George Eastman House (Rochester, NY)

Masterpieces of American Photography

NEA: Why did George Eastman House want to participate in American Masterpieces?

ALISON NORDSTROM: We recognize that we have the most important collection of photographs in the world, and we know that we are in Rochester, New York. And while we love it when people come to see what we have, and they do, we think the possibility of getting [the art-work] out to people is also really exciting. I think that American Masterpieces is one of the savviest projects that the NEA has come up with in a while -- everybody wins. The big collections are supported in fulfilling their mission and the smaller institutions are supported in theirs.

NEA: Why is it so important that the nation have access to these original images?

NORDSTROM: When you see these cartes de visite of 18-year-old Civil War soldiers.... it's not the image that breaks your heart, it's the sense that this little photograph would have been held in someone's hand, tucked away in a drawer as a special thing. The materiality of photographs is such an important part of how we understand them.

NEA: How important was the NEA grant to this project?

NORDSTROM: Oh, it was essential in that it let us offer this exhibition for a very nominal rental fee; if we had done this without NEA support, it would have been a $30-40,000 exhibition, which would have been beyond the reach of most of these places.