Personalizing the Past: History Through Home Movies
An interview with archivist Rick Prelinger, who's been collecting home movies since the 1980s.
By Cori Brosnahan
Start watching the home movies in the Prelinger Archive and you lose all sense of time. You don’t know the people on screen, but they are, somehow, familiar — their work, their vacations, their celebrations, their everyday comings and goings familiar to anyone acquainted with life in 20th century America. And then there’s the way they look at the camera — or, rather, the person behind it — a gaze more affectionate, more intimate, than anything you’re used to seeing on screen.
The man making this unique viewing experience possible is Rick Prelinger, a San Francisco-based archivist, writer, filmmaker and educator. Rick started collecting home movies in the 1980s, along with advertising, educational, and industrial films. Since then, he’s dedicated his career to creating a visual record of 20th century America — and making it available to the public, whether through his Lost Landscapes urban history screenings, the appropriation-friendly research library he co-founded with his spouse Megan, or his partnership with the Internet Archive.
American Experience interviewed Rick about the enduring allure of home movies, and the role they play in shaping our sense of the past — and vision of the future.
What attracted you to home movies?
How can you not be attracted to home movies? Just about every home movie is unique and exists in a single copy. And while many of them picture similar events (birthdays, holidays, trips to the lake, honeymooning at Niagara Falls), each has its own look and emotional feel. I’ve started to think that maybe the essential story of the 20th century is really the composite story made from identical events shown slightly differently.
They’re also structurally unique. Most documentary films these days are built as narratives — stories with a beginning, middle and end; stories with some kind of conflict and resolution; stories with "compelling" characters. But home movies bypass this artificial layer. Home movies are stories all by themselves. There are many small dramas we might imagine about the people, places and activities we see. But in themselves they're little narratives about the unfolding dynamic between the person shooting and the person shot; about performing for the camera and watching people perform; about family mysteries we may never solve.
Then there’s the element of unpredictability. What will the next shot be? What will these people do? Where will the camera shoot next? You can find anything from close-ups of ears of new sweet corn to covert shots of President Roosevelt walking down a ramp from his private railroad car, shot from behind a baggage cart so that the Secret Service wouldn't notice and take the film.
And just as there is unexpected beauty in daily life, there is real beauty in films made by ordinary, nonprofessional shooters. It can be intentional or accidental, but I am constantly struck by the wonderful images I find that would be extremely difficult to shoot on purpose. Strange juxtapositions, unpredictable camera angles, mistakes that make perfection look boring.
How many home movies are in your archive?
I estimate we have some 15,000 reels. Some are those little yellow Kodak boxes holding small reels that play two-and-a-half minutes. Others are larger reels that take over an hour to project. So it is a bit hard to estimate, but we have reached the stage where the collection feels pretty infinite. Anything could turn up, and does. The collection keeps growing, and I am trying to make HD digital scans of everything. So far we are about 30-40 percent done.
Where do you get them?
Films come to our archives in many ways. These days, most footage is donated by people who have become aware of what I do. They donate materials their families no longer want, or films that were left in their houses, or films they find on the street. Oftentimes we scan films for families, making them high-definition digital files and keeping a copy of the files for use in my own work. I also have friends in a number of cities who look out for film they think I might be interested in using. Finally, I still buy films from time to time on eBay, though prices have risen, and I don't really want to recognize that home movies are, for some people, commodities to buy and sell.
Who do they show?
There is a persistent prejudice that home movies were shot mostly by wealthy people, and in the 1920s and early 1930s this tends to be true. 16mm film was an expensive medium when it was first introduced in 1923 — an hour of film stock and processing cost about $1,400 in today's dollars. But in 1933 Kodak introduced 8mm film, which used much less film stock and could be shot using cheaper cameras, and when the effects of the Great Depression began to ease, many more people started to shoot home movies.
Beginning in the mid-1930s we see film shot by families of color, by working-class families, by people living in rural areas, and by children and students. More affordable film stock and equipment brought about a flowering of expression and encouraged new kinds of creativity. So, for instance, while many images of African American people shot by white photographers still reproduced the same negative stereotypes, African Americans themselves also picked up cameras to document their own lives, families and communities.
So did all kinds of Americans. There are wonderful movies shot by Latino and Hispanic families, both at home and while traveling. I just recently saw a film shot by Mexican-American farmworkers showing family members working in the fields in Yuma, Arizona. The Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles has been collecting home movies shot by Japanese Americans for many years, including many films shot by people incarcerated in camps during World War II. We've also found a lot of footage shot by Native people in the Pacific Northwest, including dramatic scenes of the tribal fishing grounds at Celilo Falls on the Columbia River, destroyed in 1957 to build The Dalles Dam.
Home movies also contain fascinating and historically important images of rural America. We can look to home movies to better understand rural communities from the 1920s on, to see traditional agricultural practices and to experience the shape of daily life outside urban areas.
Who were they recording for?
Home movies were generally made to show to family and friends. Most were projected in living rooms. There were certainly some made around workplaces to show at work, and many people made home movie travelogues they presented in schools, churches, clubs, and community organizations.
There were also what we now call amateur films that had plots or continuities that were more formal and often more classically organized than home movies. Amateur makers often joined organizations like the Amateur Cinema League or the Photographic Society of America, and strove to maintain high production values in their films. Local cinema clubs were often venues where amateur makers showed films and critiqued the work of fellow club members. Every major city had at least one club, and sometimes more.
What kinds of moments do they show?
The world of home movies is generally a family-centered world (although there are many different kinds of families). And almost always people shot home movies out of love for the subject. Perhaps they made movies of family members, of others they loved, of places and events they wanted to remember, of ceremonies they cared to recall. Many families filmed their children growing up, from infancy to high school graduation; there are endless home videos of children performing on the school stage, shot from many rows back.
People also brought their cameras to work, and sometimes company owners or managers shot home movies on site. We have a lovely film made in 1957 showing black and white workers at the Baltimore Luggage Company making suitcases. Everyone dressed in their Sunday best so that they would put forth a proud appearance in the film.
There are very few home movies of tragedies or traumatic events, though many people turned their cameras on floodwaters or wrecks on the highway. The world of home movies is an overwhelmingly positive world, although in hindsight we may see it differently than the makers did.
Recorded history is often a collection of “important” names and dates. These films capture something very different. How do they contribute to our sense of history?
Historians talk about "history from the bottom up," and that's a good description of what home movies are. The principal value of home movies lies in their extensive coverage of daily life; they show homemakers in the kitchen and laundry, workers on the job, families on road trips, and children at school. There's a density in the way home movies portray ordinary activities that makes them much more than ordinary records.
And home movies aren't just about environments, objects and places; they're also about relationships. Mostly silent (though there are many more sound home movies than most people realize), home movies are deep records of body language, movement, and fashion. How did adults relate to one another and to children? How did children grow up in past decades? What did people do at parties? How did people move around in different kinds of spaces? Anthropologists and behavioral scientists of the future will have a rich body of material to study; I think some are just realizing that home movies have great research potential.
But they’re not just for anthropologists and scientists. I think of home movies as an encyclopedia of past realities from which we might pick and choose elements of the future we hope to live in. Can we find the future in the past? Can we select attributes of a past America that are worth returning to?
What have you found surprising in your research? After all these years, do the movies still surprise you? Can you describe the experience of finding something you thought was really valuable?
One surprise (at least to me) is that many more home movies were shot by women than we might have expected. If television and feature films were largely made by male crews (aside from sterotypically female positions like "continuity girls" and assistant editors), home movies may be something of a women's medium. Then again, we shouldn't be surprised: women are often family chroniclers, keepers of scrapbooks, and makers of quilts that depict family histories.
As for specific films, some years ago I found one made in the Jerome War Relocation Center in Arkansas that incarcerated Japanese Americans from the West Coast. We don't exactly know who shot it, but it was probably made by an Army employee. Shot in Kodachrome in 1944 as people were being released from camp, it shows Japanese Americans being taken on flatbed trucks to the railroad spur where they are checked out of camp and ushered onto a train that probably is not taking them home to California. The film is beautiful because it shows many people experiencing the joy of imminent release, but it's also pregnant with tension: where will they be sent? Is there still a home for them? It also shows images we have learned to associate with World War II: trains with deportees, people transported on crowded trucks, clerks checking people out of a camp. But this isn't Europe, it's America.
One of the most striking things is the relationship between the person filming and the subject(s); home movies seem to create a lens that’s more intimate and affectionate than what you usually see on screen. How, if at all, do you think that changes our sense of the past?
Since we can often tell that home movies were made by family members, we already imagine a sense of intimacy or connection between the people shooting them and the people they picture. In fact, we sometimes tend to imagine more than is there — we fill in the relationships between the people we see.
Home movies personalize the past. They show history unfolding using characters that come from real life and could be you or me. They offer gentle lessons in how the past appears and how it differs from our present, lessons delivered by real-life actors in authentic places we might even recognize from personal experience. They're not historical re-creations — they're actual history replated.
A few years ago you made a list of 22 reasons why home movies are important. Have any of those emerged as especially significant for you?
I like number 21: "Showing and reusing them today invests audiences with the feeling that their lives are also worth recording."
I am a deep believer in giving history back to ordinary people — providing access to primary historical materials so that anyone can develop and articulate their own relationship with the past. I also believe that history should not just be written by historians or presented by documentary producers. Most of us now have access to sophisticated tools to make books, flyers, videos and webpages. Home movies feel more accessible than historical material that's made by professionals, and suggest that all of us can be our own historians.
When we throw an old home movie up on the big screen, we are implicitly saying to audiences that their home videos could one day be on the big screen as well, if only they make them.
How do you think about your role as mediator? Do you try to minimize it? How?
This is a very complicated but pertinent question. My role is to present and contextualize home movies without getting in front of them. When I present my Lost Landscapes films, I try to add context and tell people a bit about what they are seeing without turning into the main attraction. I hope to be suggestive rather than categorical, because I want people to exercise their imagination and think their own thoughts about what they're seeing. Most of the time there are people in the audience who know much more about what I'm screening than I do, and I want to encourage them to feel free to speak out.
And yet I'm also a selector and an editor, and my films are edited intricately. I try to present sequences without much editing so that they feel similar to how they might have felt when originally viewed, and I take care not to distort the context or the meaning I take from the films. That said, filmmaking is inherently invasive, and just about everything filmmakers do with source material is an intervention for which only they are responsible. But I avoid music, voiceover and editing that takes the films way out of context. Like most filmmakers, I think I'll spend most of my life dancing around this issue and trying to do the right thing.
What’s the greatest challenge this medium poses for the archivist?
Home movies and home videos are infinite. Many billions exist. We have no archival systems, no archival workflows, no archival principles to handle so much evidence. We will never know exactly what we are losing, and we will never be able to develop sensible principles to guide our archival activity. There's simply too much, and what survives will survive largely by accident. I'm at peace with this, I think; there are just too many for us to control what we preserve.
Explore the home movies in the Prelinger Archives
Leran more about preserving your home movies and home videos
To connect with Rick about your home movies, write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All videos courtesy of Prelinger Archives.
Published August 9, 2017.