Archivist Captures New York’s Bygone Past Through Home Movies, Historical Footage

Rick Prelinger seeks to capture ephemeral portraits of city life

The live cinema event traverses time periods, New York City boroughs, to present portrait of urban life Courtesy of the Prelinger Collection

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 ephemeral clips and audience participation to relay an intimate portrait of urban life.

Since 2006, Prelinger has been creating features on cities including San Francisco, Detroit and Los Angeles, but Lost Landscapes of New York—an “urban-history event” co-presented by the Museum of the Moving Image and NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts on November 12 (with two encore screenings at the museum on February 10 and 11)—takes him to the unexplored territory of the Big Apple.

According to The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, Prelinger’s film draws on forgotten footage of New York City, from old home movies to commercial film outtakes and “process plates” that treat the cityscape as a background. There is no sense of chronological movement; instead, the approximately 85-minute work traverses boroughs and time periods seemingly at random, drawing on snapshots of everyday life, work, celebration and change.

“On the surface the films are simple, lightly produced compilations of archival footage relating to a city or an area,” Prelinger tells 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: 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 through a nearly absolute absence of sound—as the archivist informs viewers during the film’s opening, “You are the soundtrack.”

As audience members absorb scenes of the now-demolished original Penn Station, 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, “noticing and often remarking on every visible detail of kinship, word and gesture and every interpersonal exchange. They also respond as cultural geographers, calling out streets and neighborhoods and buildings, reading signs aloud, repeating tradenames and brands and marking 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, and 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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