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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Changing Perspective

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

Jorge Prelorán filming Hermógenes Cayo
with 16mm film camera, 1960's. HSFA, SI.
Archival treasures can become hidden or obscured for any number of reasons. Insufficient or incorrect cataloging, unclear provenance, physical deterioration, or just bad labeling often play a role, and the true value of the misunderstood items can only be revealed through research or conservation. But sometimes something as basic as a change in perspective can illuminate a wealth of new information.

The collections of the Human Studies Film Archives (HSFA) document the world's cultures, from the beginning of motion picture to the present. Most often, we think of these collections with regard to what is captured within the frame. We see documents of cultural, linguistic, and environmental change, older ways of life preserved for current understanding, and contemporary practices and issues recorded for future study. But all archival records tell us much more than what they might show at face value - in addition to their documentary content, they can tell us a great deal about the people who made them.

Cameraman with 16mm film camera and microphone, c. 1980
Cameraman Ragpa Dorjee with 16mm film
camera and microphone, c. 1980. HSFA, SI.
At the HSFA, the majority of collections were created by anthropologists or ethnographic filmmakers. Changing perspective to look at these creators, their collections show us the evolution of ethnographic film and its relationship both to the discipline of anthropology and to innovations in moving image technology. A current exhibit at the National Museum of Natural History, More Than Meets the Eye, offers a glimpse at these treasures.

The exhibit explores various ways that scientists use imaging technologies in their research, including anthropologists who use moving images to document culture. A short video offers a primer on the evolution of ethnographic film, showing how anthropologists and filmmakers have used technological innovations such as synchronous sound, long-running videotape, and small, unobtrusive hand-hand cameras to record research footage.

More Than Meets the Eye is on exhibit through November 4. If you can't visit in person, take a look at these examples of changing technologies and evolving ethnographic film practices from HSFA's collections:

Yupik Eskimo Life, St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, ca. 1930, by Henry Collins
This black and white footage (above) is comprised of short takes, a hallmark of hand-wound cameras. (The original footage is silent; the annotation in this clip was added later.)

Ju/'hoan Music, from Marshall !Kung Expedition IV, 1955, by John Marshall
Battery-operated cameras allowed for longer takes. But what is notable about this clip is the pioneering system used to record synchronous sound for the film. 

Portable sync sound for 16mm film gave filmmakers newfound creative freedom beginning in the 1960's.
Although early portable video may seem like a step backwards due to being black and white, it offered hours of uninterrupted recording time.

Today's video cameras, of course, offer a small size, unobtrusive profile, many hours of uninterrupted recording on re-usable media, good performance in low light (or even nighttime) conditions, metadata such as date and time of creation, and even GPS coordinates for the location of a shoot. Who knows what future archival treasures are being recorded right now, and what those records will tell us, depending on our perspective?

Karma Foley, for the Human Studies Film Archives

1 comment:

  1. Karma,
    Thanks for the fascinating blog on the history of film documentation - it's nice to see that some of the information in the More Than Meets the Eye exhibit will live on in your blog.