Poland honors Mark Osterman's Rhoads Opera House print

“The Rhodes Incident” by Mark Osterman
“The Rhodes Incident” by Mark Osterman as the exhibit poster.

The arts community of Poland has recently fixed its focus upon a piece that is inspired by an event in Boyertown that occurred more than 100 years ago.

Mark and France Scully Osterman, artists of Rochester, N.Y. who use antiquated photographic processes in their work, were recently asked by a museum in Poznan, Poland to exhibit twenty-four of their prints.

One of Mark’s the pieces, “The Rhodes Incident,” was selected as one of the prints to be in the exhibit. This piece draws its inspiration from the 1908 Rhodes Opera House fire in Boyertown.

The image depicts a man operating a magic lantern projector powered by an acetylene gas generator, according to Mark. Smoke and then flames are seen coming out of the lens and the operator is looking towards the viewer. “It’s a powerful piece and even more so when one is aware of the back story,” said Mark.

Mark works as a historian at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film in Rochester, New York.

“There is currently a large and growing movement in the world today of artists making their own light sensitive media using early processes that date to the 1850s,” said Mark, adding “it’s a knee jerk reaction to digital imaging.”

France visited Poznan to attend the opening of their work. According to Mark, she mentioned that “The Rhodes Incident” was a ‘particular favorite of the crowd’ at the opening. Also, the curators of the exhibit used the image for the poster.

In the response explaining why he chose the subject he did, Mark said that it was a compelling subject due to the fact that half of the town was in attendance. He noted that the fire was reportedly started when gasoline from a projector set aflame. “The idea that a projector could cause a fire is an interesting concept.”

Mark, originally of Bucks County, made the print in 2006 following the discovery of an old photo album which contained photos of the fire, including images of charred bodies.

“We started a movement in antique process,” said Mark. This process involves work with glass and chemicals. “It’s a popular sub-art category—that’s why this exhibit is so important. It’s a strange subculture; a culture of a culture.”

The print was entirely made by hand, through a process which dates back to the Civil War era. Even the special effects are hand-made, according to Mark. “Photography has been manipulated since it was created.”

Coincidentally, Mark’s father now lives in Boyertown—an occurrence which Mark considers to be bizarre.

Since then, he says that he walked by the site of the fire, finding things familiar from the photo album. That’s when, he says, it dawned on him that the subject would be an interesting one.

“Since my father has lived there, I’ve gone to the site in Boyertown and to the different grave sites several times. The building has been rebuilt; the average person doesn’t realize [the tragedy that took place],” said Mark, noting that fire is the reason why doors now open outwards. “It has impacted all of America.”

With the exception of the paintings on the Rhoads Opera House windows by Studio B members, Mark believes his piece is the only international art work representing the Boyertown tragedy.

“You walk by these places all the time and you don’t know what happened there. Everywhere you go—you’ll find something interesting if you scratch beneath the surface a little bit.”

The exhibition, titiled State of Matters, features works using ‘19th century photographic processes in a 21st century context’ and includes works by eight Polish and American artists. In addition to Osterman and his wife France, the featured artists include Dan Estabrook, Jesseca Ferguson, Alan Greene, Jaroslaw Klups, Pawel Kula and Marek Noniewicz.

“Its funny that a little town of Boyertown would be recognized in Poland,” said Mark. “There were 23 other prints [of theirs] to choose from—they chose the Rhodes Incident for the poster.”

Mark and France established Scully and Osterman Studio in 1991. According to their website, www.collodion.org, together they have evolved as historians and masters of historic (alternative) photography. Their work can be found in the Howard Greenberg Gallery of New York City and the Tilt Gallery of Phoenix, Ariz. When “The Rhoads Incident” print returns from Poland, it will return to the Tilt Galley in Arizona.

Jan. 13, 2014 will mark the 106th anniversary of the Rhoads Opera House fire.

About the Author

Rebecca Blanchard

Rebecca won't hesitate to tell you that she has enjoyed writing throughout her entire life. Born and raised in Pennsylvania, she graduated from the professional writing program of Kutztown University in 2012. Rebecca joined Berks-Mont Newspapers in July of 2012 as editor of The Boyertown Area Times following her internship with the newspaper. In addition to writing, she enjoys traveling and cooking gluten-free foods. Reach the author at rblanchard@berksmontnews.com or follow Rebecca on Twitter: @boyertowntimes.