Archive for the 'Student Work' Category

From Eastman House to New Zealand… to Early Hitchcock!

Posted by on Oct 19 2011 | Motion Pictures, Other, Student Work

I have the best job. For the past five years, I’ve worked as a film archivist for a number of institutions – George Eastman House, the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, the Royal Private Film and Photography archive in Bangkok, Thailand, and most recently at the New Zealand Film Archive in Wellington, New Zealand on behalf of the National Film Preservation Foundation (NFPF). I’ve been able to take advantage of my background as a film historian as well as draw heavily on the archiving skills I gained at George Eastman House’s L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation– all while working on nitrate film and keeping a toe or two in the academic world. I couldn’t have dreamed of a better situation when I started in the field.

One of my most recent projects involves The White Shadow (1924), a 6-reel British feature film directed by Graham Cutts that includes some of the earliest on-screen work by Alfred Hitchcock. The film was recovered as part of an international collaboration between the New Zealand Film Archive and the five major nitrate-holding U.S. archives – George Eastman House, The Museum of Modern Art, The Library of Congress, the Academy Film Archive and the UCLA Film and Television Archive – to return, preserve and make available U.S.-produced films that no longer exist in US archives. The project was initiated and is coordinated by the National Film Preservation Foundation, a grant-giving organization which has provided funding to institutions in all 50 states and Puerto Rico to preserve rare films in their collections.

 The condition of the print (seen above) was shrunken, brittle and showing signs of advanced decomposition.


Through the project we’ve identified and repatriated films such as:

  • Maytime (with an early performance by “It Girl” Clara Bow)
  • Won in a Cupboard (the earliest known film directed by comedienne Mabel Norman)
  • The Sergeant (the first known fictional film shot in Yosemite)
  • Upstream (directed by John Ford)
  • The Love Charm (a previously unknown early Technicolor short) and
  • Pathe News: Virginian Types (featuring stencil-colored images of the residents of Old Rag Mountain, soon after it was announced that they would be evicted from their land to make way for the creation of Shenandoah National Park, and 10 years before being photographed by Arthur Rothstein as the forced-relocation was finally taking place.)

These two last films will become part of the George Eastman House nitrate collection and be preserved with funding from the NFPF. Click here to see videos of some of the newly-preserved films and a partial list of titles returning to the U.S.

So how did THE WHITE SHADOW, a British production, end up becoming part of this U.S.-film focused project? One of the goals of the project has been to inspect and identify when possible all of the items in the American section of the archive’s international nitrate collection. Given that intertitles in the film bear the name of Selznick (an American distribution company who also apparently handled the international distribution) and that the film stars Betty Compson, a famous American actress, the film had been classified (not unreasonably) as likely being an American production. Thanks to a generous grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the NFPF was able to provide the man-power to inspect films in more detail and provide concrete identifications where possible.


Missing its opening credits (not unusual with films of this year), The White Shadow was originally inventoried as “Twin Sisters” (a placeholder title taken from the cans the films arrived in), I was able to identify the first two reels of the film based on the distributor, cast – the film stars not only Compson, but also British actor Clive Brook – information gleaned from the film stock itself (such as the date of the stock’s production that is printed on the film’s edges), and piecing together the story, then using internet resources and the archive’s reference library to confirm the film’s true identity. A week later I inspected a reel titled only “Unidentified American Drama,” and by matching the cast, sets and storyline, identified it as the title’s third reel.

With support from the National Film Preservation Foundation and the Academy Film Archive, the film has been preserved by the New Zealand Film Archive and Park Road Post-Production in Wellington. Given the condition of the print – shrunken, brittle and showing signs of advanced decomposition – the work proved difficult. Now printed on 35mm polyester film stock, new prints and duplicate negatives will be housed at the Academy Film Archive and the NZFA. The BFI will also receive a print to supplement their on-going Hitchcock preservation project. The preserved film now includes new opening credits and a coda that summarizes the missing reels, taken from a synopsis filed with the Library of Congress as part of the title’s copyright entry.

The $64,000 question is of course where are those three missing reels? There are a number of possibilities: We are 99.9% certain that the reels are not in the NZFA’s nitrate vault – though there are other as-yet unidentified reels from the same depositor in the collection, none match The White Shadow. The other three reels could have been lost or misplaced before the collector (New Zealand projectionist Jack Murtagh) acquired the film, the reels – printed on nitrate stock, which is particularly prone to decomposing when stored in warm or humid conditions – could have broken down sometime in the last 88 years, or perhaps they are, right now, sitting in another collector’s attic or basement, waiting to be discovered and reunited with the reels know to currently exist – it’s impossible to know.

The now-familiar gasp from the audience as the existing footage suddenly ends at what is possibly the film’s most dramatic scene never fails to drive home the need for conserving and preserving what titles we do have – be it ones with a famous name attached (which does make that constant problem of funding a bit easier to overcome), or equally culturally significant but long-forgotten documentaries or works by small production companies orphaned after the studio closed – and re-energizes my drive to keep looking for cinema’s lost history.

As I said, I have (what is for me) the best job in the world – after all, who knows what else is out there, just waiting to return to the screen?


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Eastman House restores “Local Color”

Posted by on Mar 18 2011 | Behind The Scenes, Exploring the Archive, Motion Pictures, Other, Student Work

One of the great pleasures in working for George Eastman House, and in my particular case the Motion Picture Department, is the opportunity for rediscovery. In the cold storage vaults here we house tens of thousands of films. The classics are many – Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz are  just two that are often noted.

But by and large the collection is made up of thousands of films that film history has forgotten or ignored in the years and decades since their release. Now I’ll be honest some of these films have been forgotten for very good reasons. Sh! The Octopus, anyone?

Still others have been forgotten and neglected for reasons not of their making. Wonderful films that in some cases were trampled when American audiences were captured by the birth of the blockbuster. In 1977 filmmaker Mark Rappaport released Local Color.

"Local Color," 1977

Film Critic Roger Ebert called this funny, and melodramatic tale of the interconnected lives of New Yorkers “a strange and wonderful movie.” Shot in black-and-white, Local Color has the look and feel of another NYC-based film that would appear two years later, Woody Allen’s Manhattan. But like many films released in 1977, Local Color would never have a chance to find its wider audience as another little film steamrolled across American movie theaters. That film was Star Wars.

 The role that George Eastman House plays in Local Color happens 30 years later when Mr. Rappaport decided to entrust the original negatives of Local Color to the Motion Picture Department. Received in 2008, Local Color was almost immediately on our preservation radar.

By now Mr. Rappaport was a well-known and respected independent filmmaker of the 1980s and 1990s. Many of his films had garnered a following, but prints in screenable condition were quite rare. Initial inspection of the material also revealed something very troubling. The original picture negative was exhibiting signs of “vinegar syndrome.” Long-term exposure to above average temperatures and humidity cause film made on acetate film stock to give off an acetic acid, vinegar-like smell. This is usually just a sign of deeper problems. Film naturally shrinks over time and vinegar syndrome can expedite this process. The film can become warped. The photo emulsion can become soft causing the image to loss definition.

 Luckily for us and the film, preservation funding was obtained through the Avant-Garde Masters program funded by The Film Foundation and administered by the National Film Preservation Foundation. We worked with the Los Angeles-based laboratory Film Technology to preserve Local Color.

 Along with the original elements, brand new negatives now sit in our cold storage vault. New projection prints have been struck and are just beginning to make their way to screening venues. It is appropriate that our new preservation of Local Color was screened recently at Anthology Film Archive in New York City. Hopefully those audiences were able to rediscover the charms of Local Color.

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‘Art/Not Art’ showcases What We’re Collecting Now

Posted by on Aug 18 2010 | Exhibitions, Photography, Student Work

Every year a small group of students in the spring semester of their second year of the Photographic Preservation and Collections Management (PPCM) program come together to curate a show of recent acquisitions at George Eastman House. This show is designed to illustrate the ways in which the George Eastman House collection is a “living” entity. How we interpret the mission of the museum, to tell the story of photography and motion pictures — “media that have changed and continue to change our perception of the world” — results in the acquisition of new objects that can reinforce strengths of the collection, or suggests new ways of interpreting items already in the collection.

PPCM students discuss sequencing pieces in the exhibition

As students studying the history of photography, we were interested in photographs that are slippery, that change meaning depending on where the image is first encountered or how it is presented. We are lucky at George Eastman House that we collect a large range of photographs, art and otherwise, that have had a multitude of meanings throughout their existence before entering our collection. Our title, Art/Not Art, refers to the polarizing question we often ask of photographs, is it art or is it not?

Many of the photographs shown in Art/Not Art are art photographs, according to our utilitarian definition of the term, as they were they bought, sold, exhibited, and written about as art. However, this contextual information is not immediately apparent when standing before these photographs. The diversity of practice in contemporary art photography is well represented in the exhibition—the four photographs from Elijah Gowin’s “Of Falling and Floating” series looks radically different from Robert and Sheena ParkeHarrison’s “Suspension,” which in turn bears little in common with Binh Danh’s contemporary daguerreotype, a portrait from the Tuol Seng Genocide Museum.

Robert and Sheena ParkeHarrison, SUSPENSION, From the Series: Earth Elegies, ca. 1999-2000

Perhaps Binh Danh’s daguerreotype should then be compared to Ron Haviv’s “Darfur Girl,” a large-scale chromogenic print depicting three girls searching for firewood near a displaced persons camp in Sudan. In the summer of 2005, UNICEF sponsored Haviv to document the conflict in Darfur’s effect on children. While the composition and the scale suggest that this piece is contemporary art photography, does the use of this image to raise funds for UNICEF mean that it cannot be considered art? And, if Binh Danh’s daguerreotype is art, does that label limit its ability to document genocide?

Ron Haviv, DARFUR GIRL 2005.

Many of the photographs shown in the exhibition have been published in different places, for reasons that are not obvious when looking at the photographs. Joel-Peter Witkin’s series, “A History of Hats in Art,” was initially printed in The New York Times Magazine as a series of fashion photographs featuring extravagant haute-couture headwear. Alex Webb’s “US/Mexico Border (San Ysidro, CA)” was printed in Harper’s Magazine on an article on illegal immigration published roughly fifteen years after the photograph was taken. E.J. Bellocq’s photographs are more mysterious. Bellocq, a commercial photographer from New Orleans in the early twentieth century, took a series of photographs of women from the city’s Storyville red light district. His negatives were discovered after his death, and purchased by Lee Friedlander who printed his images and popularized them as art objects in the 1970s.

This was the first show that many of us have curated, and our approach to the photographs is typical of the questions that we often ask ourselves as future professionals in our field. Given the care and attention that we must provide to each individual item that enters our collection—a process that includes accessioning the item, assessing its condition and recommending conservation work when required, housing the item according to archival standards, cataloguing the item into our electronic database, providing access to the public via the research archives and through exhibitions, and, finally, maintaining it in perpetuity in our ever-shrinking vault—the acquisition process is very rigorous, and very important. So, how best to show the diversity of material that eventually makes it into our collection?

As much as any lovers of photography, we were moved by how stunning some of the items collected in the past five years are. As students of photography, we were also interested in how slippery some of the meanings of the photographs were over time, and in different contexts. The range of aesthetics in art photography, and the different applications of photography, whether for fashion, photojournalism, or for more personal reasons, suggests the impossibility of just looking at a photograph to determine if it is art, or not art.

As future custodians of collections of photography, we encourage an approach to photography that understands the rare slipperiness of the medium of photography, where images and objects often have unknown and unexpected trajectories before they come to our attention as candidates for acquisitions.

What We’re Collecting Now: Art/Not Art was curated by Jami Guthrie, Emily McKibbon, Loreto Pinochet, Paul Sergeant, D’Arcy White, and Soohyun Yang. The exhibit is on view through October 24th.

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Why basements are not a good place for film

Posted by on Jan 22 2010 | Motion Pictures, Student Work

This week, the students of the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation had a lesson in working with reels affected with mold and water damage.  This material had been previously stored in a wet basement, causing the emulsion to swell, the image to distort, and mold to grow on the reel of nitrate film.  Unfortunately, the material had dried out too quickly, causing it to become brittle and the emulsion to remain stuck together in a solid mass. 

Amanda and Karin with moldy film

After donning the appropriate gear (approved mask, gloves, goggles, overcoat, and pulling their hair back) students Karin Carlson and Amanda Honeyman first wiped down all exposed areas of the reel with a mixture of approved cleaning solution and projector oil.  The cleaner is used to help remove the dirt and mold spores on the film, and the oil will assist in lubricating the film for gentle hand winding.  Working in the well ventilated area, Karin started by using a dull ex-acto knife blade to gently separate the layers of film.  With plenty of time and patience, Karin was able to separate the layers, while Amanda gathered the film for closer inspection.  Working together and trading off duties, the layers of film were slowly separated.  They found that some areas of the reel were harder to separate than others: perhaps water dripped on the reel?  

Separating brittle, moldy layers of film

Close up of bench work-brittle moldy filmBrittle film can be one the hardest materials to inspect by an archivist.  Light pressure on the material can cause it to break in many pieces.  Handling should be done with extreme care.  Quite often, the emulsion will crack, causing permanent damage to the image.  The sprocket holes are no longer able to support any equipment use.  Luckily, the title of this film was already preserved by the Eastman House, and this reel is kept for long term conservation and research purposes.  It is films such as this one that teaches new students, and reminds older archivists the importance of archival storage conditions-cool and dry.   

Brittle film

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Learning What to Do With a Decomposing Frankenstein

Posted by on Jan 15 2010 | Motion Pictures, Student Work

One of the most important subjects we teach in the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation nitrate vaults is how to identify, inspect, and treat decomposing nitrate film.  The students in this year’s class took to this task willingly, learning not only WHAT causes decay, but how to treat films within the various stages of decomposition.

Take, for instance, a small reel of FRANKENSTEIN, (1931) donated to Eastman House in 2002.  This material belonged to a collector who had a small portion of the feature film, mainly, the ending sequence.  When Selznick student Ken Fox took on the task of inspection and reporting the condition of the reel, he was able to capture some of the famous monster’s face, with the signs of the decaying film around him.

L1000724editL1000754editWorking together, Ken and I talked about what was happening with this film as it was decaying, and how the cold temperatures and humidity’s used at the Conservation Center help slow down this process.  While no one likes to see these materials disappear, it is important to keep these films as a learning tool for hands-on knowledge, and hopefully prevent other reels from the same fate. (Photos taken by Ken Fox and Holly Foster.)

Ken and Deb inspecting the reel

Ken and Deb inspecting the reel

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