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Thursday, October 6, 2016

A Suitcase Full of Cameras: The Travel Films of Lisa Chickering and Jeanne Porterfield

Jeanne Porterfield (l) and Lisa Chickering (r) at the editing table.
Lisa Chickering and Jeanne Porterfield Collection, Human Studies Film Archives.

The Human Studies Film Archives (HSFA) houses several types of ethnographic film, from research footage studied frame-by-frame by anthropologists to travelogues and home movies from around the world. But some of our most interesting (though little-studied) films bridge the gap between social scientists and amateurs. The travel-lecture film genre traditionally combines silent film footage with live voiceover or, in some instances, intertitles. Unlike traditional documentaries, travel lecture films were narrated in person by the filmmakers themselves. Screenings thus became more like theatrical performances, allowing filmmakers to engage directly with their audiences and tailor their presentations on the fly. Travel lecture films were usually made to showcase western European or North American tourist destinations and attracted a genteel, older audience (Ruoff). In the genre’s heyday during the 1950s-60s (though the form persists today), popular filmmakers such as Thayer Soule and Burton Holmes could make a living touring the travel lecture circuit and presenting to packed venues ranging from Kiwanis clubs to concert halls.

The collection of two of these filmmakers, Lisa Chickering and Jeanne Porterfield, is now in the HSFA. This duo began their careers almost by accident. The two young women traveled to Paris in the 1950s for a short singing gig Lisa had booked, which turned into a three-year impromptu world tour. The pair picked up an 8mm camera along the way and returned with piles of still photographs, thousands of feet of film, and a travel bug. All that was left to do was to turn their love of travel and film into a career.

Lisa and Jeanne at the Spokane Coliseum in Spokane, Washington, 1961, presenting their film Austria à la Carte to an audience of almost 8000.
Lisa Chickering and Jeanne Porterfield Collection, Human Studies Film Archives.

For two young women whose only professional experience until that point had been in modeling, acting, and singing, filmmaking was a steep learning curve. Neither even knew how to splice film at the outset of their careers, but they didn’t allow their inexperience to deter them.  As a memoir draft declares, “Why if we, or anyone, were to wait until they knew EVERYthing about a field, no one would do anything.” Lisa and Jeanne did not wait, but they did soon seem to know everything. The two not only filmed, edited, and presented their own films, but founded and ran their own production company, Viewpoints, Inc.

As two of the only women in a male-dominated field, Lisa and Jeanne fought gender-based assumptions about their abilities every step of the way. Letters to them at Viewpoints often began with “Gentlemen:,” and, in order to get face time with businessmen and funders, Lisa and Jeanne sometimes hid their true identities until the face-to-face meeting. This precaution was unfortunately prudent in an age where some small towns turned the two away from performing because of their gender (Fox). But being women was an advantage in another aspect of their work: filming. Few people expected women to be behind the camera, and so their presence surprised everyone from security guards to cowboys into allowing them to film in the middle of the action—even some places men weren’t allowed to go (Rickman).

Lisa and Jeanne were the only women in this 1972 photo of Film Lecturers' Association members.
Lisa Chickering and Jeanne Porterfield Collection, Human Studies Film Archives.
Though press clippings from the era note their talent and discipline, Lisa and Jeanne’s youth, appearance, and womanhood took center stage. Typical press clippings described them as “glamour girls” or “explorer gals,” and the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner ended an article detailing the full range of their duties and “dangerous” work with the comment, “And they still look as though they just came from the beauty parlor” (Byrne). For their part, Lisa and Jeanne focused on their work. In interview after interview, they emphasize their commitment to their work; as Lisa remarked, “People have a tendency to try and ignore me or just think, ‘She must just be some crazy woman,’ but whatever they think—I get some great footage” (Drier). 

A typical press clipping. Lisa Chickering and Jeanne Porterfield Collection, Human Studies Film Archives.
And indeed, the films that resulted from this access are thorough and charming. Like most travelogue filmmakers, Lisa and Jeanne never present themselves as experts or anthropologists. Instead, they come off as regular old travelers with a strong sense of curiosity and a can-do attitude. Their subtle humor shines through in their lecture scripts and in the footage they shot, which often breaks off from historic sites to focus on a squirming child or a playacting dog. And their footage—filmed on vibrant Kodachrome stock—is stunning. In addition to their films, the HSFA has also received several boxes of paper records (including the scripts they narrated over their silent footage) as well as a collection of about 10,000 photos and over 150,000 slides dating from their later career as travel writers and photographers. The Chickering-Porterfield collection is one to be shared and cherished as a landmark in the history of this obscure genre.

Lisa and Jeanne in Curaçao, 1961, shooting their film Caribbean Dutch Treat.
Lisa Chickering and Jeanne Porterfield Collection, Human Studies Film Archives.

Enormous thanks are due to Lisa Chickering for the donation of her and Jeanne's films, papers, and photographs, as well as to Liz Czach, associate professor at the University of Alberta, for facilitating the transfer. Liz's own research into the travel lecture film genre led her, and eventually the HSFA, to Lisa and Jeanne's collection, and we are honored to house their work as part of the Smithsonian's collections.

Annie Schweikert, Project Media Archivist
Human Studies Film Archives

  • Byrne, Bridget. “Explorer Gals Shoot Adventure Film.” Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, 25 Oct. 1973, p. B1.
  • Drier, Michelle. “No One Takes Them Seriously—But in Their Business That’s an Asset!” San Jose News, 8 Oct. 1973, p. 19.
  • Fox, Terry Curtis. “Tales from the Trail of the Travelog.” Chicago Daily News, 17-18 Feb. 1973, p. 5.
  • Rickman, Marie. “No Hurdle Too Big for Ladies.” Journal Herald [Dayton, OH], 15 Nov. 1967, 23.
  • Ruoff, Jeffrey. “Around the World in Eighty Minutes: The Travel Lecture Film.” Visual Anthropology 15, no. 1 (January-March, 2002), 91-114.
Photos and article images scanned by and courtesy of Liz Czach, University of Alberta.

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