The Memorial Art Gallery, Kodachrome, and Unknown Family History

I had a fascinating week. It all revolves around my family's involvement with color. Turns out there's more of a history than I knew.

Above is one of the main galleries in the Memorial Art Gallery (MAG) in Rochester, NY, my old hometown. They sent me payment for the two drawings of mine they just purchased for their Permanent Collection.

Inspired by that, I was perusing their website and ran across a new Gallery Buzz blog post by Lucy Harper, the Art Librarian and Webmaster at MAG that stopped me in my tracks. It explained that in the fall of 1914, Kodak decided to debut their then revolutionary new Kodachrome two color process film, the first commercially available color film, with an exhibition at the Memorial Art Gallery. My maternal grandfather, John Capstaff, was the inventor of this film, long a point of pride in my family. But nobody in my family seems to have known of the Museum's exhibit of my grandfather's photography, which seems strange to me. Harper continued "In all, over 27,000 people viewed the exhibition over its run, probably the Gallery’s first “blockbuster” exhibition after its inaugural exhibition the year before."

Memorial Art Gallery figured large in my life early on. My first visit there was a fourth grade school trip where some dedicated docent led us around and told us stories about the pictures. I remember thinking everything in the museum was amazingly old. But one painting stood out vividly for me, Winslow Homer's stunning oil The Artist's Studio in an Afternoon Sun (painted in 1894).

It is an absolutely masterful painting.  What probably impressed my young eyes on that museum tour was that it looked so much like the Lake Ontario beach where my family had built a home when I turned four. The Lake was huge and mysterious. I couldn't get enough of it, playing on its shore every chance I could get. In Homer's oil I could feel the old artist taking the same kind of delight I did in the waves lapping at the rocks and the other worldly glow of sunlight passing through fog. Homer was giving visual form to something that came right out of my own experience. I saw that art could clarify and define things in your life that can't be expressed any other way. While I didn't realize it at the time, that early encounter with MAG's Homer continued incubating in the back of my mind until it could burst out a two decades later.

But let's go back to my grandfather, who was a pioneer with color in film.  His understanding of what a photograph should be was based on traditions of earlier photographers. It's interesting to compare one of the vine charcoal drawings MAG just added to its Collection, Shore II, with some of my grandfather's work.

Mine is a monochrome image of Mt. Desert Island up in Maine. Its space is built out of overlapping planes of very different tones, as are the individual forms like the isolated stand of highlighted pines in the foreground. Below is a photograph I grew up with in my home, Mrs. Capstaff, taken by my grandfather in 1914. As a boy I would see it and just think "oh, that's my grandmother" and make little of it. (this image is taken from an extensive article in George Eastman House's Image magazine on the history of my grandfather's early color film process. Here's a link).

See how much the portrait photo feels modeled on the traditions of oil painting portraiture. Capstaff's color process was able to generate yellows and reds. but wasn't able to provide blues. So it tended to rely on the tonal structure of the image, with the warm hues laid over the darks and lights as a final layer.


Also from the Image magazine article, here's a 1914 still life photograph by my grandfather that clearly shows an indebtedness to 19th century still life painting (the French painter Fantin- Latour or the American John Peto come to mind). You can see such precedents were in the back of Capstaff's mind as he arranged the vegetables and considered how he would light the composition.

Looking at these photos from a hundred years ago by my grandfather, I immediately thought of the early landscape paintings I did when I was in my MFA Painting program at Indiana University and how tonally oriented they were, so much like the early color photos. Here is my oil Fall at Lake Lemon from 1971. I too was thinking a lot of the precedent of the 19th century painters who did so much with a limited palette of color to evoke the liveliness of the natural world. Their example had convinced me that thinking in terms of tones of dark and light was a tremendously effective tool to express light, space, and emotional depth.

Like my grandfather's early color explorations, my paintings built ther foundation on a structure of darks and lights. For reasons I don't fully understand over the last fifteen years I've felt pulled toward a more chromatic way of painting. Instead of painting in oils directly from nature, I've switched to making monochrome drawings outdoors and from memory, and then employing them to springboard into a far brighter set of colors that before. 

Here are two recent examples of my more colorful work done in my studio based on charcoal drawings-North Passage, oil, 45 x 60"from 2011
And North Star, 40 x 40" from 2005.

Learning my grandfather had his work in a pivotal show at Memorial Art Gallery both intrigues me and excites me. He was a man I never came to know well as I was born when he was much older and no longer in good health. Yet his exploration into early color photography feels a fitting complement to the increased prominence of color in my own painting. Maybe I know more about the old man than I think.


  1. Wow, this is great Philip ! Its in your genes.

  2. All paintings are awesome.Nice background colors use.Thank you sharing...

  3. Fantastic post. Amazing still life with the vegetables. The early photographs are great - and it is very cool to see that what has influenced you in your early years is still what you build upon today.

    1. Thanks Art Rochester. It's funny how one's family history sometimes gets more interesting to us as we get older. When I was a teenager so much of it seemed irrelevant. Guess that changes...


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