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Introduction Martha J. McNamara and Karan Sheldon In 1940, Amateur Cinema League member Olin Potter Geer brought his camera , loaded with 16mm Kodachrome film, to an Esso gas station in Boothbay Harbor, Maine. There, Geer shot a tightly edited, one-minute movie that, in just six shots, captures the mid-twentieth-century’s absorption with color, sheen and polish, and automobiles—in short, modernity. The film’s establishing shot is a landscape of gas station, commercial signage, a New England clapboard house, attendants at the pumps, and a woman striding across the station lot. Next, a close-up celebrates a 1936 Buick convertible in all its polished glory; two trim and efficient uniformed gas-station workers in frame-filling pride turn toward the camera, and the pump numbers tick over. Gassed up, the car, with no visible driver, leaves the station, passes between two cars, rounds a corner, and drives out of the frame into an enclosing backdrop of trees, an orange Gulf sign on the right. Deeply saturated color and the midday full-sunshine summer light give the film energy, flash, and sparkle. The brilliant blue sky, red-and-yellow awnings on the house with a picket fence, white-painted curb, red-lettered Esso signs, pendant red lights on poles, the red trim on the woman’s saddle shoes, the workers’ blue uniforms, and the navy car all exemplify the richness of Kodachrome, which so superbly retains saturated color, reflections, and fine-grained details. But the movie’s attraction for us goes well beyond its evocative shine. The entire film is impelled by the technology of mobility—the car, the gas pumps, the road—all found in a New England traditional landscape. This is the everyday petroleumpowered life, and it is gorgeous.1 This short 16mm film is an upbeat celebration of American modernity at midcentury. But to a viewer today, Geer’s Esso film might also evoke melancholy, with the imminence of World War II, vehicles of yesteryear, the consequences of our petrochemical dependence, people now long gone, or the existence and extinction of Kodachrome. Although capturing a brief moment of an ordinary day in rural New England, Geer’s film remains open to many different readings. Not only can it elicit respect for the filmmaker’s skill with color stock and his 16mm camera, but it can also evoke admiration for his ability to suggest a range of emotions, including delight, wonder, familiarity, and wistfulness. Geer’s Esso is not simply a celebration of American modernity; instead, the film is a visual 2 | Martha McNamara and Karan Sheldon poem, the evocation of a time and place in its most detailed specificity, maximizing the potential of Kodachrome film, the filmmaker’s discerning eye, and the brilliance of New England summer light. Geer’s film puts to rest the commonplace that amateur films or home movies are lacking in aesthetic value—that they are typified by shaky, out-of-focus images depicting family vacations and kids’ birthday parties. Instead, early twentiethcentury films made by nonprofessional filmmakers using small motion picture cameras were often complex, artfully constructed, and aesthetically compelling works of art. Training their lenses on the local and the ordinary, vernacular cinematographers in the photochemical era—roughly from the first decades of the twentieth century through the early 1960s—captured a beauty in the everyday and lyrically communicated their experience of place and time. This volume takes these filmmakers and their films seriously. The authors—cultural and art historians, archivists and technology specialists, media-studies scholars, writers , artists, and filmmakers—approach the study of amateur film from a variety of disciplinary perspectives; they are all interested in examining the visual aesthetics of these moving images, as well as placing them in their social, political, and historical contexts. Most importantly, each views these films as creative and compelling testaments to the lives of ordinary people. There has been surprisingly little attention paid to American home movies and amateur films in the scholarship on vernacular visual expressions. And yet Fig. 0.1 Olin Potter Geer filmed the Esso station in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, in 1940. From 16mm film. Blanche Geer, PhD, Memorial Collection, Northeast Historic Film. [Accession 1005, Reel 30] Introduction | 3 interest in snapshot and everyday photography has recently surged. The discovery , exhibition, and publication of the work of street photographer Vivian Maier is an example of curatorial and scholarly focus on vernacular photography that began with the work of Barbara Norfleet in the late 1970s.2 The literature...


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