Home Movies of the 1939 New York World's Fair

Curator's Note

My interest in the home movies of the 1939 New York World’s Fair resulted from of my research into the professionally-shot films of the Fair. Home movies have such a different quality to them; capturing the immediacy, vitality, and confusion of the fairground experience. Set on a radial plan and with color-coded zones, the fair layout was meant to effortlessly guide the visitor. In reality, most visitors ping-ponged around the fairgrounds, following what caught their eye, which is reflected in the vast majority of home movies of the fair – jumpy camera movements, panning to “read” pavilion signage, random tilting to scan up a façade or capture a fountain’s dance. These are invaluable and fascinating records of the typical visit to the Fair.

The clip I’m sharing, however, does not fall prey to these filmmaking foibles. It is neither dry and staid like the professional films shot of the fairgrounds, maintaining a legible albeit boring distance from the pavilions, nor is it the somewhat dizzying, haphazard style of the typical home movie. It is simply the most striking, beautiful home movie I’ve ever seen of the fair. This may seem unfair, to make a judgment call on “best” 1939 fair film, to single out one fairgoer as the Fair film auteur. And yet it is important to share precisely for that reason – that it defies categorization. It is neither a professional film, nor what we have come to expect (or think we should expect) from a home movie; it challenges our expectations. Cyrus Pinkham didn’t belong to cine-clubs or subscribe to amateur filmmaking magazines, but over a three-year span he made 18 reels of film, all of which exhibit this attention to composition, lighting, and editing. Note the careful compositions of multiple planes of people, water, statues, and pavilions; or the moment his parents notice something in the sky, followed by a shot of planes flying in formation. He also captures the extremes of light and dark between the interior of pavilions and the brilliant sun outside. The entire film is available at http://fairfilm.org/index.php/Detail/Occurrence/Show/occurrence_id/509. See also the records of his entire collection at Northeast Historic Film at http://oldfilm.org/.

Comments

Snowden Becker's picture

Caitlin, you're nuts for World's Fair films!

And I really LOVE that about you.

As I noted in my response to Andy yesterday, your work on World’s Fair films in general and Cyrus Pinkham’s films in particular, to my mind, represents a sort of gold standard in home movie and amateur film research. Where some past scholars (whom I won’t shame by naming) have generalized about “the home movie” from a place of very little data, you’ve gone digging very deeply and created a solid foundation on which to theorize. Because I’ve heard you talk about this project in several other venues, I know you’ve also employed a complex set of methodologies in your research, as well as true technological literacy. (I find it interesting, by the way, that we’re all presenting digital surrogates of what in most cases were film originals at SOME point, and there’s been practically no discussion of the original formats, their affordances, or home movies’ materiality.)

So this makes me wonder, who can we hold up as “authorities” on home movies now, and what can we identify as being core competencies among people who want to study them? Does a person have to know that film and video are different media? Or can (must) we become comfortable with all home movies from the last 100 years being referred to as “home videos,” since video is the transmission medium in which most amateur recordings are going to be viewed, shared, and compared? What did we once regard as canonical home movie knowledge that has to go out the window now that people can look at them much more deeply?

And for you, Caitlin, how many World’s Fair films did you see (or will you still have to see, perhaps) before you felt comfortable generalizing about them?

Caitlin McGrath's picture

Where to start...

First, this has been a really amazing collection of clips, and a great experiment as a way to get people viewing and talking about amateur footage. We need to find a way to do this all the time. I’m not even kidding.

Second, Snowden, thank you for your generous words! I’m not sure I deserve them, but I appreciate the support. I think you raise some fundamental questions about amateur film, and while I don’t presume to have answers, I’ve found all your posts thought-provoking enough to hazard some guesses here.

My approach to this material comes out of my dissatisfaction with the “official” views of the fair. I was interested in the perceptual experience of the fair, and home movies answered these questions for me in a way no other record had up to that point. So I was guided by the subject matter, but also by the films’ style. (I think I may be outside the party in that regard - whereas most people try to ignore the standard home movie style to get to what is being shot, I’m focused on how they’re shooting whatever it is they’re looking at. But maybe I’m wrong. I’d love to hear other examples of people investigating home movie style in a similar way - and not as in the relation of amateur footage to Hollywood, but as you say, why parades are so popular etc.)

I’m intrigued by the striking similarity of these films more than anything. Which is to say, they all suffer from the same kinds of “mistakes” and I see that as evidence of the effect of the space of the fairground on the individual. That’s how I came to find myself counting splices and mapping the routes people took through the fairgrounds. But this is a very specific case study, and perhaps not all that useful to others in approaching amateur film.

And then of course there’s Cyrus. I didn’t set out to find “the best”, (as I say above, I was really interested in how they were all the same) but it jumped out at me. My jaw dropped from the opening shots. It was clearly that different. And this has then set me off on another path - figuring out who he was, what his other films were, why he was making them when he did, but then stopped, etc. And I think this is perhaps a partial answer as to how we move forward. We have the luxury of so much of this material surviving (as opposed to say, early cinema) but that doesn’t mean we have to all approach it in the same way. Hopefully what we do will intrigue and interest others, who will then seek out their own projects, and the mining will be done in many different directions simultaneously. Maybe that’s too haphazard for some, but it doesn’t strike me as all that different from the rest of film studies.

And, I should say, it *does* matter to me that we talk about these as films. And more than that, that we are as technically specific as possible. For example, it matters to me to know that a film was shot on 8mm versus 16mm, because I think it is relevant to understanding the film’s style. Of course there are many factors that affect a film’s form, but whether you are lugging around a 16mm camera in 1939, versus an 8mm matters. As does knowing (or deducing) the use of a tripod, the kind of film and how it was manipulated (magazine or no? switching between black and white? lots of splicing or are those stops and starts of the camera? etc.)

As to how many films I’ve seen, I’m not even sure. Dozens, probably? Not yet a hundred. The great boon of the collections at NHF was being able to see all the work of one filmmaker, because then it was easier to see a style emerge, which then either was sustained at the fair or, more likely, was blown all to hell when they got in that crazy scene.

I *do* love world’s fairs. But that’s because they’re a lot like parades. (only better ;)

Daniel Mauro's picture

Self-taught Cinematography

I’m glad to see this post and clip about Cyrus Pinkham’s work. I was fortunate enough to catch a screening of Pinkham’s work (on film!) at a recent NHF showcase this year, and it is all the more astonishing when projected on the big screen. I am interested in the fact that Pinkham did not belong to a cine-club or subscribe to amateur filmmaking magazines. Given that amateur films and home movies present such a diverse collection of potential objects of study, I agree that it would be extremely difficult to approach research for so many different types of films and videos in a single way.

That said, a great amount of the scholarship on amateur filmmaking tends to use popular discourses and amateur filmmaking magazines as evidence of amateur production, but occasionally there is a missing link between discourse and actual practice. It’s great to read about a practitioner working without any apparent links to formal training or popular discourse, and he seems to be an example of a true DIY cinematographer. It must have been interesting to view all of his films to see how his style may have developed over time. Is there any evidence about particular influences? Did he watch many Hollywood films? Did he ever screen his work for others? Pinkham seems like an example of what has probably become a growing number of amateur filmmakers (and now video-makers) who are self-taught and creating their own work based on their own aesthetic or technological interests.

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