The George Eastman Museum is an important pillar, as both a Rochester landmark and a pioneer in photography and the arts. It’s the world’s oldest photography museum, and its namesake is the founder of Kodak, the company responsible for putting the first simple camera into the hands of a world of consumers. Plus, it has changed the way we view photography over the years – now we essentially walk around with cameras in our hands, pockets and bags every day.
Along with paying tribute to its history and that of its founder, the Museum makes it a priority to showcase artists and their work – particularly those that are timely and relevant to local and global themes and conversations. And this is holds true for its latest exhibit: Joshua Rashaad McFadden: I Believe I’ll Run On.
Rochester native and RIT professor Joshua Rashaad McFadden, recognized as one of TIME magazine’s “American Voices” and recipient of three first place International Photography Awards, critically examines race, masculinity, sexuality and gender in United States by working across genres: social documentary, reportage, portraiture, book arts and fine arts. Looking to the idea of “being-ness,” he considers the contemporary condition of Black life while referencing US history as a means to rediscover and define the Black self.
We sat down with the Museum’s Senior Director of Marketing and Engagement, Eliza Kozlowski, to get insight into the George Eastman Museum and Joshua Rashaad McFadden’s exhibit, currently running now through June 19, 2022.
Brittany: Since you’ve worked at George Eastman, how have you seen the museum and its exhibits evolve over time?
Eliza: We’re featuring more contemporary artists, and we’re also being more topical with our exhibitions to explore really important themes. I love that we have more exhibitions that provoke you, prompt conversation and are tackling really timely issues. And with our exhibitions, we always look for opportunities to connect with community organizations that are also having conversations around that, and we’ll ask ourselves, ‘How can this exhibition be used to help these organizations?’
Brittany: I love that the Museum is considerate of its community impact. If you had to brand the George Eastman Museum with one word, what would it be?
Brittany: That’s a great word. Tell me more!
Eliza: Whether it’s hearing George Eastman’s story as an inventor, a philanthropist and a major presence here in Rochester, or the works we show on the walls or the films we show in our theater, we want people to walk away being inspired in some way. And it might even be that they’re inspired to spark a conversation or give back to their community.
Brittany: Great point you make about presenting works that inspire a conversation. I’ve taken the virtual tour since I’m based in Atlanta – but I will make it up there to see the exhibit in person! – and from what I’ve seen, it definitely provokes some questions and personal reflection.
Let’s talk about the artist himself a little bit. In working with and getting to know him, what’s something interesting you learned about Joshua Rashaad?
Eliza: Rochesterians may find this particularly interesting and relatable: His grandparents worked at Kodak, and his mom gave him his first camera when he was seven years old. So, it was interesting to hear him say that there was a Kodak connection in his family, something we don't hear as much these days.
Brittany: Oh wow, so his ties to Rochester and the George Eastman Museum really run deep, and everything comes full circle. And how did you all actually come across Joshua Rashaad’s works? Or is he pretty well known in the visual arts community?
Eliza: We were doing an exhibition during the pandemic called Gathering Clouds, and our curator at the time decided to include one of the works from Joshua Rashaad’s series Selfhood. When she learned of his other works, the curator had the idea to feature his Love Without Justice series in our gallery where we introduce new work by contemporary artists. Then, with all of the conversation and unrest following George Floyd’s murder, we decided we need to expand this and include more of his work.
Brittany: Wow, that’s really interesting that Joshua Rashaad’s work – which, I’m sure was absolutely fantastic on its own – now served a greater purpose.
Eliza: Also, the New York Times had hired him to cover the protests in Minneapolis, Atlanta, D.C. and in Rochester where Daniel Prude was murdered. We knew it was very important to have this conversation and share his work now. It’s an unfortunate reason that it came about, but it’s allowed us to introduce people to some very important work.
Brittany: Indeed – it is difficult subject matter, but sadly, it is reality. And it is important.
Now, I’m not an art aficionado by any means: I don’t always understand it, but I can appreciate art. Do people need to be photography experts to gain something from this exhibit?
Eliza: Absolutely not. To see a photo right there in front of you as a still image, it’s incredibly powerful. It’s not always the art of it, it’s the story. We all come to an exhibit with our own narrative – so certain images will speak personally to them. And we have spark cards that help guide visitors’ discussions, whether it be introspectively or with others.
Brittany: Yes, the spark cards! Can you talk about those a little bit?
Eliza: Spark cards are provided to visitors with questions meant to incite conversations, and we usually do it when there are exhibits with subject matter that have challenging topics. And with those, we’ll typically invite people who are experts in a particular field to give us some ideas of questions. One question for Joshua Rashaad’s work is: What assumptions did I have before I came to this exhibition?
Brittany: That is a very useful tool. Are there other resources that visitors can look forward to utilizing, or any supplemental multimedia experiences that go along with this exhibit?
Eliza: The exhibit is accompanied by a catalog that features an essay by LaCharles Ward and a candid conversation between Joshua Rashaad and artist Lyle Ashton Harris. The George Eastman Museum is hosting a conversation between Joshua Rashaad and Lyle Ashton Harris on April 7, which will conclude with a book signing.
There’s also a Spotify playlist available, titled as the exhibit name – Joshua Rashaad McFadden: I Believe I’ll Run On – and we have a 360 tour available on the Museum’s website for those unable to see the work in person.
Brittany: Perfect! I love that there are so many ways audiences can engage with this work, whether you’re at the Museum or anywhere else.
To wrap up, what’s one thing you want visitors to leave with after visiting the Museum and after experiencing Joshua Rashaad McFadden’s exhibit?
Eliza: I want them to leave with more of an open mind and a better understanding of the multitude of topics that are explored. One of our staff members who worked on installing the exhibition said, "This exhibition doesn’t only celebrate Blackness, it celebrates humanity" – and that’s really what I want people to understand. There are so many layers to these very challenging topics that Joshua Rashaad is exploring. And I just want them to look at things a little differently.
And this goes back to being inspiring – changing people’s perspectives and touching them in some way so that they walk away transformed. If a museum exhibition can do that, we’ve done our job.