A love affair with the lens
Jim Montanous carries on family vision; photos Jim and Neil Montanus
Jim Montanus is following in his father’s footsteps yet carving out his own path as a multiple “Best of Rochester” winner and frequent poster on Facebook, where his gorgeous photos of Rochester-area scenes in all kinds of weather are increasingly popular. He might have adopted his dad’s profession, but he isn’t standing in his dad’s shadow.
Montanus is the son of Neil Montanus, who had a successful career with Kodak for many years, traveling the world to create iconic images of cultures, landscapes, family traditions, and more in the company’s huge—18-by-60-foot—“Colorama” photos that adorned New York City’s Grand Central train station for several decades and set a standard of visual and technical excellence that would be hard to beat. Neil is also considered as having pioneered underwater photography techniques, which he used to create the world’s largest underwater photo.
“Neil was one of the most important and notable photographers of the twentieth century,” says Montanus. “His work was seen by hundreds of millions of people around the world through Kodak. The company’s goal was to show people what types of things they could take photos of, and they sent him all over the world. He created a huge library of images in so many countries when photography was still a hobby. He never stopped shooting.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, Neil’s example, photography wasn’t Jim’s initial choice of career—he thought he would go into journalism as a writer. In fact, he has written that he hated photography when he was growing up. Neil was always taking pictures or film of “everyone and everything. He was relentless,” Jim has written. He and his siblings had to stop and pose all the time.
When Neil became the underwater photography specialist for Kodak, he taught Jim and younger son Dan to scuba dive and be his assistants. A two-week trip in the Caribbean for Kodak changed Jim’s perspective and “photography wasn’t such a pain anymore.”
Jim found his calling as a journalism major at Brockport College. “For a required newswriting class, I was shooting everything on campus,” he recalls. “It was very exciting. It made my whole college experience so rich.” He became principal photographer and photo editor for the campus newspaper.
Jim did write for the Greece Post newspaper and SUNY Brockport Office of Communications through internships, but photography kept taking over. His first “serious” job was as a staff photographer in the University of Rochester’s public relations office, based at the River Campus shooting photos at Strong Memorial Hospital, the university medical school, Simon School of Business, Warner Graduate School of Education, and the Eastman School of Music. “That was heaven for me, because I grew up with music,” he says. He took piano and trombone lessons there in earlier years.
He went from UR to Rochester General Hospital, Frontier Corporation, Global Crossing, and the Unity Health System doing writing, graphic design, and desktop publishing as well as photography. After being “involuntarily separated” from Unity in 2013, his career took off when his images of dramatic winter scenes along the Lake Ontario shore “catapulted” him into national visibility and “threw his photography career into overdrive.” He opened his own gallery in 2013, which became his studio and classroom.
Jim learned from his father—“He taught me everything I know”—and also took classes and private lessons.
While Neil’s best-known and most-frequent images were of people, families, and celebratory events, Jim gets his professional inspiration from nature. “What really gets my blood pumping is weather images,” he says. Part of the challenge and reward is that “it’s difficult to capture something like lightning because it goes off in seconds. I get so excited and overcome by enthusiasm. I have a lightning dance!”
Images of Rochester in all seasons play an important role in how people see the area, Jim says. “People connect when they see their own hometown in my photos.” One result is that his print sales are most of his business these days, even when cellphone cameras are so popular and prevalent.
In some ways, the father and son business styles were similar, thanks to the advent of digital photography, even though Neil’s career was more international and large-scale in scope. “He loved it,” Jim says of digital technology. “It had immediacy and gave him control over processing. He taught me a lot. We were able to scan and share many of his old images.”
A benefit of his work, Jim says, is that he learns new things about Rochester through the places where he shoots his photos.
And there have been other benefits: Jim met his domestic partner, Danielle, through photography. She’s a surgical assistant and “an excellent photographer,” he says.
While he hasn’t been everywhere that Neil went on Kodak assignments, Jim did seek out and find the site in the Adirondacks where his dad took one of Jim’s favorite Kodak images. And he has plans to take his own work to new places: He started an excursion business to take people on photography trips in the area a couple of years ago. “I stopped during the pandemic but would like to start that up again and expand it regionally, nationally and internationally,” he says.
The wider world is beckoning Jim Montanus to take his photographic talents to those new vistas and maybe even closer to Neil’s legacy: “I want to go everywhere and shoot everything,” he says. “Maybe to Iceland to see the northern lights and volcanic formations.”
For information about Jim Montanus’s business and images, go to montanusphotography.com.