on motion-picture technology. Nevertheless, his name held great weight, and his motion-picture company enjoyed significant popularity in the early years of the industry. 

Although Edison and Eastman became linked through mutual business interests (which were eventually dismantled by the United States Justice Department), they did not actually meet until meet until 1907. Even then they maintained a respectful distance, no doubt in part because of an earlier clash over x-ray photography. Soon after the discovery of x-rays in 1895, Edison developed a fluoroscope that, so he claimed, would make x-ray photographs unnecessary. At the time, Eastman may have been annoyed by the boast, as he was working on a form of x-ray photography for use in dentistry. 

By the 1920s, the two inventors had drifted toward friendship, but the shadow of disregard lingered. "Edison is probably the greatest inventor who ever lived," Eastman wrote in 1922, "but when it comes to economics he is about as half baked as Henry Ford... it is a pity that Edison is so intent on showing his weakness."

Be that as it may, Edison continued right on working and inventing until his death in 1931.

Henry Reichenbach
Henry M. Reichenbach was in some ways George Eastman's best employee and in some ways his worst. In this, he resembled a fictional character Eastman had read about in his childhood.

In 1885 Eastman and William Walker had experienced great success with the Eastman-Walker Roll Holder, but by the following year it was clear that this system of inventions, which allowed photographers to advance a series of exposures through the camera, left much to be desired. Most notably, the paper film used in it produced grainy images. Eastman accordingly turned to Dr. Samuel A. Lattimore, the head of the chemistry department at the University of Rochester, who recommended the services of Reichenbach, Lattimore's undergraduate assistant and something of an expert in the area of glass plates. 

Reichenbach came to work for Eastman in August 1886, and after researching emulsions briefly he was assigned the task of finding a substitute for paper as a film base. This was easier said than done. Depending on the approach, the film would become too fragile or too thin, too greasy or too cloudy, or just plain wrinkled. But Reichenbach was patient and by December 1888, he and Eastman had produced a nitrocellulose solution in wood alcohol that seemed to show promise. Two months later, he explained to the board of directors how a precise solution, flowed over glass and allowed to evaporate, would produce a transparent, flexible film that could then be peeled off, cut into strips and inserted into cameras. 

Originally, both Eastman and Reichenbach filed patents on this technology. Eastman found himself in a generous mood, however, and withdrew his patent. Reichenbach's patent was issued on December 10, 1889, by which time Kodak had been selling nitrocellulose film for three months. The effect of Reichenbach's success was palpable: that same year, a new corporation was organized, capitalized at one million dollars and called simply "The Eastman Company." 

Eastman's largess did not extend to betrayals, however. By the end of 1891, Eastman had come to rely on Reichenbach not only for his chemical expertise but for almost every aspect of his business. At the end of his tether, Reichenbach resolved to find his own path, and made plans with several other employees to start up their own company.

When Eastman caught wind of this "conspiracy" (as he called it), he may well have recalled an adventure novel from his childhood written by Oliver Optic, in which one Robert Shuffles is taken aboard a kind of reform-school ship, where he organizes a "Chain League" bent on overthrowing the benevolent and childless captain. Oliver Optic's protagonist is forgiven in the end, but only because his conscience drives him to confess his misdeeds. Reichenbach, on the other hand, suffered no such pangs; his plans came to Eastman's attention through "informants." On New Year's Day 1892, Eastman wrote a letter to Reichenbach and his "ring," informing them simply that their services were no longer required.

The Photo Materials Company, as Reichenbach's renegade outfit was called, managed to cause some havoc in Eastman's ranks. Understanding the film process as he did, Reichenbach had made arrangements to team up with the Celluloid Company, which held the rights to the celluloid that Eastman needed to make his film. Not surprisingly, the celluloid shipped to Eastman soon started to deteriorate in quality -- it was yellow and stuck to the glass. That the Photo Materials Company quickly went out of business was cold comfort, even if it allowed Eastman to buy up its property and machinery at bargain-basement prices. 

In 1896 Reichenbach joined with John E. Morey of the Rochester Cut Sole company and Albert Will, a manufacturer of stoves and ranges, to found a company that manufactured Alta cameras. At this time, though, the Eastman Kodak Company of New York was an international corporation and was already dominating the field of amateur photography.

Still, Eastman never forgave Reichenbach for his betrayal. This made it all the more ironic that Eastman later found it necessary to defend Reichenbach's patent vigorously against similar claims made by the Reverend Hannibal Goodwin, in a court battle that went on for decades.

Henry Strong
Henry Alvah Strong was the opposite of George Eastman in just about every way possible. Where Eastman was taciturn, Strong was gregarious. Where Eastman was tough-minded, Strong was a soft touch. Together, they made a formidable business partnership.

The son of a newspaper publisher, Henry Strong started as what today might be called a "problem child." Quitting school at the age of 16, he made his way to New York City and tried his hand at banking briefly before going to sea "as a common sailor before the mast." Discovering that life aboard ship involved little more than drunken skippers and scrapes with death, he jumped ship in France, without a dime in his pocket or a word of French in his head, and got by on his charm. He surfaced next in St. Louis, where he went into an unspecified business with a cousin in 1859. The plan failed almost immediately, leaving him free to climb Pike's Peak in the middle of winter with a team of oxen. During the Civil War, he served as a paymaster in the Navy (which was conveniently far from any action), then settled down to a marriage and a principal position in his family's buggy-whip company, having earned the title of "colonel" in a mysterious fashion along the way.

This errant pilgrim entered Eastman's life in 1870, when Maria Eastman, trying to make ends meet after her husband's death, took the Strong family in as boarders. As the decade progressed, George Eastman took an increasing interest in photography, and by 1880 had gone into the dry-plate business for himself. For all his drive, Eastman was still on his first shaky legs as an entrepreneur and needed capital to give his company a fighting chance. This capital arrived in the nick of time, on December 23, 1880, when Henry Strong put up $1000 and became the president of the Eastman Dry Plate Company, effective the first day of 1881.

Strong took to his position like a natural. By August of 1881, he had invested an additional $5,000, allowing Eastman to move his operation to larger quarters. Later, when money was no longer an object, he proved even more valuable as the public face of Eastman's business. Strong knew everyone and everyone knew him. If he and Eastman chanced on an acquaintance on the street, Eastman would hem and haw and squint off into the distance while Strong plunged into a round of bearhugs and backslaps.

Their contrasting personalities made for a decided advantage in business dealings: in public Strong would charm clients to distraction, and in private Eastman would bargain them into the ground. But the two men managed to form a genuine friendship as well -- one of the few Eastman could honestly claim. When Strong embarked on a foolhardy scheme in the dry dock business in the 1880s, Eastman, normally intolerant of sloppy business practices, was the very picture of patience as he talked Strong into cutting his losses. And, perhaps because they had met under casual circumstances, Strong was one man who felt free to tease Eastman, calling him by various nicknames, taking him playfully to task for remaining single, even cautioning his partner to treat his new employees less harshly.

By 1901 Strong had grown weary of his presidential tasks and tendered his retirement, staying on only as vice president of the holding company and president of the manufacturing company in Rochester--both honorary titles. When his wife died in 1904, the 67-year-old bon vivant married a woman half his age. He spent many of the remaining days until his death in 1919 on the golf course, with such eminent partners as John D. Rockefeller.

Strong himself probably summed his personality best when, after his dry-dock fiasco, he wrote to Eastman with the admission: "You may be able to blow some sense into me yet. I have no taste for battles. I indulge only in cigars." Fortunately for Eastman, he indulged in the photography business as well. 

William Stuber
In 1893, the Eastman company was in dire straits. Henry Reichenbach, the company's star chemist and emulsion maker, had left in disgrace, the entire country was experiencing a financial depression, and it was beginning to look as if the salad days of Kodak were over. Into this crisis stepped William G. Stuber of Louisville, Kentucky.

George Eastman first met Stuber at a photographic convention. A portrait photographer of national repute, Stuber had just returned from Switzerland, where he had spent six months studying emulsion techniques of Dr. John Henry Smith. In fact, Stuber owned a half-interest in Henry's new plate-coating machine. Ever alert to talent and rival technologies alike, Eastman invited the photographer to Rochester to interview for the position of foreman in the transparency plate department. 

Stuber arrived confident of getting the job, as he brought his family with him. He was not misguided. During the interview, Eastman asked the photographer for his opinion on why Kodak film went bad after about six months. Without missing a beat, Stuber told him that it was because of the way the emulsions were handled during production. Taken aback, Eastman pressed for more and received a theory that he could test for himself. Stuber was assigned to work on emulsions a few days later. 

At the time, emulsions were a particularly sore point at Kodak Park. With the departure of Reichenbach, the celluloid used for the film began to go bad, and with that, the emulsions no longer worked. Stuber would eventually solve this problem in a manner that remains a trade secret even today, and pull Kodak out of its crisis -- but not before he had paid his dues. In 1896, exasperated with his poor results, he tendered his resignation. Eastman refused to accept it and asked what his success rate was. When Stuber replied that he might get two good batches and two bad ones a day, Eastman suggested he make more batches. 

Stuber's own position at the company would be a frequent source of contention. At one time or another, he was at odds with many of the key people under Eastman's employ -- after Eastman, he was the second-highest paid employee at Kodak -- and eventually with Eastman himself. Having been made president of Eastman Kodak on Eastman's retirement in 1925 (in recognition of the contributions he made to the company), he continued to carp that his contract was unsatisfactory. Yet for all that, when Eastman fell ill in 1930, Stuber still felt close enough to his employer to send him the formula for a personal "emulsion"--15 drops of iodine a day, chased down by Scotch or Rye.

William Walker
William Walker first appeared in Rochester in 1880 as a supplier for amateur photographers and soon teamed up with Charles Forbes, a former mentor and partner of Eastman's. A man with a quick mechanical mind, Walker was selling his own dry-plates within three years. More important, he developed a small camera for amateurs called "Walker's Pocket Camera." With this device, Walker beat Eastman to the goal of a camera with interchangeable parts. But Walker had no aptitude for business, and he stopped manufacture in 1883, leaving his company to be reformed as the Rochester Optical Company without him. In the meantime, Eastman had recognized Walker's talents and, in the beginning of 1884, offered him a position as a partner.

At the time, Eastman had become convinced of the need for a totally different approach to photography -- instead of dry plates, he imagined a rollable substance that was flexible and lighter than glass. While he pursued an emulsion that would work on such a substance, Walker worked on the roll holder and the machinery that would apply the emulsion to the film. But Walker quickly revealed a difficult side to his personality. He would give up hope at the slightest setback and "stamp around the room, letting himself go completely." Worse, he began to express resentment toward his employer for his own shortcomings.

In the end, Eastman and Walker designed the roll holder together, while Eastman, working alone, devised a method of making the "gelatin paper dry plates" to be used in it. These two advances amounted to a new system: the paper film was wound around a wooden spool, then stretched onto a take-up spool. This mechanism was fitted in turn inside a brass-tipped mahogany case, which attached to the back of the camera instead of the usual glass-plate holder. 

The Eastman-Walker Roll Holder, patented on May 5, 1885, was a great leap forward for photography. Not only did it have 17 interchangeable parts, making mass production feasible, but its very nature meant that the general public could entertain the notion of using it. In the 1880s photographers were accustomed to carting around 50-pound cameras that would yield two or three photographs an hour. A camera using the Eastman-Walker Roll Holder, on the other hand, could dispatch up to 50 images in an hour, even though it weighed a mere two and three-quarters pounds. Suddenly, taking pictures was easy to do.

That year, the roll holder went on to win gold medals at the International Inventions Exhibitions of London and Exhibition Universelle in Paris, but the initial euphoria soon wore off. Eastman's paper film was grainy, and photographers largely rejected it. And on a more personal level, Walker's temper tantrums were becoming increasingly severe.

Hoping to make the best of the situation -- Eastman had to deal with Walker because Walker was a major stockholder -- Eastman sent the inventor to head the London office in 1885. For a time, this move seemed to solve the problem. Indeed, in 1889, when Eastman made a trip to Europe with his mother, Walker introduced him to George and Josephine Dickman -- who would later become, respectively, an invaluable business partner and Eastman's most intimate friend.

Even across the ocean, however, Eastman and Walker continued to come to loggerheads. Walker understood photography, but it was becoming all too clear that he knew nothing about running a business. As the European operation slipped out of control, Eastman had no choice but to fire the brilliant inventor and replace him with the suave and worldly George Dickman.

At first, Walker howled in protest, but finally he accepted the pronouncement. In later years, when he was no longer "vexed and angered beyond endurance" over circumstances at the workplace, he chanced on Eastman at Niagara Falls and urged him to invest in a Buffalo paper concern. Eastman declined, but held out an olive branch nonetheless: he took Walker's invalid daughter Gertrude and her English governess on a train ride to visit his mother. Walker, the perennial complainer, was pleased.

Written by David Lindsay

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