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Neil Montanus, a Kodak Colorama Photographer, Dies at 92

For four decades, the Eastman Kodak Company occupied some of the most valuable advertising real estate in America: the vast wall above the east balcony in Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.

Every weekday, 650,000 commuters and visitors who jostled through the main concourse could gaze up at Kodak’s Coloramas, the giant photographs that measured 18 feet high and 60 feet wide, each backlit by a mile of cold cathode tubing, displaying idealized visions of postwar family life — and the wonders of color film.

Happy families in bucolic settings, scuba divers in magical waters and skiers amid majestic mountains floated above the harried and tired office workers who slogged to and from their trains.

Shortly after the first Colorama went up in May 1950, the renowned photographer Edward Steichen, then director of the Museum of Modern Art’s photography department, telegraphed Kodak: “EVERYONE IN GRAND CENTRAL AGOG AND SMILING. ALL JUST FEELING GOOD.”

Over the next 40 years, Kodak displayed 565 Coloramas in Grand Central, inserting new ones every few weeks.

The photographer responsible for more Coloramas than anyone else — 55 of them — was Neil Montanus, a handsome and athletic adventure-seeker whose photographic exploits included embedding himself with a onetime headhunting tribe in Borneo and leaping out of a Land Rover in Kenya to capture the image of a snarling cheetah face to face.

Mr. Montanus was 92 when he died on Friday under hospice care in Rochester, his son Jim said.

He excelled at many things. He was a tenor who sang in church choirs and amateur opera productions. He was a sports coach and fitness buff who taught exercise classes and won a spot in the Rochester Tennis Hall of Fame.

With a camera, he could do it all. He advanced the art of underwater photography and was known for his pictures of exotic locales. He also specialized in shots of dancers and nude models. He was especially skilled at portraiture. His portrait of Walt Disney, who flew to Kodak headquarters in Rochester to pose for Mr. Montanus, was called (by Disney executives) the best ever taken of him. He was also chosen to take the official White House portrait of President Gerald R. Ford.

But the highlight of his career was shooting the Coloramas, one of the biggest, boldest and longest-running ad campaigns in American corporate history. Noted photographers like Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter took pictures for them, and Norman Rockwell staged at least one. But Mr. Montanus, starting in 1960, was one of Kodak’s go-to Colorama photographers.

“It was the great experience of his life, and he loved doing it,” said Alison Nordstrom, the former curator at the George Eastman House (now the George Eastman Museum) in Rochester. “The Colorama photographers were heroes in Kodaktown.”

After the grim years of World War II, Mr. Montanus’s photographs evoked the aspirational life that Kodak encouraged families to capture on their own with color film: a mother taking pictures of Christmas carolers through a frosted window; a sock hop in the basement rec room, with clean-cut teenagers jitterbugging; couples enjoying the fall foliage in Vermont.

“We want men who have had a hard day at the office to look up at it on their way to catch the 5:28 and like their wives and children the better for it when they get home,” Adolph Stuber, the Kodak executive who conceived the idea for the Coloramas, told The New Yorker in 1950.

The Colorama campaign promoted photography as an activity in itself. Wherever the scenes were set — in a sweeping vista out West, at a lakeside cabin in the Adirondacks, at a hip disco in New York City — someone in the picture was taking a picture of the picture, making the Coloramas meta before meta became a thing.

Kodak also promoted the American dream, or at least a gauzy version of it, with cheerful white nuclear families in the suburbs documenting their lives with cameras and going for those “Kodak moments.”

The Coloramas existed in a bubble outside the tumultuous 1960s. They favored subjects like Ozzie and Harriet Nelson and their boys, Ricky and David. The Nelsons, who appeared in several Coloramas, personified 1950s-style wholesomeness in their television show, “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” which was sponsored by Kodak. (In one episode, Ozzie bought cameras for everyone in the family.)

As Kodak sought to sell more film overseas, it sent Mr. Montanus to dozens of countries, where he took travel photos that the company used for advertising in those countries. While on these shoots, he would often take side trips to some of the world’s premier diving destinations, like the Great Barrier Reef, where he could perfect his underwater photography.

Mr. Montanus embraced it all, thriving as the leading Colorama photographer in Kodak’s heyday.

“He was Mr. Kodak,” Dr. Nordstrom said. “His death is the end of an era. His story and Kodak’s story are pretty much intertwined.”

Neil Carl Montanus was born on March 31, 1927, in Chicago. His father, Hugo, was a Presbyterian minister, and his mother, Genevieve (Racette) Montanus, was a church organist and pianist who oversaw a musical household; all of her seven children sang and played an instrument. (Neil played the trombone.)

The family lived in Ashton, Ill., west of Chicago, and later moved to the nearby town of Dixon, where Ronald Reagan had spent part of his youth.

When he was 10, Neil took a picture of a kitten inside the bell of a tuba. It won a Chicago Tribune photo contest and set him on his career path. He took odd jobs to earn money for film and chemicals to process his own prints.

At 18, with World War II underway, he joined the Army as a sharpshooter and a photographer, serving stateside. He later attended the Rochester Institute of Technology on the G.I. Bill, but he interrupted his studies to go back into the Army; he was again stationed stateside. He then returned to the institute and graduated from its School of Photography in 1953 with a degree in photography and a specialty in portraiture.

He went home to Illinois to work in a photo studio and married Audrey Katherine Mathews, a schoolteacher, in 1954, the same year he landed a job as a staff photographer at Kodak. He and his wife moved back to Rochester, where he started as a portrait specialist, and where he would work for 35 years.

His wife died in 2016. In addition to their son Jim, Mr. Montanus’s survivors include three brothers, Jim, Tom and Eugene; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren. His daughter, Lisa, died in 2018; another son, Daniel, died in 2010.

By the time the last Colorama was taken down in 1990, Mr. Montanus had retired from Kodak. But the company called him back to serve as one of its “ambassadors” at Yosemite National Park. For eight years he led early-morning nature photo walks for tourists and taught photography workshops.

Back in Rochester, he continued to explore the possibilities of photography. He was cleaning out his basement one day when he came across old Kodachrome slides of modeling shoots he had taken in the 1970s. Fearing that they had been ruined by moisture, he looked at them under a microscope and was delighted by the magnified images of bacteria that had formed. He turned them into big color photos that were exhibited at the Rochester Institute of Technology in 2012.

“It was an interesting transition from the classic Kodak look to this very psychedelic, hyper-modern imagery,” said Wendy Marks, director of the institute’s University Gallery. He called them “bacteriographs.”

Kodak itself was in the midst of a long decline, partly because of foreign competition and partly because it stuck with film too long into the digital age. The company filed for bankruptcy in 2012.

“It’s hard to remember how important Kodak was,” Dr. Nordstrom said. “But it shaped the way we live,” much the way Apple does now.

The east balcony in Grand Central, once the showcase for Kodak’s biggest vanity project, is now home to an Apple store.

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