Amateur Movie Making: Aesthetics of the Everyday in New England Film, 1915-1960

Amateur Movie Making: Aesthetics of the Everyday in New England Film, 1915-1960


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A compelling regional and historical study that transforms our understanding of film history, Amateur Movie Making demonstrates how amateur films and home movies stand as testaments to the creative lives of ordinary people, enriching our experience of art and the everyday. Here we encounter the lyrical and visually expressive qualities of films produced in New England between 1915 and 1960 and held in the collections of Northeast Historic Film, a moving image repository and study center that was established to collect, preserve, and interpret the audiovisual record of northern New England. Contributors from diverse backgrounds examine the visual aesthetics of these films while placing them in their social, political, and historical contexts. Each discussion is enhanced by technical notes and the analyses are also juxtaposed with personal reflections by artists who have close connections to particular amateur filmmakers. These reflections reanimate the original private contexts of the home movies before they were recast as objects of study and artifacts of public history.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253026163
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 05/29/2017
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 8.90(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Martha J. McNamara is Director of the New England Arts and Architecture Program in the Department of Art at Wellesley College. She is author of From Tavern to Courthouse: Architecture and Ritual in American Law, 1658-1860 and editor (with Georgia Barnhill) of New Views of New England: Studies in Material and Visual Culture, 1680-1830.

Karan Sheldon is cofounder of northern New England’s moving image archive, Northeast Historic Film. She has curated screenings including You Work, We’ll Watch and Exceptional Amateur Films and given annual lectures in Regional and Nontraditional Moving Image Archiving for the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation, Rochester, NY.

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Amateur Movie Making

Aesthetics of the Everyday in New England Film, 1915-1960

By Martha J. McNamara, Karan Sheldon

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2017 Northeast Historic Film
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-02644-6


A Place for Moving Images: Thirty Years of Northeast Historic Film

Karan Sheldon

Although they use as their material the vocabularies of established languages (those of television, newspapers, the supermarket or city planning), although they remain within the framework of prescribed syntaxes (the temporal modes of schedules, paradigmatic organizations of places, etc.), these "traverses" remain heterogeneous to the systems they infiltrate and in which they sketch out the guileful ruses of different interests and desires. They circulate, come and go, overflow and drift over an imposed terrain, like the snowy waves of the sea slipping in among the rocks and defiles of an established order.

— Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life

How are we to understand twentieth-century films made by regular people in light of their qualities of experimentation, the continuities and shifts in individual and family-based entertainments, and the intermingling of personal expression and popular culture? The collaborative creativity among women, men, and children in personal films has been largely unrecognized, imperiling the survival of home movies and amateur film in museums, libraries, archives, and other repositories.

This essay calls attention to challenges faced by the custodians of amateur films and home movies, recognizes scholars who have spoken on behalf of personal films, and comments on issues in institutions promoting humanities and arts endeavors that have stood in the way of fuller recognition of these creative works.

Personal films contain images of lives and landscapes, of gestures, colors, and interactions that survive only on these original reels of celluloid. Michel de Certeau's phrase identifying consumers as "poets of their own acts" might describe the creators of home movies and amateur films as they moved in their worlds and framed particular visions. Becoming acquainted with these films as intentional works, despite their largely hidden flow in private spaces, "slipping in among the rocks and defiles of an established order," may change our understanding of visual media. My argument derives from the experience of a moving image archive that has concentrated on collecting and sharing home movies and amateur film. Northeast Historic Film has a regional collecting mandate, northern New England, that has functioned as a filter, organizing criterion, and intellectual ground. The film examples are rooted in twentieth-century New England, inviting comparison among works made in this place within the span of five decades. Each personal film is both as common as the everyday and is also the sole instance, reflecting private lives, creative notions, engagement with photochemical and mechanical technologies and the culture of its moment.

The Journal of Film and Video in 1986 published a special issue on home movies and amateur filmmaking. Fred Camper's "Some Notes on the Home Movie" captured two concepts that seem no less important today to those concerned with personal film. Camper's points are that home movies have been little understood, and archives for their care are necessary: "It would be presumptuous to offer anything but the most preliminary of taxonomies of the home movie. What is needed is first of all an archival source, in which all type and manner of home movies are collected and preserved. Then scholars could go about the work of screening, studying, [and] evaluating. My primary goal here is to assert that such a work should be done, especially now, when families are increasingly transferring their home movies to video. There is always the danger that this aspect of our cinematic heritage may be lost." The same year as the special issue of the Journal of Film and Video, 1986, Northeast Historic Film was founded with a mission to preserve and make moving images of northern New England accessible.

Camper identifies the motivating anxiety of loss when facing audiovisual technology's shift from photochemistry to video; he states that the transition to videotape should provoke public and scholarly interest in finding and discussing home movies. While in the 1980s many regional archives understood that families transferring reels of film to videotape, usually VHS, and discarding the originals was a problem (Northeast Historic Film distributed notices to commercial transfer shops requesting that the originals of newly transferred materials not be thrown out), a related insight concerns the impulse to meet transience by visually securing the disappearing object. Camper stated:

It is often remarked that important phenomena, both natural and man-made, are often appreciated only at the moment of their demise. In our nation's recent history, the celebration, by artists, of the spiritual values of our wilderness emerged largely in the mid-nineteenth century, during the period when that wilderness was being rapidly destroyed. In a certain sense there seems something almost inevitable about this pattern; that which always existed, or so it seems, tends to be taken for granted. Perhaps the demise of the home-movie as a dominant form, as a result of home video, will awaken us all to an appreciation of what is surely a major aspect of American folk-art.

Imminent demise is the theme of some of the better-known personal films in Northeast Historic Film's custody. The works read as explicitly elegiac, intended as cinematic records of loss by their creators. A 16mm film of the logging industry was made in 1930 by Alfred Ames and Howard Kane, entitled From Stump to Ship. Ames's script, read aloud when he presented the silent film in the 1930s, begins, "Knowing that the long lumber industry in Maine was a thing of the past, in 1930 I purchased a moving picture camera to make a record of the long lumber operations on the river." Another film capturing evanescence and making an explicit point about that intent is the 8mm work by Milton Dowe, Just Fences (1938–1940), a short visual catalog of split-rail and other fence types in the landscape with the on-screen title, "Soon these will decay and be forgotten." When exhibited to the public in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century, the pleasure expressed by some viewers may result from their own wish to pay tribute to lost things. The filmmakers' abilities to create narratives that speak to evanescence align with desires to transmit to posterity a message about fragility and survival. The habits of elegy connect personal films with other expressive forms.

Gemma Perretta Scott, in 2010 the Northeast Historic Film collections manager responsible for the Milton Dowe 8mm films in the Palermo Historical Society Collection and part of a cataloging project focusing on work life, presented Just Fences at the Society for Cinema and Media Studies annual conference. In the project blog on March 25, 2010, she calls attention to Dowe's aesthetic intent and echoes Camper's invocation of folk art:

Below is a clip I showed from NHF's Palermo Historical Society Collection by amateur filmmaker and [then] future Palermo historian Milton Dowe. Dowe's films left behind a legacy of his tribe and the surrounding community, but their significance is underscored by an artistic value worthy of recognition. Just as Fine Arts has sub-genres of folk art, naïve art, and recently outsider art for describing works by Grandma Moses, Henri Rousseau, and Henry Darger, so do amateur works by filmmakers like Milton Dowe belong in a sub-category of Amateur film described by the quality of their technical achievement and the artistic intent of the creator.

One motivation to create personal films is the capacity to document changing landscapes, people, and activities; the family film as record of how we will have been. However, the contemporary impetus for preservation of noncanonical works, I would argue, has been too much driven by what the film was thought to be about, often the record of a disappearing something, as opposed to consideration of these works as personal or group art-making.

A further complexity of longing for the indexical trace is that the approbation won when specific elegiac pieces are recognized (named to the National Film Registry by the Librarian of Congress, or screened to favorable comment at conferences, or shared via the Internet) does not necessarily draw other works along with it. Praise for a few personal films, useful in building audiences and appreciation, may not help bring attention to those films, with a no-less-engrossing gestalt, that stand outside the established and expected shape of non-theatrical films. An example of an expressive and coherent work that exemplifies this challenge is Arthur Race's 16mm film of a drunken men's excursion in 1930. The film has unity of time, place, and action; delivers portraits of the participants and their relationships; plays with mood — including suspenseful ladder descents; narrativizes the trajectory of alcohol consumption and its results; and caresses texture in objects such as rags, driftwood, and island granite. The film exposes participants' fun and provokes viewers with the playful depiction of one man draping seaweed on another's bare buttocks. These qualities are in addition to value as documentation of a white-collar homosocial excursion in the 1930s (the maker was a New England hotel manager with a professional interest in the repeal of Prohibition), and as a record of the coastal landscape of the era and its use.

What are ways to render intelligible twentieth-century films such as this one, carefully made by amateurs? We start by acknowledging that Race's Heron Island and tens of thousands of works may never be seen and studied. Perhaps they were meant to be enjoyed only by the participants (or maybe only by the person behind the camera). Before 1980 in the United States, film and media studies largely focused on Hollywood film, early film, and well-known avant-garde works. In an art-historical context, the recognition of items and classes of work as art has a great deal to do with what has been bought and sold, as stated by Abigail Solomon-Godeau in regard to twentieth-century photographs: "The institutions and discourses that collectively function to construct the object 'art' are allied to the material determinations of the marketplace, which themselves establish and confirm the commodity status of the work of art." There has been almost a century-long avoidance of amateur film and home movies by art critics, at least in part as the result of a classification problem. If personal films are those works that exist in what Richard Chalfen in Snapshot Versions of Life (1987) called the "home mode," or have been invisible, like Arthur Race's Heron Island, then perhaps personal moving image works did not qualify for more nuanced consideration or valuation because they were produced and consumed far from any market. Films made in everyday circumstances, even if the creators demonstrate creative imagination, care, skill, and intentionality, were outside an art marketplace, lacked institutional scaffolding and cachet, and have largely been left out of critical discourse.

Yet within the field of film archiving, by the late 1990s the diversity and power of personal filmmaking was more apparent to those who collected and cared for it. Jan-Christopher Horak reported on a 1997 International Federation of Film Archives/Federation Internationale des Archives du Film gathering in Cartagena, Colombia:

The symposium's most important revelation was that amateur films, far from being just home movies, define a cinema almost as rich in form as professional cinema, and potentially as sophisticated, even if the gauges in question are sub-standard. At least four general directions in amateurism were visible in Cartagena: ethnographic/travel films, documentary, familial "home movies" and avant-garde films. After a few days' proceedings, it also became clear that these genres are not mutually exclusive, but rather intertwined: familial narratives become documents of history, documentary images are fictionalized, all of them inscribed by the subjectivity of their makers, by the desire of the audience.

Before the digital era, the inaccessibility of personal moving images contributed to the larger failure of public and critical attention. The works, when made, had been mostly intended for screening among family and friends and were almost always original reversal film; thus each exists only as a unique object. Yet personal still photochemical prints — coming to be known as snapshots and vernacular photographs, also unduplicated unique objects recognized for their material qualities — steadily gained status through exhibition in art museums. Private Realms of Light: Amateur Photography in Canada, 1839–1940 (1984) had a substantial catalog; Snapshots: The Photography of Everyday Life, 1888 to the Present, appeared at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1998; Other Pictures: Vernacular Photographs from the Thomas Walther Collection was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2000), also with a catalog; In the Vernacular: Everyday Photographs from the Rodger Kingston Collection was shown at the Boston University Art Gallery (2004–2005); and The Art of the American Snapshot, 1888–1978: From the Collection of Robert E. Jackson was hung at the National Gallery of Art (2007), while Accidental Mysteries: Extraordinary Photographs from the John and Teenuh Foster Collection, had eight exhibition sites (2007–2008).

Most of these exhibitions were made up of unattributed photographs, a result of snapshot collecting practices. This is exemplified in communications from an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 2015–2016, which foregrounds image sources in its web promotion: "'Unfinished Stories' celebrates a century of snapshots from the Peter J. Cohen Collection of amateur photographs. An avid collector, Cohen rescued more than 50,000 lost, discarded, or disowned personal photographs, culled from flea markets, antique shops, galleries, eBay, and private dealers." According to Sarah Greenough in her introduction to The Art of the American Snapshot, "Curators, too, have recognized that some snapshots, once they are removed from the personal narratives that impelled their creation and endowed them with their original meanings, are immensely satisfying visual objects, worthy of careful scrutiny." Do vernacular still photographs enter the fine-art space with anonymity for their unknown creators in some sense providing cover for curators and critics, who don't have to wrestle with details of the photographers' existence? As I argue below, to bring personal films into transdisciplinary discussion and careful curatorial inclusion, it is necessary to come to terms with the materiality of film (the skills and choices of 16mm and 8mm nonprofessional creators who handled the photochemical reels), along with acquiring scaled-up resources for documenting and preserving films in the context of the individual creator's work. I propose that personal films may be recognized in an art-historical context even without a veil of anonymous creatorship. Media critics, scholars, and philosophers of art will, in the future, be more likely to contend with moving image art of the everyday.


Excerpted from Amateur Movie Making by Martha J. McNamara, Karan Sheldon. Copyright © 2017 Northeast Historic Film. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Accessing Moving Images
Foreword / Alice T. Friedman
Introduction / Martha McNamara and Karan Sheldon

Part 1: Locating Contexts: Archive, Material, History, Place
1. A Place for Moving Images: Thirty Years of Northeast Historic Film / Karan Sheldon
2. The Technologies of Home Movies and Amateur Film / Dino Everett
3. A Region Apart: Representations of Maine and Northern New England in Personal Film, 1920-1940 / Libby Bischof
4. A Strange Familiarity: Alexander Forbes and the Aesthetics of Amateur Film / Justin Wolff

Part 2: Creative Choices: Recovering Value in Amateur Film
Reflection 1. The Task at Hand: The Films of Ernest Stillman / Whit Stillman
5. Midway Between Secular and Sacred: Consecrating the Home Movie as a Cultural Heritage Object / Karen Gracy
6. "All the Wonderful Possibilities of Motion Pictures": Hiram Percy Maxim and the Aesthetics of Amateur Filmmaking / Charles Tepperman
7. Comedic Counterpoise: Landscape and Laughs in the Films of Sidney N. Shurcliff / Martha J. McNamara

Part 3: Everyday Lives: Home and Work in Amateur Film
Reflection 2. Perspectives on the Home Movies of Charles Norman Shay, Penobscot Elder / Jennifer Neptune
8. Not-at-Home Movies / Christopher Castiglia and Christopher Reed
9. The Boss’s Film: Expert Amateurs and Industrial Culture / Brian Jacobson

Part 4: Families: Private and Public
Reflection 3. "The Ring of Time" in the E. B. White Home Movies / Martha White
10. Opening the Can: Home Movies In the Public Sphere / Melissa Dollman
11. Layers of Vision in Amateur Film / Mark Neumann and Janna Jones
Selected Bibliography

What People are Saying About This

author of Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film - Patricia R. Zimmermann

This book is important because it is interdisciplinary on every level, it focuses on the materiality of the films, it pays attention to how the films are constructed and what they mean, and it grounds itself in regional space as a zone of overlapping discourses.

Co-Director, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine - Anne Goodyear

This remarkable collection of essays both documents and brings to life the contributions of amateur filmmakers in the Northeast region of the United States….As a group these practitioners, and the record of their work treated here, have helped to define aesthetic choices and expectations that have so thoroughly permeated the twentieth century and present era as to be sometimes invisible. This important study, itself reflecting a broad range of voices, performs the important work of bringing them back into view.

Head of Photographs, National Portrait Gallery, London - Phillip Prodger

There is an old idea that amateur art is the purest, because it is made without consideration of money or fame. Here is the proof—vivid slices of real life as rich and rewarding as any gallery of Old Masters, rescued from obscurity through the extraordinary efforts of Northeast Historic Film. The essays in this volume, written in plain language, provide fresh insight into this still underappreciated art form. Like great paintings, the films themselves are impossible to forget

Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive, Professor, Critical & Media Studies, Los Angeles - Jan-Christopher Horak

As the academic study of amateur and home movies enters into a more mature phase, it has become ever more apparent that such films can only be understood by understanding the various contexts of their production—who shot the films when, where, and why?—and their reception in the family or larger groups. Martha J. McNamara and Karan Sheldon’sAmateur Movie Making: The Aesthetics of the Everyday in New England Film, 1915-1960,is the first volume to provide analyses of a group of amateur films which are available for study, making the volume an excellent reader for courses on amateur film.

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