Amateur Cinematography and Moment Collecting
This article examines the post–World War II travel films of two American families. One family documented their travels (mostly in the United States) in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the other family, the Weiss family, was especially mobile (and internationally so) in the early to mid-1960s as U.S. involvement in Vietnam was escalating.1 The films themselves are part of a larger collection acquired by the author at estate sales in and around Silver Spring, Maryland, and Washington, D.C., between 1997 and 2001. Several of those years were my "dissertating years." Haunting people's basements on the weekends, which started as a diversion, quickly became something more when at one of these sales I bought a dusty Kodak Brownie 500 projector and a big box of mysterious-looking fifty-foot Kodachrome films, most of which were labeled simply [End Page 75] with a year and a geographical referent.2 This particular sale was professionally run; some are run by surviving family members, and some are simply indoor yard sales. That the items themselves in this case were "professionally" priced at ten dollars—a surviving family member, in fact, "threw" the Weiss family film collection in with the projector, the item that justified the price tag—indicates the low esteem our culture has for what Patricia Zimmermann has called a "part of a suppressed and discarded film history."3
As a student of moving image history and technology, my attraction to this particular strain of popular culture made sense; this, at least, is the argument I like to use when I grow weary of defending or denying what is also quite clearly a form of voyeurism—a fascination with the ways objects, especially these objects, reverberate nostalgically. So, while I should perhaps repress my own voyeurism, my own fascination with a time that, in most cases, I never knew personally, or with people to whom I certainly had no personal connection, I want here to unmask my violation of these academic taboos in the hope of complicating them and, to some degree, unraveling how such desires not only form the organizational backbone of "the collecting impulse" but are also strategies implicit in the amateur cinematographer's task, which is, after all, to look longingly, to remember fondly.
Writing of his own difficult-to-reconcile fervor for the written word, his own collections of books and of quotations, Walter Benjamin suggested that "to renew the old world—that is the collector's deepest desire when he is driven to acquire new things."4 Benjamin's words are magnificent, in part, for their own quotability—a state of affairs, I suspect, he would have found delightfully comical. Susan Sontag, buoyed by Benjamin's observations, draws the connection between the collector's and the photographer's twin enterprises. This connection inspires her to open her seminal 1977 book On Photography with the aphorismatic position that "the most grandiose result of the photographic enterprise is to give us the sense that we can hold the whole world in our heads—an anthology of images. To collect photographs is to collect the world."5 Sontag also closes her book, in homage to Benjamin, with her own collection of quotations on photography. Between these Benjaminian bookends, Sontag offers a critical statement upon which the present examination pivots. Continuing in the photographer-as-collector vein, she writes that,
Like the collector, the photographer is animated by a passion that, even when it appears to be for the present, is linked to a sense of the past. But while traditional [End Page 76] arts of historical consciousness attempt to put the past in order, distinguishing the innovative from the retrograde, the central from the marginal, the relevant from the irrelevant or merely interesting, the photographer's approach—like that of the collector—is unsystematic, indeed, anti-systematic.6