Black Maria Essay Series

Bill Morrison: The Art of the Archive

by Sally Berger


The Black Maria Film Festival is a pivotal locus of short experimental works, an ideal exhibition venue from which to reflect on artists films using archival and found footage, and in particular for the purposes of this essay, the work of Bill Morrison, one of its frequent participants. The festival has been ongoing since 1981 when the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey, accepted filmmaker and founding Director John Columbuss proposal for a film festival dedicated to short films, largely experimental. It was at this site where Edisons Black Maria Photographic Studio (considered the first purpose-built motion picture studio) was completed in 1893, the first short films were made, and the roots of cinema in America began. Edison and his team of assistants including the Scottish inventor William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, experimented in the development of motion picture technology, designed the motion picture camera (the kinetograph), the peephole kinetoscope, and created some of the earliest motion pictures. The works initially created in the Edison studio were shorts like the primitive Fred Otts Sneeze (1894), a five second planned event which was originally filmed to be printed as photographic stills for publicity purposes, staged actions (Blacksmithing Scene, 1893), and reenactments (The Kiss, 1896).

To expand the commercial value of his work in cinema, Edison opened a new motion picture studio in Manhattan in 1901. His production manager Edwin S. Porter worked on multiple aspects of the Edison films as cameraman, director and editor: his hands-on methods are cited as a link between early, primitive cinema and the practices of the avant-garde artist. In Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902), Porters film-within-a-film structure, using three previously shot Edison films to build the story, is an early example of the use of incorporating archival footage into the construction of a film. Later in the century artists began making short collage films using films, photographs and/or sound, some famous examples include: Joseph Cornells Rose Hobart (1936); Bruce Conners A Movie (1958); and Arthur Lipsetts Very Nice, Very Nice (1961).

Columbus envisioned the Black Maria Film Festival as a touring festival of short films from the outset: he specifically designed and presented programs for each venue (a tradition continued into the present with current Executive Director, Jane Steuerwald). In its first year the festival was organized out of Columbuss home office, with mail received through the Thomas Edison National Historical Park, and submissions processed through the East Orange Public Library, which has a 16mm film collection: The first three exhibition venues were at the Edison National Historic Park, the Fairlawn Cultural Center and the Montclair Art Museum, but the festival quickly expanded its scope to include additional sites in theaters and cultural centers farther afield. Shorts, for submission purposes, were originally defined as thirty minutes or less, later forty-five minutes or less, and today sixty minutes or less.

Through the years, Black Maria has exhibited a full range of shorts in animation, documentary, narrative and experimental styles. Many of these are archival or found footage works  films made either completely or partially with pre-existing films or appropriated footage (material from silent films, home movies and amateur films, newsreels, television footage, industrials, outtakes, etc.). In its first decade (1981  1991), the festival included one or two films each year based on found footage; as the decade progressed, the numbers increased. One of the earliest examples, a documentary that was shown on the 2nd Black Maria Tour in 1983, was No Place to Hide (1982, Lance Bird and Tom Johnson): The film featured clips from 1950s civil defense education films geared toward teaching American families safety from nuclear disaster during the early years of the Cold War era.

Other examples in the first decade featuring found footage works by filmmakers who defined their individual styles within the experimental and/or documentary genres included: Alan Berliner (Everywhere at Once, 1985); Abigail Child (Perils, 1986; Mayhem, 1987); Kathy Cook and Claudia Looze (June Brides, 1987); Phil Solomon, (The Secret Garden, 1988); Lewis Klahr (In the Month of Crickets, 1988); Barbara Hammer (Endangered, 1989); and Nina Fonoroff (A Knowledge They Cannot Lose, 1989). These filmmakers developed distinctive methodologies using found footage based on their artistic practices. Among the works listed above, Berliner created a sound and image collage matching audio to visual clips from multiple sources in sports, nature, music and more; Child used source materials from film noir and silent films to examine the undercurrents and tensions running through film, drama, and sexuality; Solomon lyrically manipulated the photochemical surfaces of 16mm film; and Klahr created a haunting animated narrative out of magazine cutouts.

By the early 1990s, partially due to the wider availability of digital editing, the existence of ephemeral film collections such as the Prelinger Archives, the further development of film preservation and collections, and artists expanding interest in making collage films, the use of archival footage films shown in the festival had grown. In 1991, the festival tour showcased at least six films using archival footage, including Martin Arnolds Pièce touchèe (1989), which extended and manipulated a pivotal eighteen-second scene from a 1954 film (The Human Jungle, Joseph M. Newman) to create a sixteen-minute-long new work. This tour also included Barbara Hammers Sanctus (1989), which repurposed 1950s x-ray films shot by doctor and filmmaker James Sibley Watson; Bradley Eros and Jeanne Liottas collaborative performance based film and projection work Fungus Eroticus (1990); Alan Berliners Late City Edition (1991), an installation shown in a single channel version; Abigail Childs, Mercy (1989); and Su Friedrichs Sink or Swim (1990), on the relationship between a daughter and her estranged father told through associative images and stories.

Out of the vibrant and creative energy of experimental film, theater and performance in New York City in the early 1990s, Bill Morrison began making films for New Yorks Ridge Theater centered on the use of found footage. During his studies at Cooper Union with animator Robert Breer in the mid 1980s, he worked with an optical printer, made photographs from paint processed 16mm film, and built his films image- by-image. Filmmaker Jeanne Liotta introduced him to the underground film scene. Bill explained how Liotta impacted his work: Jeanne was a life model at Cooper Union 1985-9, and we became fast friends. She introduced me to the world of underground cinema and theater in the East Village of the late 80s, to which I had no prior exposure. She was so engaged and energetic and took great risks with her work. I remember her taking me to screenings in basements, and seeing appropriated film images used in cinematic performances for the first time. She was the first person from downtown New York I ever met.

Morrisons Footprints (1992), was first screened as a six-minute projection within the Ridges theatrical presentation of Jungle Movie, a reflection on colonist and native stereotypes shown at One Dream Theater in Tribeca in 1991. Morrison had been working on a film using images of primitive man as depicted in primitive cinema and the idea that a new type of human evolved out of our relationship to cinema in the 20th century, which was incorporated into the show. His film clips came from the Library of Congresss Paper Print Collection, D.W. Griffiths Man Genesis (1912), Muybridge photos, and an intentionally Drano® distressed 20th Century Fox logo. With the logo placed as the opening title, and Jim Farmers music on the soundtrack, the 16mm film Footprints became Morrisons first work in the Black Maria film Festival (shown in the 1993 Black Maria tour).

I asked Bill what niche Black Maria provided to him as a filmmaker that other festivals had not and he replied: Black Maria supported all of my early films. In the early days, they would often come out of films that I was making for Ridge Theatre, that I would later re-cut for cinema screenings. I could send them in whenever they were finished, even if I had missed the deadline, and John would usually find a place for them in the program. You would send them a self-addressed postcard that they would return to you when they had received your submission, and this would usually happen around mid-November, close to my birthday, so I would send birthday greetings to myself on those cards. John would sometimes write his own blurbs for your films, adding his own insights and analysis of the work. What was really different about Black Maria was that instead of playing just one venue, selected films would tour, seemingly playing every micro-cinema in the country. It was largely through these tours that my work found a larger audience in the US. Around this same time, when Morrison was in his late twenties, he saw Craig Baldwins Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (1992) at the Public Theater. Morrison admired Baldwins way of using found footage as a powerful political device. He wrote to Baldwin, an absolute genius and received a warm funny encouraging letter that really set me on my path.

Other films by Morrison that have shown in Black Maria include: The Death Train (1993), a film conceived for the Ridge Theatres production of John Morans opera, Everyday Newt Burman (1993). The Film of Her (1996); Ghost Trip (2000), a non-archival project featuring the actor/composer Slink Moss); Decasia (2002), his first feature-length work on film decay; Light is Calling (2004), a meditation on film decay and lost love through a scene from James Youngs The Bells (1926); and The High Water Trilogy (2006), a three-part look at humankinds vulnerability to natural disasters. Morrison calls The Film of Her, his film about the history of the paper-print collection of early, silent film, a festival warhorse because it steadily toured in festivals for two years between 1996 and 1998. I can recall Columbuss excitement about the film when I was a pre-screener and juror for Black Maria from 1996 to 1998. The story must have resonated for Columbus with its connection to the roots of American cinema and Thomas Edison as the first to copyright his films as paper prints (Edisons Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze also known as Fred Otts Sneeze, was the first motion picture to be copyrighted). Columbus also had a strong intuitive response to Morrisons work: One is seduced less by the narrative content, but more by his hypnotic surfaces, by his cadences, and also by his absolute dedication and immersion in the painterly quality of the image and passion for the surface of the film emulsion, which is more than a mere artifact of escapist entertainment.

The Film of Her tells the little-known story of the origins of film archiving. Early films were first collected not as films, but as paper-prints, copyrighted paper images made between 1894 and 1912, housed in the Library of Congress. The film is narrated by actor Guy de Lancey as the voice of Howard Walls, a clerk at the Copyright Office who discovered the existence of the forgotten paper prints, recognized their value, and saved them from destruction in 1939, when room was being made for new material documenting the war effort. He continued to work as curator on the preservation of film at the Library of Congress and later at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences into the 1950s. Another film hero covered in the film, Kemp Niver, devised a method to transfer the paper prints back into films, for which he won an Academy Award in 1954. The film incorporates remarkably vivid documentary scenes from several films about the process of making nitrate emulsion for film and a sequence of the clerk in the film vault designed and enacted by members of the Ridge Theatre. While just twelve minutes long, The Film of Her is epic in scope, correlating human birth, desire and creativity with the origins of film.

Bill explained his gravitation to the topic: My initial introduction to the Paper Print Collection was through Ken Jacobs Tom, Tom, the Pipers Son (1969). I first read about how Kemp Niver had returned the paper images back to film in the notes to Jacobs film. After that I got my hands on and read Pat Loughneys dissertation on the Paper Print Collection at George Washington University, and learned how Howard Walls had re-discovered the prints at the Library of Congress. As someone who reclaimed ephemeral films, and printed them back into currency using a JK optical printer, I personally related to both mens roles. I started to think about an almost mythic approach to the film, in the style of Chris Markers La Jetèe, and Alain Resnais Toute la Mèmoire du Monde, but using the Paper Print Collection and other archival material to tell the story.

The film historical themes in The Film of Her interconnect with Morrisons most recent feature-length film, Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016). Dawson City tells the boom and bust history of the Klondike Gold Rush and its intertwining with the volatile history of silent era, nitrate film. Louis and August Lumière patented their motion picture film camera the cinematographe (a camera and projector) in 1895, and charged admission to their films for the first time in 1896, a year that coincided with the discovery of gold in the tributaries of the Klondike River near the area that was to become Dawson City. Located at the confluence of the Yukon and Klondike Rivers, this marshy flat agricultural and fishing area covered in permafrost and surrounded by mountains was settled by the Tr'ondëk Hwëch'in people of the region thousands of years earlier. With the discovery of gold, First Nations people were displaced, and mining prospectors, bankers, businessmen, adventurers, photographers and writers from the United States, Canada and elsewhere flocked to the area. Residences, hotels, restaurants, banks, theaters, gambling casinos, saloons, brothels and movie houses were quickly built to house, feed, and entertain the miners and provide support for the new gold industry.

Swedish American photographer Eric A. Hegg established a photography business and took classic glass negative photographs of the miners as they toiled over the snow covered Chilkoot Pass between the United States and Canada on their journey to set up claims. His photographs captured the plight of many of the 100,000 stampeders who set out, from which well over half turned back. Prospector Joseph Ladue claimed 160 acres of the area for a town site that he founded and named Dawson City: within a few short years it went from a small enclave of 500 people to a city of thousands. The actual Yukon Gold Rush only lasted two years, but gold prospecting continued and larger concerns such as the Yukon Consolidated Gold Company bought up smaller claims and installed large dredges to sift out the gold on a mass scale until it closed in 1966, leaving the landscape ravaged. Dawson Citys size and fortunes ebbed and flowed, but by 1902 it had become an established community of family values, boasting a sports facility called the Dawson Amateur Athletic Association (DAAA) with a summer pool that was turned annually into a winter ice hockey rink.

Silent dramas and newsreels were popular from the turn of the century on: when they arrived in remote Dawson, they entertained and informed the townspeople and the miners about the outside world. Because the town was at the far end of the distribution line, it would take months for newsreels and up to two or three years for feature films to reach this final out post. Once the films were screened, the distributors were not interested in paying for their return. The Canadian Bank of Commerce, that liaisoned with many of the film distributors, found space to store the used films in a basement of the fire-damaged Carnegie Library; other movie theaters stockpiled their old films. Once feature-length talkies arrived on the commercial market, and with the successful release of the Jazz Singer in 1927, silent films in North America quickly became obsolete. Talking pictures were introduced in Dawson in 1931 by a proprietor of the Orpheum Theater. To make room for the new sensation, theater owner Fred Elliott dumped his silent films into the Yukon River or burned them in bonfires, and Clifford Thomson, a bank executive for the Commerce Bank, and a treasurer of the hockey association, suggested that the old films they stored be used as landfill in the pool under the indoor ice hockey rink of the DAAA.

Forty-nine years later in 1978, when the land behind Diamond Tooth Gerties dance hall and casino next to the DAAA was being plowed for redevelopment, metal canisters filled with the old films resurfaced out of the permafrost and museum curator Michael Gates of Parks Canada (1977 - 1996) and Kathy Jones-Gates, Director, Dawson Museum (1974 - 1986) were called in to investigate. Sam Kula, director of the National Film, Television and Sound Archives supervised the resulting restoration project, and through their initiatives, The National Archives of Canada and the Library of Congress partnered in the 1980s to restore 533 reels of film (372 partially restored titles) on 35mm safety stock. Morrison, who had known about the Dawson Film Find for many years, learned in 2013, through Paul Gordon, director of the Lost Dominion Screening Collective in Ottawa, that the restored film footage would soon be digitally restored on a 4K scanner. Lost Dominion Screening Collective supervised the digital conversion of celluloid film at Library and Archives Canada where the full collection was stored in the public domain. Through a combination of viewing all of the restored titles as 35 mm prints or digital copies, Morrison was able to study and access all of the restored material.

In Dawson City, Morrison uses a film within a film structure that goes back and forth in time to tell the bust and boom saga of discovery and destruction that accompanied the development of film and the discovery of gold in the Yukon. The film opens with an interview of Morrison by sports caster Chris Mad Dog Russo with, what turns out to be some of the first footage Morrison found in the cache of restored films: British Canadian Pathè News footage (1917-1919) that included games one and four of the infamous 1919 World Series baseball competition between the Cincinnati Reds and the White Sox that was corrupted by gambling. The film then segways from an overview shot of Dawson City from the film Klondike Holiday (1950), to documentary footage of the premiere screening of the newly preserved films at the Palace Grand Theater on September 1, 1979, to local company footage (Septic Systems: Hillside Installation, 1976) of city alderman Frank Barrett using the backhoe that plowed up the film canisters fifteen months earlier, and photographs of the discovered films. The film then goes into the story of nitrate film and its creation out of explosive materials, told through documentary film footage from films such as The Romance of Celluloid (1937).

A second opening occurs at eight and a-half minutes into the film with the introduction to Dawson City at the time of the Gold Rush and an interweaving of dramatic and documentary film sequences. The title sequence rolls over an old map of the region, followed by an overhead shot of Dawson City from City of Gold (1957); an Indian scout overlooking the Yukon River in The Half Breed (1916); photographs of Trochek in 1895; Chief Isaac, leader of the Trondek Hwechin; and of George Cormack and his Tagish brother-in-law and nephew who were the first to establish a gold claim; and scenes from Klondike Holiday (1950) and Pure Gold and Dross (1913).

Morrison lyrically interweaves films from the restored Dawson Film Find, other archival silent films, newsreels, magazine serials, interviews, and Heggs photographs of Dawson, the surrounding area, and portraits of the miners. Throughout the film, the original nitrate film footage is monumentally beautiful and painterly; images of the miners at work or poling down the Yukon River pop out of the screen, bringing viewers closer to the three-dimensional reality of their lives. Morrison combines footage of contemporary interviews with written text over long passages of archival footage, to add depth and interiority to the story line: the source of each film clip is identified. Haunting music by visual artist and musician Alex Somers, and sound design by John Somers create a unifying thread that unites the various stories. Passages of short edited scenes from silent dramatic films and/or newsreels are poetically constructed to recreate the history being told.

Dawson City employs a series of short edited sequences in the narrative. In one instance, scenes from Universal Screen Magazine and British Canadian Pathè News are placed into a montage of documentary film moments from Birth of a Flower (1911) to Elephant Racing at Perak (1920). In another, rare newsreel footage is edited together from The World in Pictures to show what the people of Dawson were seeing in the 1910s and 1920s: scenes from the Southern Colorado coal strike of 1914; soldiers in the trenches in WWI; the Negro Silent Parade against violence organized by W.E.B. Dubois in 2017; the deportation of radicals aboard the Russian Ark at Ellis Island in 1919; and the aftermath of the Wall Street bombing of 1920. Other montages are made up of short scenes from silent dramatic film footage, highlighting the draw of powerful acting and descriptive actions with scenes from Threads of Fate (1916), The Awakening (1917), and The Recoil (1917).

The Yukon Gold Rush was a popular topic covered widely in newspapers, literature, and in films. The Gold Rush (1925) written by and starring Charlie Chaplin was shot in a Hollywood studio and on location in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California, but was largely inspired by Heggs photographs of the prospective miners climbing the Chilkoot trail. In the film, Chaplin in character as The Little Tramp, ignores the danger sign posted in the snow and impishly slides down the treacherous mountain. Author Robert W. Service lived in Dawson City for several years and wrote the book The Trail of 98 (1910), which was adapted into a movie of the same name in 1928; both recreate the deadly avalanche of April 3, 1898. Morrison accompanies the recreation of the avalanche footage in his film, with Somers thundering bass soundtrack to make this true aspect of the story all the more real. Morrisons film also makes note of how the Canadian documentary City of Gold, directed by Colin Low and Wolf Koenig (1957), developed a special technique to animate Heggs still photographs with panning and zooming effects that was so effective the film received the Palme dor for best short film at the 1957 Cannes Film Festival and inspired future filmmakers such as Ken Burns.

Morrison and I met one day to talk about Dawson City at Cafè Mogador, a favorite East Village cafè and restaurant serving Moroccan-inspired food. When we arrived so had the Fire Department  the hostess told us not to be alarmed, so we went ahead and ordered along with other customers. More firemen came and the smell of smoke intensified. Our waitress stopped by to say everything was all right. When more firemen began to fill the restaurant, we decided to carry on our conversation elsewhere, but not without registering the irony of the situation -- our meeting to discuss a film about combustible nitrate film, and the burning down of old movie houses and the business district of Dawson City.

Prompted by the situation, and Morrisons work in general, I asked Bill a philosophical question: If you were all alone one night, looking up at the stars, thinking about your relationship to the universe, where would you place the significance of your work in film, and of the importance of saving films for future generations?

He replied: Well lets unpack that question a bit:

Firstly, I dont tend to think about the significance of my work in film while looking up at the stars, except to acknowledge my utter insignificance in the great scheme of things. But to the degree that we can imagine the Archive as a brain or memory bank, I sometimes like to think of my practice as some kind of chemical synapse that has randomly called up a deeply stored memory, on the cusp of being forgotten altogether (Think of the memory sweepers in Inside Out). I think for people who respond to my work, they recognize, either consciously or subconsciously, that they are watching a forgotten memory, and this idea resonates with other unarticulated forgotten memories of theirs.

The question of saving films for future generations is really a different question as it relates to my film work. While my work in some ways serves as a reclamation project for would-be lost images, I am also constantly re-contextualizing those images. So the degree to which I am saving lost films is wholly dependent on how they fit into my films, and the degree to which future generations will regard them as a resource remains to be seen.

I dont think I need to make a case for the importance of saving films for future generations. That should be obvious to anyone who values human culture. That said, there are enormous costs to preserving film history. Sadly, not every community can validate that kind of commitment to their moving image history. So it is paramount for those who are in a position to salvage film collections to seek out those that otherwise would not be preserved.

I also dont think I need to warn against the perils of electronic preservation. We live on an electronically unstable planet, where electronic degradation is the norm. And furthermore, as we grapple with connectivity issues on the portals of our new laptops and phones, we are reminded that we do not control the future of our digital history. It has already been co-opted by the manufacturers of our gadgets.

If electronic image preservation runs up against obsolescence, and corrupted or otherwise inaccessible files, physical moving image preservation will always remain a fight against a slow burn. Some of the nitrate films that survive today are in better shape than acetate films that were made 70 years later. It is commonly accepted in the archival world that 35mm film is still the best bet for preserving our film history for future generations to decode. Moving forward that 35mm film may contain images that have been copied from another reel, or it may contain data to be decoded from that film, but it is still the physical reel that is considered the more trustworthy vehicle moving forward for our moving image history.

Today, archival and found footage films and installations, long embraced by artists, are found in art world and commercial ventures. They appear in major art and film venues such as Documenta, the Venice Biennale, and The Museum of Modern Art. Dawson City: Frozen Time had its world premiere at the 73rd Venice Film Festival and its North American Premiere at the 54th New York Film Festival in 2016. The film won the International Documentary Associations 33rd Annual Creative Recognition award for editing in 2017.

Archival films are valued as records of history, and a way to see the past that could not be accessed otherwise. They show us things that we would not be able to sense without having the images to guide our memories. But it is how they are put together in creative forms that are invaluable in providing new ways of seeing film, history, and imagining the future.

Sally Berger is a film and media curator, lecturer, and writer. She is a Fellow at the Center for Media, Culture and History, New York University.