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From Nitrate to Digital Archive: The Davide Turconi Project
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The technical revolutions are the fracture points of artistic development; it is there that the different political tendencies may be said to come to the surface. In every new technical revolution the political tendency is transformed, as if by its own volition, from a concealed element of art into a manifest one.

Walter Benjamin on Battleship Potemkin

Technical Revolutions

Today we are confronting a technical revolution in film form, archiving, and historiography brought about by digital media. Indeed, the seismic effects have been felt for well over a decade, but now the casualties are apparent. With the expansion of digital imaging, projection, and distribution, with the ensuing bankruptcy of Kodak, and with the threatened demise of 35mm filmstock and of still and moving image equipment and laboratories now before us, film as a celluloid medium may be in its last days, at least at the industrial level. Celluloid’s future as an archival medium is at best uncertain. In ideal circumstances, our film prints can last in cold-storage vaults for well over a century—unlike digital copies, whose codecs and hard drives are optimistically measured in increments of three to five years and thus must be constantly migrated at great expense. But without filmstock and laboratories, restoration’s future will be almost exclusively digital within a few years, as celluloid’s ecosystem collapses.1

We raise these issues by no means as a polemic for or against digital cinema but rather as a historiographic lens through which to consider one specific archival project, the Davide Turconi Nitrate Frame Collection. The history of the collection usefully calls attention to the transformation of archival practices over the past century. In many ways, the work on the collection can also be construed as a research project within the domain of the digital humanities, as it means to complement, supplement, and facilitate through digital technology the traditional work of film history and archiving.

The Turconi Project centers on the work of Italian film historian Davide Turconi (1911–2005). Born in Pavia, Italy, Turconi was a revered historian, credited with writing seminal works of film history, with a particular devotion to silent Italian cinema. In 1982, Turconi cofounded the Giornate del Cinema Muto, a silent film festival held annually in Pordenone, and he served as director for over twenty years. In the 1970s, he culled a massive collection of 23,491 frame clippings from the unique and influential Joye Collection of early cinema. The Joye material was assembled by the Swiss abbé Josef Joye in the early 1900s and originally comprised an estimated 1,540 international films produced primarily between 1908 and 1912, many of which contained remarkable examples of early film coloring, in particular, stenciling, hand coloring, tinting, and toning. Upon inspecting the collection in the 1960s, Turconi found many of the prints to be in advanced stages of deterioration. Finding no means of preserving the collection as a whole, he cut clippings from the films (usually two to three frames each) and carefully organized them to preserve in fragments what he feared would soon disappear. In the 1970s and 1980s, the surviving and fragmented Joye prints were at last transferred for preservation to the


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Figure 1. 

Clipping 10286, Vues d’Espagne en cartes postales (Pathé, 1907). The Davide Turconi Collection, courtesy George Eastman House.

National Film Archive (NFA; now the British Film Institute [BFI] National Archive), whereas Turconi’s clippings took on a separate life of their own. Turconi donated the bulk of the clippings to Paolo Cherchi Usai and to the Cineteca del Friuli, and this material is now housed at George Eastman House (GEH) in Rochester, New York. Since 2003, GEH has preserved and digitized the collection in its entirety, and in October 2011, the Giornate del Cinema Muto launched a publicly accessible website (http://www.progettoturconi.it), which opens digital access to the collection for research.2

A timeline of the collection’s care—from the early 1900s to present day—lays bare the history of film preservation and archival practices. From the storage of Joye’s decaying nitrate prints in a damp cellar to the housing of the clippings in a state-of the...



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