Notes from the North East Film Archive: A PhD Placement

Jenna Allsopp, PhD student, describes six months of handling, researching, splicing and digitising archival film.

In 2019, I undertook a 6 month professional development placement at the North East Film Archive, which was funded by Design Star as part of my doctoral training. The aim of the placement was to provide me with an exciting opportunity to experience a completely different, collections-based, environment to an academic, university-based one I am currently situated in as a PhD student. My work on their North East on Film project provided me with invaluable connections with archivists and curators within my chosen field and geographical location, having recently moved back to my hometown of Newcastle-upon-Tyne after 11 years in Brighton.

The North East Film Archive (NEFA), and its sister organisation the Yorkshire Film Archive (YFA), is a charity which aims to preserve and provide access to the moving image heritage of Yorkshire and the North East of England over the last 120 years, much like the south coast’s own regional film archive, Screen Archive South East, held at the University of Brighton. NEFA and YFA cares for the collections housed in both Middlesbrough and York respectively, made up of more than 50,000 titles which provide a rich and engaging record of time. The majority of films are non-fiction or industrial records, made by both amateurs and professionals. Subject matter includes industry such as shipbuilding, mining, steel and textiles, as well as everyday life such as family parties, school trips, holidays and regional events and traditions. They also hold the Yorkshire and Tyne Tees Television news and regional programmes, alongside a wealth of output from local cine clubs, which reflect a fascinating social history over the last century.

Fig.1: Lining up film and sound reels on a Steenbeck flatbed editing suite at the North East Film Archive, Middlesbrough. Photograph by the author. July 2019

During the placement I was trained in more physical aspects of film handling, such as loading the Steenbeck flatbed editing suite (see Fig.1) with 35mm picture and sound film, which I was shown how to sync accurately. The dark film is the picture and the brown film is the sound.

In 1928 Kodak introduced their Kodacolor process which was widely used by amateur filmmakers until the introduction of the much-improved Kodachrome process in 1935. This process underwent a lot of fine-tuning, particularly in the US where the technology was pioneered, which inevitably had a bias towards the capturing of white skin tones. The inherent racism of early colour photography has been widely written about, specifically the Kodak-issued ‘Shirley’ cards which were used as a standard gauge to calibrate colour in photography and film processing quality control. Named after the first model who posed for these cards, Shirley Page, all subsequent models became known as Shirleys; a Caucasian woman usually against a grey background. This image, as visible on the screen of the Steenbeck in Fig.1, was considered the norm for skin tone and was the desired outcome for processing.

Fig.2: Splicing film cells at the North East Film Archive, Middlesbrough. Photograph by the author. July 2019.

Other physical handling training including learning how to ‘splice’ film cells. Often, and particularly with very old film, the cells can break during viewing on the Steenbeck, so it is necessary to glue them back together. This is done by trimming the break to the nearest frame at each end, connecting them on the splicer shown in Fig.2 and joining the cells with a specialised clear tape. Splicing is also carried out if multiple films need to be loaded onto a single reel for storage.

During my placement we were donated a can of multiple reels of nitrate film which the archive is not allowed to store for more than 24 hours due to its flammability. This particular collection was in terrible condition, so sadly could not be viewed before it was shipped to the BFI whose vaults are insured to hold it.

Fig.3: Examining a donation of cellulose nitrate film at the North East Film Archive, Middlesbrough. Photograph by the author. July 2019.

Cellulose nitrate was first used for photographic roll film in 1889 and was used for 35mm motion picture film until the 1950s. Cellulose nitrate is highly flammable, prone to spontaneous combustion and decomposes with age. The decomposition produces a swirling psychedelic effect as a result of the chemical emulsion drying up and peeling away from the nitrate strip. In the present day, these imperfections of decay have inspired the work of contemporary artists such as Bill Morrison who has used decaying nitrate film as a key medium in his practice.

Fig.4: Audience at the ‘Durham on Film’ screening at the Gala Cinema, Durham. Photograph by the author. July 2019.

One of the main ways members of the public have access to the films in the archives is through public screening events. These are held regularly across the North East and Yorkshire and include films specially selected which feature the area in which the screening is held.

Fig.4 is a photograph I took of the 400-capacity sold out show at the Durham Gala cinema in July. My main duty at the archive was to research the social history for contextual publication alongside the films on the website, some of which were read out to the audience in between films at the screenings. It was very meaningful to read the feedback forms after the events and hear how much the local residents enjoyed the additional context to enrich the films and how many memories these films recalled. Some residents even spotted themselves or old friends in the films!

Fig.5: Cleaning the John Scorer collection in preparation for cataloguing and digitisation at the North East Film Archive, Middlesbrough. Photograph by the author. July 2019.

The most rewarding and enjoyable part of my placement was having the opportunity to work on my own donation project. I was handed a box of film that had not yet been viewed, which I watched on the hand winder for the first time. I was given the responsibility to decide if the films were of interest to the North East on Film project and, if so, I cleaned the film (as shown in Fig.5), loaded it onto an archive reel, created a catalogue record, passed the film to the technician for digitisation then researched the social context for publication on the website once the film was live. This project allowed me to experience every aspect of the donation process from acceptance, accession, selection, digitisation to publication.

For anyone interested in this collection, it was all by an amateur filmmaker named John Scorer from Cullercoats on the North East coast, who was a middle school teacher and avid collector and maker of historical costume. All five of his films I selected for digitisation can be viewed here.

In total I contributed 30,000 words for the archive in writing, either in formal ‘in-house’ style text for contextual information for films for the NEFA website, or via an informal 3-part blog post, Part One of which can be read here.

Intimacy and Belonging: Nan Goldin’s new photography show

Annie Jones, BA Fashion and Dress History, enters Nan Goldin’s inner world through her recent exhibition.

Nan Goldin is an American photographer who has intimately chronicled her life and the lives of those closest to her since the early 1980s. Her visual autobiographical style has captured the LGBTQ community, the HIV and Opioid crises alongside the fleeting nature of young love. Goldin’s latest exhibition, Sirens, opened at the Marian Goodman Gallery in November 2019 and is her first solo exhibition in London since 2002. In Sirens, Goldin presents new photographic slideshows as well as unseen video and photography work dating back to the 1970s. As an admirer of Goldin’s previous work, such as The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, a collection of photos and slideshows capturing intimate moments of love and loss, which she suitably described as ‘the diary I let people read’, I was elated to attend an exhibition of hers for the first time.

Figure 1. Goldin photographs from Sirens exhibition. Image author’s own.

Upon arrival, exhibition-goers were greeted by the hum of music from rooms in the distance; these had long red curtains drawn, blocking out the blaring sounds. Entering gave the air of walking into an underground party or club, which was highly fitting for the subject matter Goldin displays. Images of nightlife, as seen in Figure 1, dominated the walls. They were accompanied by images such as the ones in Figure 2, which focused more on the aftermath of a party.

Fig. 2. Photographs from Goldin’s Sirens exhibition. Image author’s own.

Goldin brings the viewer along in her journey of documentation. ‘The major motivation for my work’, she once explained, ‘is an obsession with memory. I became a serious photographer when I started drinking because [the morning after] I wanted to remember all the details of my experiences. I would go to the bars and shoot and have a record of my life.’ This made me, the viewer, feel less like an outside witness and more of an extra companion in her intimate moments.

As I followed the music and went behind the curtains, I was greeted by looped videos on screens arranged in triptych. In the centre was a clip from Metropolis, the 1927 film by Fritz Lang, which included a group of men leering, gurning and dropping their jaws. On the right side was a clip of a showgirl dancing sensually, and on the left a scene of disarray and mayhem as the inside of what seems to be a palace is torn to shreds. The installation appeared to represent the power of female sexuality and the chaos that can ensue as a result of its influence. Female sexual power is seen throughout the exhibition, as women are portrayed as strong social beings as well as admirably vulnerable when alone.

The structural aspects of the exhibition heightened its impact. The building was dark, with the only source of light from the street and the back lighting of the photographs. This brought a specific sense of focus to each frame and highlighted the saturated tones of the 35mm images. The photos had no labels, leaving interpretation completely up to the viewer, a choice that suits Goldin’s documentary style. A description of each photograph would have taken away that sense of personal belonging previously stated. It would have merely cemented the images as photographs by a particular person and of a particular place and time. Additionally, as Gillian Rose observes of labels in Visual Methodologies, these can make the artist the most important aspect of the work of art. The most important part of Goldin’s photography is not the artist. What will be of the greatest significance in each piece remains subjective to its viewer. This corresponds to what the art dealer Karsten Schubert described in his 2000 book, The Curator’s Egg, where, he argued, ‘the museum is now much more involved in a two-way dialogue with its audience. It relies more on interpretation and less on absolute truths.’

What Goldin produced in Sirens was honest and insightful. She captured with her camera the emotions of intimate moments, creating a sense of oneness between her, her photographs and their viewers. ‘For me’, she explained, ‘it is not a detachment to take a picture. It’s a way of touching somebody – it’s a caress’. Goldin’s caress puts her subjects at ease; it also created a powerful sense of belonging and comfort within me as I joined in their moments.

Life is… A Welsh museum worth visiting

Emma Bull, BA Fashion and Dress History, returns to her roots at the Welsh National Museum of History.

Deep in the heart of Cardiff, Wales, lies a museum seemingly frozen in time. St Fagan’s National Museum of History consists of original buildings ranging from the early 16th to the 20th century, excavated from around Wales and reconstructed at the site. St Fagan’s also contains separate galleries focusing on Welsh life, the stories of donated objects and their impact upon Welsh people and culture. Refurbished in a £30million redevelopment, these galleries reopened in late 2018. Being of Welsh origin and having visited the museum many times when growing up, I was intrigued to see how the main galleries had been revamped.

Now named Byw a bod… (Life is…), the main gallery space explores Welsh lives and memories. As the museum describes it, ‘We tell people’s stories through their own words – wherever possible – and through the objects they treasured […]. This gallery takes the ordinary stuff of all our lives and shows it to be extraordinary.’ The space is separated into three sections. The first  focuses on work and heritage, the middle on leisure and the last, rather controversially for a museum targeted at all ages, on death and remembering those lost.

Fig 1. A young boy interacting with the original tractor exhibit overlooking the exterior farm views. St Fagan’s website. Colour Photograph. 2018.

Starting with the exhibit on gweithio (work), it was interesting to see how the curators have decided to show objects from separate walks of life. Upon the first wall are hung agricultural objects such as rakes, hoes and domestic household objects. They are identifiable by numbers, which can then be found on a large sign, interactive screens or information booklets. Having three ways in which to access information allows the visitor to explore the exhibition in the way that best suits them; the speaking screens allow for those with hearing and sight disabilities to also interact with the gallery. There is an original tractor that children can climb on, overlooking the exterior farm. Also featured are Laura Ashley factory woollen threads (Canolbarth, 1960s) and an original fish fryer (Cardiff, 1915). The idea of memory persisting through objects is prominent and the eclectic formation of the gallery feels personal. Being able to read anecdotes from families who donated the items develops visitor appreciation and provides value; the sometimes mundane object is made significant by its story.

Fig 2. Fish Fryer from Cardiff, 1915. Author’s own image. 2 January 2020.

This curatorial method is outlined by Swiss art curator Hans Ulrich Obrist in his 2014 book, Ways of Curating. He writes that when he interviewed Eric Hobsbawm [1917-2012], the historian described curating via memory as a ‘protest against forgetting’. Through this, he argued that recollection is a contact zone between the past, present and future. I believe this kind of memory-based curating was the aim of St Fagan’s, who attempt to bridge the gap between generations.

Fig 3/4. Examples of the Fashion displays with the Byw a bod… gallery. Author’s own images. 2 January 2020.

Continuing to the area about leisure in Wales, I was naturally drawn to the cabinet of clothing, dating from the 1870s to the 1950s. Although the garments on display were exceptionally beautiful, the cabinet itself was sadly lacking. The gallery was lit by strong LED lights that reflected on the cabinet making it difficult to see the true detail of the items. As the cabinet was not lit from the inside it was difficult to read the plastic labels unless at a certain angle. Although it is important to control lighting to not damage or discolour garments, being unable to view the pieces affects visitors’ enjoyment. As noted by conservator Garry Thompson in his 1978 book, The Museum Environment, works of artwill look better in some lighting situations […we should bend our efforts to finding the best possible’.

Fig 4. Examples of the Fashion displays with the Byw a bod… gallery. Author’s own images. 2 January 2020.

In addition to these shortcomings, garment labels were lacklustre. Although they provided some information about the origin of the items, they failed to describe the methods of construction, fabric or further context, making it difficult for somebody who did not know much about fashion history to gain deeper insight. Once again, this area provided a space in which children could interact, this time in the form of a dressing-up zone with recreation garments. There were some swimsuits displayed separately here that were easier to view.

Fig 5. Cast iron and etched glass carriage and premature birth coffin, c. mid-1800s. Author’s own image. 2 January 2020.

The gallery concludes with the idea of marw (death). There is a beautifully displayed carriage from the late 1800s and a premature death coffin made from cast iron and etched glass. The gallery does well in presenting death in a less morbid way than expected; instead its focus is predominantly that of remembrance, which works well to conclude the gallery theme of memory and remembering history.

Overall, despite a few issues with lighting and labels, the gallery presents unique and interesting stories and objects from around Wales. It presents its artefacts in a way that is inclusive of all ages and physical abilities. The galleries are easily accessible, interactive and well worth the visit.