Archivist captures New York's past through home movies, historical footage The skyline of Manhattan as viewed from the Empire State Building observatory. The Chrysler Building, Queensboro Bridge, and Roosevelt Island are a few of the landmarks visible. (Library of Congress/Prelinger Collection)
Archivist captures New York's past through home movies, historical footage

Rick Prelinger’s city-centric documentaries diverge from the traditional narrative format. Rather than presenting historical footage and scholarly commentary, the film archivist uses a mixture of fleeting clips and audience participation. This is how he relays an intimate portrait of urban life.

Prelinger has been creating features on several cities. The cities include San Francisco, Detroit and Los Angeles. He has been doing this since 2006. Lost Landscapes of New York is an “urban-history event.” It was co-presented by the Museum of the Moving Image and NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts on November 12. There will be two encore screenings at the museum on February 10 and 11. The screenings take him to the unexplored territory of the Big Apple.

Prelinger’s film draws on forgotten footage of New York City. That is according to The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis. Prelinger draws from old home movies to commercial film outtakes and “process plates.” These treat the cityscape as a background. There is no sense of chronological movement. Instead, the work traverses boroughs and time periods seemingly at random. They draw on snapshots of everyday life, work, celebration and change. It is approximately 85-minutes long.

“On the surface the films are simple. They are lightly produced compilations of archival footage relating to a city or an area,” Prelinger told The Essay Review’s Lucy Schiller. “And for some viewers the screenings are exercises in collective nostalgia. That’s not the way I present them, however. Instead, I emphasize the events are not simply revisitations of the past, but undertaken to encourage and sustain discussion about possible urban futures.”

Prelinger’s medley of urban scenes further differentiates itself from other documentaries. That is due to a nearly absolute absence of sound. As the archivist informs viewers during the film’s opening, “You are the soundtrack.”

Audience members absorb scenes of the now-demolished original Penn Station. They see Roaring Twenties-era crowds at Coney Island, Depression-era “Hoovervilles” and other slices of city life. They are encouraged to interact with the images onscreen. And, Prelinger tells Schiller, responses often move beyond simple commentary.

“[Viewers] turn into ethnographers,” he says. “They notice and often remark on every visible detail of kinship, word and gesture and every interpersonal exchange. They also respond as cultural geographers. They call out streets and neighborhoods and buildings. They reading signs aloud. They repeat tradenames and brands that mark extinct details in the cityscape.”

The Lost Landscapes series is only one of Prelinger’s contributions to the documentary film industry. In addition to creating these urban portraits, he oversees a titular archive of home movies and amateur and industrial films. In 2002, the Library of Congress acquired the Prelinger Collection, comprising more than 48,000 films. Roughly 7,000 of the Prelinger archives are available to view on the National Archives’ website.

Despite the widespread availability of his collected footage, Prelinger maintains that films are best viewed in an interactive setting.

“There is great potential in assemblies of large groups of people, and we rarely take advantage of them,” he tells Schiller. “To do so would mean abandoning the idea that we are here for a show and instead realizing that the show is us and we are the show.”

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Why might it be important to revisit what places looked like in the past?
Write your answers in the comments section below

  • AnnabelleA-del
    11/29/2017 - 05:26 p.m.

    Well, the main idea of the article is about Prelinger's urban scenes draw forgotten things from the city. Prelinger's motto is that the best films are taken in an interactive setting. I thought that motto was really interesting because I agree with him. I believe an active setting can do a lot for a film.

  • ZofiaT-del
    11/29/2017 - 05:37 p.m.

    This article is about how New York is captured by movies and other documenteries. It writes how many movies have been taken here because it is a vast city that is beautiful in some ways. People have been taking photographs of our city since the beginning of the builing of skyscrapers.

  • SophiaD-del1
    11/29/2017 - 05:45 p.m.

    These silent documentaries of cities in a time-lapse show how the past was and how bright the future could be. It shows how much has changed during the history of the city. This also presents the importance of knowing past events and what has changed the way others used to live before our time.

  • JustinM-del
    11/29/2017 - 05:45 p.m.

    this article is about captures of New York's past through historical footage.Its a film archivist uses a mixture of fleeting clips and audience participation. This is how he relays an intimate portrait of urban life.

  • KiaraB-del
    11/29/2017 - 05:46 p.m.

    This article was interesting it was about building. The article talks about forgotten footage of New York City. This was an very interesting article.

  • ChloeR-del
    11/29/2017 - 05:50 p.m.

    The article is about an archivist named Rick Prelinger who does documentaries about former landscapes of cities like New York and Detroit. His movies are different than usual because they draw on forgotten footage from commercial films and home movies that use the city as a background. Lost landscape of New York is shown at the Museum of Moving Images. There is no sound in his documentaries because he believes that the audience has to interact with the image. As he said during the presentation, "The show is us and we are the show."

  • DevanS-del
    11/29/2017 - 05:53 p.m.

    I'm impressed by Prelinger's photography. It is an essential part of our lives to not only look into the future but also look in the past. Our city as we no it today was most certainly different back then. People had a different way of building structures, weren't as knowledgeable in the medical field, and even had a alternative way of speaking. By looking at photos like the one shown, we learn about how life looked and felt.

  • SaraM-del
    11/29/2017 - 05:57 p.m.

    This article talks about an activist who captures the past of NYC.He does it through footage and home movies. I thought this was interesting.

  • SamanthaM-del1
    11/29/2017 - 06:25 p.m.

    New York's past has been captured through home movies. It is important to revisit what places looked like in the past, so you can see what things changed, and what still looks the same.

  • JaredI-del
    11/29/2017 - 06:38 p.m.

    so you can remember the memories you had there

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