Neil Montanus was Kodak’s most famous photographer. For nearly four decades, his images promoted photography to millions of people around the world through Kodak Advertising. Starting from when he was a small boy growing up in a tiny Midwestern town during the depression (Ashton, Illinois) until today at age 85, his shutter has rarely stopped clicking. It was his unmitigated passion for photography - combined with a greatest-generation work ethic - that never diminished over all those years, constantly motivating him to create prodigious amounts of new work.
Neil graduated RIT in1953. In those years, the program was a two year photo education and located in downtown Rochester. He majored in portraiture and photo advertising illustrations. After graduation, he was hired as the manager of a large portrait studio near Chicago. As good fortune would have it, almost a year later, Kodak called Neil to join their advertising staff to take over the portrait duties of a fine gentleman who was about to retire. Another bonus came from RIT as they offered Neil a job in their evening division to teach portraiture. His wife, Audrey, was hired to teach elementary school in the City School District. They were newly married and coming to Rochester was their “honeymoon”.
Neil’s job was more like a National Geographic photographer than a Kodak photographer. During his career, he traveled to more than 32 different countries and some of the most beautiful places on the earth. He toured Europe on multiple occasions, Africa, Australia, South America, India, Taiwan, the South Pacific and even spent several nights with a former headhunting tribe in the jungles of Borneo. As a result, Neil’s career at Kodak has been called legendary by many.
Neil’s portrait of Walt Disney in 1961 was called the 'best portrait ever taken' of Walt Disney and is still in use at Disney facilities today. Originally hired as a portrait specialist by Kodak, Neil was asked to do the official White House portrait of President Gerald Ford, taken in the Oval Office after Nixon's resignation in 1974. And he worked with many top models, such as Cybil Shephard - long before her acting fame.
At times it seemed, that an article was written in Kodakery about his latest exploits every other issue. Kodakery was Kodak’s employee newspaper. With a whopping circulation of 75,000 locally, Neil soon because a household name in the Rochester area, particularly with the enormous population of local Kodak employees at the time. He was also featured in dozens of other local, national and international publications.
When he was awarded a Fellowship with the American Society of Photographers in 1981, he was only the 27th photographer in the world to receive that honor. The sheer volume of work he created is astounding. Pictures from family picnics or Christmas morning often wound up on Kodak film products or in national advertising campaigns. And he excelled in so many areas - advertising, dance, nudes, fine art, portraiture, travel - too many to name.
When he took up underwater photography, like everything else he did, he excelled in it, becoming Kodak’s underwater photography specialist. Neil continued to do underwater photography throughout his career, traveling to some of the most exotic diving locations in the world including the Great Barrier Reef, as well as various locations in the Caribbean and South Pacific. In the early 60’s, he pioneered large-format underwater photography techniques and used those techniques to take the world’s largest underwater photograph ever produced - an 18x60 ft. Kodak Colorama which was displayed in New York’s Grand Central Station in 1969.
Neil’s crowning achievement was probably his work on the famed Kodak Colorama project, putting him in the same company as Ansel Adams - who shot several - and Norman Rockwell, who art directed one in his iconic style. Once forgotten and now considered a key piece of Americana and photographic history, Neil shot 55 of the 565 Coloramas. Some of those Coloramas are on display here.
Interestingly, some of the potentially best Coloramas never saw the light of day. Recently discovered in Neil's archives are the ‘Lost Coloramas” - more than a hundred panoramic photographs which were never chosen by Kodak to be displayed in Grand Central Station. This collection is quite remarkable and some are on display here. One such image – a gritty portrait of ten churlish Rio Street Photographers taken in the 1970’s is an instant classic, complete with homemade view cameras fashioned from cardboard and other materials.
After retiring from Kodak, Neil spent eight summers in Yosemite National Park as a Kodak Ambassador where his job was to give early morning photo/nature walks through pristine natural areas, afternoon photo seminars and at night, and slide shows to hundreds of people in a natural outdoor amphitheatre in Yosemite Village. This allowed Neil to pursue his other passion: teaching photography. Neil learned an in-depth knowledge about where to go in the Park for the greatest vistas – when to go for pictures, what time of day and what time of year – and shared that with all of his students.
While at Yosemite, his boss at Kodak received dozens of letters of praise from tourists who had taken his seminars and were impressed with his dedication and passion for his job. Whether two people came to one of his seminars or 30 people, it didn’t matter. He went all out – every day. And this is a theme which is interwoven into his entire career – total dedication to his craft.
During his time in Yosemite, Neil befriended all kinds of different people in the park – from the Park Rangers to hang glider pilots, hikers, tourists and mountain climbers which he often photographed. As a result, Neil became a much beloved mainstay in Yosemite.