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The Archive of Children and the Promise of Home Movies
This presentation originally contained
7 home movie clips that are not included
in the online version
The Archive of Children
and the Promise of Home Movies
Glasgow, April 2014
Thank you for all of your hospitality. Thanks to Karen and Ryan for articulating such a fascinating
and provocative research agenda, and thanks to everyone who has made this conference possible,
including Heather, staff and volunteers
I want to propose that we examine the place of home movies within the archival landscape in order
to better understand the role children play within home movies.
I'm going to talk mostly about "home movies" as we generally understand them and less about
"amateur ﬁlm." Much has been said about this bifurcation, and I consider it a bit fuzzy, but I'm going
to refer mostly to ﬁlms that aren't explicitly formulated as organized, intentional, codiﬁed narratives
and are less about "storytelling" than about documentation, memory, experience/replay or the
pleasure of animating the glowing rectangle with familiar faces and places.
Children are central to home movies: they're so closely related to one another that separating them
is like trying to describe the bee without the ﬂower or the ﬂower without the bee. At least in North
America children probably occupy more screen time than any other subject. (Is there work on home
movie typology and screen time?)
Children are both subjects and makers -- visible and invisible instrumentalities in the home movie
system. Similarly, they also function as historical and social subjects and as quiet agents of history,
though their quietude is not inevitable. And as in life, children occupy the center, and sometimes the
pivot, of uncountable discourses.
A couple of years ago Cory Doctorow remarked that it was time for us quit using the term "Internet
censorship." Since we'd arrived at a time when it was hard to distinguish online and offline lives,
systems of power, economies and social formations, wasn't it true that the Net was everywhere, and
everywhere was the Net? He suggested that we stop using Internet as a modiﬁer, and instead of
saying, for example, Internet censorship, just say "censorship." I think this idea crosses over to
home movies and personal media. While we're not yet at the Borgesian map, whose scale matches
the ground 1:1, we are well on our way to an inﬁnite degree of personal documentation.
And from the archival point of view it isn't an exaggeration to equate home movies and inﬁnity.
Children are one of the inﬁnities of home movies, and home movies are one of media's inﬁnities.
The volume of documentation and evidence embedded in home movies and other forms of popular
recordkeeping triggers enigmas comparable to those we might expect approaching a poorly
surveyed planet. Even in their early years, home movies preﬁgure mediamaking practices we see
today: mediamaking as performance, emulation and mimicry, shooting on the ﬂy, even lengthy,
near-ambient coverage of some situations and events. We can see the seeds of today's "networked
lenses" in the practice of early camera and home movie clubs, and if ﬁlm had been a bit cheaper and
labs unnecessary, Super 8mm makers would have "immediately gone from experience to replay," to
paraphrase the words of my colleague Jennifer Maytorena Taylor.
Inﬁnity is inscribed in the number of surviving home movies and in the ambience of home video.
Home movies typically display a selective series of slices of activity. By contrast, amateur video
displays a tendency toward the ambient from its inception -- an inclination to let the tape roll and
capture a random, or sometimes pseudo-random, record of what we might call an "eternal present."
This did not originate with home video -- in fact it echoes the "let it roll" and distinctly ambient
quality of early artists' and experimenters' video, and the practice of audio tape recorder hobbyists
to let tape roll and catch what they could. The seeds of video as performance activity and as ambient
practice are partly embedded in this earlier kind of work.
I should mention that the somewhat greater emphasis scholars seem to be placing on amateur ﬁlm
over the home movie raises questions about how we view what ﬁlms survive in archives. Are we
rewarding work that we can ﬁt into familiar categories over work that simply results from pressure
on the trigger or the "Record" button? Do we privilege intention over chance, the cinematic over the
less-cinematic, or the possibly-cinematic?
We may not all agree with this, but I bring it up because of the historical bias in cinema studies
towards what's viewed at any given time as ﬁlm and not-ﬁlm. Primary and secondary cinemas. We'll
hear an echo of this when we think about the question, "should home movies even reside in moving
old repertory budget
In my work on ephemeral ﬁlm, I've seen a tendency for emergent areas of ﬁlm study to recapitulate
the trajectories and sometimes the biases of the scholarship that's come before. Speaking very
generally, work on sponsored and commercial ﬁlm generally began as historical inventory -- who
made what when and for whom? migrated into a sociocultural mode, and has recently been moving
through an auteurist phase. Scholars only now seem to be interrogating the representational toolbox
and looking at the production of meaning, and we no longer hear that these ﬁlms employ simpler
and highly transparent techniques. I wonder if this process is repeating within the ﬁeld we're here to
While home movies share many common encodings, and I recognize Albert Steg's work on
developing a taxonomy of home movie tropes, any analysis of home movies requires that we take
error as seriously as we take intention, and pay just as much attention to the tremors of the hand as
to the acuity of the eye.
To cite one example: the birthday-party home movie quickly transports us into the philosophical
realm when we ask: is it more important to note similarity across ﬁlms or to identify dissimilarity
and rupture? Do minute variations in behavior and ﬁlming cancel themselves in the aggregate, or are
they in fact the reasons why we obsess with home movies at all? Critically, do we want to see
childhood as a set of convergences around recognizable cultural patterns, or as a basket of inﬁnite
variances within and without these patterns? I think most of us would acknowledge that both were
important, even if we were reluctant to take on this question.
How to address an inﬁnity of children within an inﬁnity of documents? Shall we love all of our
children equally? Or simply try to treat them with an even hand?
Like other types of ephemeral ﬁlms, home movies may often best approached not serially, but in
parallel. We can select out documents and treat them as exemplary, but I think it often makes more
sense to look across a group -- perhaps a very large group -- of documents and see what
aggregates reveal. The mind quickly turns to ideas like multi-image, circular projection rooms with
10 images, storyboards, etc.
Today we might ask: how to tag a ﬁrehose? Archivists no longer speak of cataloging in its legacy
sense, but digital curation and computational analysis. The task is no less simple when we move
backwards from works by the billions to works by the millions. And to place past and present along
a continuum, we might ask how we can pierce the temporal membrane and normalize similar but
very different events that we see across the timespan of home movies.
Christmases past look both the same and different as Christmases present, and who knows the
shape of Christmases future? And childhood is elusive when we try to describe it.
We can come up with schemas and tools to describe and categorize images of children in the 2010s,
but wrenches begin to slip off nuts when we look at older materials, even those dating back a few
decades in the past. The species variation between the relatively small population of middle-class
and upper-middle-class kids in the 1920s and their successors ninety years later is extreme enough
as to make these two cohorts almost impossible to compare. And of course the diversity of home
movies increases dramatically after the introduction of 8mm in 1933; did 9.5mm enable similar
diversity in Europe?
Amateur Movie Makers, December 1926
The research context of the project on children and amateur media in Scotland and its focus on the
"lost generation" of amateur media is therefore extremely interesting. We know that amateur video
made from the 1980s on differs in style from ﬁlm made earlier, and we know that the scale of
production between the ﬁlm and video eras are not comparable. What we are probably only
beginning to understand is the full suite of differences between the two. Did the rapid proliferation
of video simply enable a remapping of the traditions of amateur ﬁlmmaking into an electronic and
later a digital space, albeit at a much greater scale, or is something different happening?
There can't be a uniﬁed theory of home movies any more than there can be a singular formulation of
how childhood is represented. Both childhood and home movies are reminders of the impossibility
of encyclopedism. I think of Bouvard and Pecuchet's sadly comical efforts trying to raise their
incorrigible adopted child along Rousseauian lines, and I realize that when it comes to home movies
we might best be provisionalists.
As a maker, I have tried to be both historian and artist. And in this process I've lived the paradox of
description, the dark side of classiﬁcation. I agree that description and cataloging liberates
documents from liminal invisibility and makes it easier to expose them to potential users. We can't
build a commons with hidden resources. But description and metadata also enclose. They shrink-
wrap records in ﬁxed meanings that are difficult to peel back, hard to discard. Controlled
vocabularies, structured database and query-based access foreclose plural meanings and tie our
sense of a work to the time period in which it is cataloged. Perhaps tagging that is open to the
public may be better.
"As much as I am driven by a longing for authorship...I have
had to concede that the true potential of a collection is only
expressed by the collection itself, in its entirety, over its
lifetime as a collection and the histories and futures of all its
individual items and the people who use them. There is an
element of regret in this capitulation because it means that no
individual, including myself, can fully absorb and appreciate it
holistically, its enormous universe of nuances and qualities, its
echoes and patterns and singular statements that have never
before been made and will never be made again. Such
knowledge can only be held collectively, and is never fully
communicated among its participants."
— Megan McShea, "A Scrapbook of High Zero" (2003
I don't raise these questions to assert that home movies, especially those in which children play a
role, are beyond our ability to understand and analyze. In fact, computational tools are very likely to
suggest completely new takes on home movies. But if we look at what I surmise is the contribution
of tools like Cinemetrics, we may ﬁnd that computational analysis offers us an analytic spine that
must itself be inﬂected and modulated at a high order of complexity.
Conditions in cinema studies have changed, and our being here certainly testiﬁes to that. But home
movies are considered still either something less or something other than cinema. For me this raises
the question of whether cinema studies is the right home for home movies? Cinema studies might
expand in a kind of "big bang" to accommodate the breadth of analytic tools we need, or contract
into a discourse that's interoperable with other disciplines that work in ethnographic, linguistic and
psychological spaces. Or perhaps it can evolve into a working hybrid state that resists border attacks
and survives further academic precarities that almost inevitably are still to come. But all of this said,
I think it is an open question whether the study of home movies can ﬂourish as a subset of cinema
studies. It is like asking the question of whether we need to think of children only within the context
of families. Both children and home movies need territory (could it be a commons?) on which to
freely range, and may need more autonomy than ﬁlm studies discourses are ready and able to grant
So I want to move into a schematic and somewhat opinionated discussion of what home movies
mean to archives and archival practice, and in doing so try to ﬁnd the ﬁgure of the child standing in
the aisle. (a la Lewis Hine)
If we think of the moving image archive as a quasi-familial unit, home movies are its juveniles,
challenging both the substance and structure of its parenting. And if we think of the moving image
archive as an historical entity, home movies have been their latchkey children, recognized as family
members but largely left to fend for themselves. Would the word "feral" be too strong?
Children challenge order and structure and yearn for it at the same time.
Similarly, home movies challenge conventional archival practice. Archives which have focused on
records of the state, institutions and businesses or on works of artistic and historical importance
aren't well equipped to catalog, describe, process and preserve extremely granular records of
everyday life. Canonical strategies of archival appraisal ﬂy out the window when you face inﬁnity and
inﬁnity is often poorly shot and labeled. When you collect home movies you are, in Brecht's words,
forced to choose between being human and having good taste. Home movies require a new
curatorial attitude that can stare inﬁnity in the face and smile.
Home movies -- especially those that record the eternal familial present -- revel in the quotidian,
and they are extremely granular. It's hard to pull out particular rituals, motifs, gazes, Birdwhistell-
type kinesics. Some tropes play out in the foreground; others are more subtle. Analysis is
challenging. And yet I've found that almost all home movies are highly entertaining to non-analytic
audiences. When I project small movies -- ﬁlms made to be shown in domestic environments on
relatively small screens -- on big theater screens, this change of scale achieves what television
directors learned years ago about presenting theater and opera. Blowing small ﬁlms up to large size
foregrounds detail that otherwise would be hard to see, in effect defamiliarizing very familiar kinds
of representations of very familiar scenes. Quite unconsciously, the audience assumes roles as
ethnographers and cultural geographers, and if they're allowed to speak during the screening, those
are the modes in which they will speak.
Where I'm going with this is to assert that home movies function well as entertainment. They disarm
audiences. Their appeal is populist. Their intimidatingly quotidian attributes fascinate lay viewers,
especially when a high level of detail is visible or when they're seeing their own community. The
minutiae of clothes, kitchen utensils, the program playing on the TV, the toys under the tree, the
supermarket signs, all fascinate. That fundamental articulation of home movie narrative -- the
interplay between the shooter and the subject -- as well as the interplay between visible individuals
and their environment that takes the place that explicit narrative codes would in conventional
cinema. As researchers, we often seek to segment home movies; as lay viewers, we want to see them
play. Perhaps maybe for not too long. This, of course, was the strategy of AMERICA'S FUNNIEST
HOME VIDEOS -- extreme selectivity, heavy editing.
I've only really begun to track this, but in my work making and showing some 16 urban history
compilation ﬁlms, I'm recurrently aware how children bridge time, space and difference between
diverse subjects of ﬁlms and audiences today. Children ﬁgure as naturalizing elements, probably
because they trigger eternalized (and often unexamined) attributes of childhood. But naturalization
seems to have its limits; audiences seem to share some kind of identiﬁcation with the proﬁlmic
subjects or milieus (often regional or ethnic) for this process to work. I would at this point speculate
that children bridge difference, but not extreme difference. Rupture and misbehavior may not
require as high a degree of homogeneity to be visible.
I'm interested in the role that oral traditions of childhood and parenting play, both in home movies
and in textual discourse about childhood. While there is a considerable body of professional
literature within childhood studies and related disciplines, the majority of information about
childhood is transmitted and shared by oral tradition often, but not always, arising out of lived
experience. The representational space of home movies is as much about misbehavior as behavior,
and records both variety (horseplay and soda drinking) and conformity (parades, First Communions,
and standup portraits)
I want to talk for a bit about some of the special attributes of records of childhood as they reside in
archives. My emphasis may be more on the future than the past.
Records of "lived experience," of the execution of daily rituals, and the milestones of personal lives
will be of great interest as time goes on. I predict that interest in preserving these sorts of records,
organizing them and making them accessible will increase as a kind of perverse consequence of our
increased awareness of systematic corporate and governmental surveillance. Facebook is
successfully monetizing their "Timeline"; other companies will step in to store, digitize and
distribute personal records for a fee.
In the same way that people have outsourced to Facebook much of the work of keeping track of
their friends and contacts, I foresee outsourced archival services that don't simply enable access to
personal and family records, but also interpretive review. Imagine, for instance, being able to build
an inventory of all the faces that appear in a family home movie or home video collection, and
running the unidentiﬁed ones against a corpus of faces to ID them. Perhaps more creepily, I can
easily imagine retropsychological or retropsychoanalytic assessments of family life based upon
quantitative analysis of home movie sequences. We are also very likely to see home movies (and
especially digitized or born-digital homevideos) used as objects of qualitative research on child
behavior, but research done by machines. If, for example, a family member is diagnosed with a
physical or psychological condition, I see home movies of ancestors and relatives being analyzed for
similar symptoms. This raises tremendous questions about records depicting children or adults in
their childhood, and I anticipate an extension of current concerns over the rights of human subjects.
This is my own Google cookie proﬁle, inaccurate in two major respects.
I don't know whether privacy concerns will escalate, and it may be hard to predict exactly what they
might be. While we might guess that privacy issues relating to personal images and especially
images of children would be especially persistent, I'm not sure the images themselves will be the
greatest concern. My hunch is that the records themselves may be considered less sensitive than
what we try to make from them. My work with families to scan their home movies and incorporate
them into urban history screenings suggests that they're less concerned about speciﬁc images and
more concerned about context and the kinds of narratives into which they're incorporated. I'd
therefore predict that though we'll see struggles over images, we are more likely to see contention
over the timeline.
And of course the timeline is what businesses will try to monetize.
We've seen movement toward commodiﬁcation of home movies in recent years. This follows what
happened with snapshots and vernacular photography. The rules that govern the treatment of
commodiﬁed art and cultural objects differ from the rules governing access to and reuse of material
held in established archival collection. If home movie connoisseurship develops and if more are
drawn to spending money for these, it will override many concerns archivists and scholars have.
Collections will be dispersed. Consideration for the rights of subjects will decrease. Research access
to collections will be more difficult.
National Geographic, Aug, 1945
There are times when the entire archival enterprise seems permeated with anxiety. Archivists worry
about the impossibility of collecting a proliferation of material, about preserving and describing it,
about the work of making it accessible, about copyright, and about their own relevance and job
security. There is widespread anxiety about analog records, and ins some quarters there is a covert
dismissal of many difficult-to-digitize and store physical materials. We might ask whether physical
records are guaranteed a right to exist. On what we might call the "demand side," we've seen a lot of
press in recent years that quite frankly whips up a kind of moral panic about the longevity of records
-- especially personal digital records.
Loss of machines
"I can't play my VCR tapes"
"Don't ﬁlms explode if you don't copy them to DVD?"
Distrust of the cloud
Protect the children!
We're not collecting enough! (before 5 June 2013)
Anything we save might be used against us
(after 5 June 2013)
Here are some of the concerns I've heard people voice (guess which one is made up).
Putting aside the question of how formative some of these anxieties are, it's interesting to note how
the climate changed abruptly after June 5, 2013, when Ed Snowden's leaks started hitting the world
press. The idea that data might be a liability, that memory can be too complete, has begun to
percolate, and we don't know what kind of balance will be struck between memory and amnesia, and
the promise of public access vs the right to be forgotten.
Speaking of memory loss, it is impossible to hope that the great puzzle will be solved -- that which
was created when millions of home movies were dispersed away from the families that produced
them. On the other hand, forensic work will match up a large number of important records with their
creators or the descendants of their creators, and it's possible that image-matching may allow us to
link names with mysterious reels. Will we one day be able to link pictures of children with adult
I think we'll see a convergence of home movies (a bridge between the personal and the social) with
genealogical records, which typically draw more people to archives than any other type of record.
Institutional and government archives have, of course, collected records describing the lives of
individuals for hundreds of years. A semi-permeable web of privacy already surrounds these
records, and the addition of home movies will only make this enclosure more complex.
But genealogy will meet rich media. We might consider preserving textual, visual and audible social
media posts as slide shows or videos to enhance this trend. While it is hard for most unsophisticated
social media users to use advanced data capture tools, it is easy to pull screen shots and sequence
them into a video stream. What we now think of home movies or home videos may well expand to
encompass material not originally produced as ﬁlm or video.
I would argue that searches for personally-generated records will, if they don't already, constitute
the majority of archival searches in the near future.
Think of my house in the year 2114, if it hasn't collapsed in the next big San Francisco earthquake.
The residents of that time will probably be interested in the usual information that is right now to be
found (via a laborious, manual search process) in San Francisco county records: real estate
ownership, building permits, etc. But wouldn't they be more interested in records of the "lived
experience" that took place in this house? Wouldn't they prefer to see photographs taken inside and
from the roof; views out the back sunroom windows before the ocean level rose and submerged the
ﬁfteen blocks of the city closest to the beach? Wouldn't they be interested in seeing children playing
in the kitchen? And wouldn't they be interested in that ﬁlm reel visible through my living room
Film archives haven't historically been seen as genealogical repositories. And this might be a point
to introduce two paired questions: do home movies even belong in institutional and government
archives? And can they ﬂourish in general-purpose ﬁlm archives?
Legacy archives need personal documents and vastly large number of stakeholders to survive and to
sustain the consensus that keeps them funded and ﬂourishing. They need home movies. But should
they collect them? Archives need to integrate what we currently think of as "personal archival
material" with institutional archival material. We have focused on the fonds rather than the ﬂavor.
The two kinds of collections constitute two distinct, yet codependent, ways of addressing the past.
Children at China Lake Naval Weapons Station clip
There is a growing asymmetry in the historical record, especially in a time when it is starting to
become widely recognized that institutional histories fall far short of documenting lived and social
experience. The challenge of merging personal and institutional is huge, perhaps even bigger than
coping with the turn towards digital. There's no way we can simply collect and display mass media,
institutional and government records and call that history. We have to merge the collective and the
personal, the macro- and micro-narrative. Ephemeral culture is like air -- we all exhale it -- it
doesn't stop at the institutional door. But I don't know how archives focused on collecting
organizational and official records can adapt to inﬁnity; how they can collect and ingest home
movies that challenge not only archival workﬂow, but curatorship, cataloging, documentation,
principles of works' integrity. I don't know how they can rework their sense of the archival
continuum to include hunting, gathering, processing and redissemination.
Then are conventional moving image archives the best place for home movies? To ask this is to
question a system of ﬁlm collecting, curatorship and preservation that was never intentionally
designed and isn't outcome driven. But even to ask this question seems somehow out of bounds. It
is like asking whether children belong in families.
Robert C, Binkley, Manual on Methods of Reproducing Research Materials: A
Survey Made for the Joint Committee on Materials for Research of the Social
Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies. Ann
Arbor: Edwards Brothers, 1936.
That said, it is hard to bring home feral cats. There is an unquantiﬁable prejudice among many
archivists against this kind of material, just as there once was and sometimes still is against
television, industrial ﬁlms, trailers, outtakes and footage shot as stock. The low single-to-noise
ratio of home movies presents a particular challenge, which may explain both the scholar and
archivist's attraction to amateur ﬁlm. I suppose that if we were to be totally fair, we might
acknowledge that legacy ﬁlm archives strive to deﬁne ﬁxed, documentable works and, as in the
restoration process of Metropolis, for example, create orderly works out of chaotic traces. Perhaps
works we think of as movies should reside in ﬁlm archives and home movies in specialized
repositories more able to tolerate instability, fuzzy boundaries, anonymous works, records that
simultaneously embody presence and absence, and records where poor production values are the
rule rather than the exception. It would seem as if an archival framework more oriented to evidence
than art might be appropriate. I suspect regional archives might be part of this solution. The new
social histories and the development of new archives stem from the mainstreaming of historical
consciousness and the growing interest in the history of daily life over the past few generations, and
much of this emerges from the periphery. These are the institutions that pursue community history
partnerships, that collect and expose materials in less isolation than many national-level orgs.
Ranganathan's Second and Third Laws of Library Science:
The more I see, I am convinced that there's a ﬁlm for every viewer and a viewer for every ﬁlm, not to
mention all the people that might like to reuse it, if only you could connect them. How can we bridge
this gap? Will it ever happen? It's these moments when the limits of accessibility (even for highly
pro- access people like me) seem most Draconian.
Prompted by Kim Stanley Robinson's remarks about permaculture, I've been thinking about it as a
paradigm for archival practice and, especially, for working with archives.
If we have some sense as to how the record ages over time, whether sensitivities ferment or fade, we
might ﬁnd evidence that archives can inﬂuence policy rather than the customary other way around.
In a broader sense, I suspect that one way to arrive at greater clarity about the place of the child in
home movies is to reinvest moving image archives with a sense of intentionality. To paraphrase Jen
Bervin's remark about poems, each ﬁlm has a job to do, and the intentionality of particular ﬁlms
coalesce into the archives, but paradoxically the archives often disavows intention, mission and
outcomes. This should change. We need to do more than simply preserve the moving image heritage
for the future. And archivists should be encouraged to play much more of an interpretive role
What we learn as we dig deeper into representations of childhood may have unexpected
implications. Childhood is elusive, and recedes as we try to describe it. I would be thrilled if
investigation of home movies enabled us to look at childhood less normatively and to shed the
biases of the cultures we belong to. Just as we are beginning to understand that gender is a ﬂuid
continuum and that family templates range more widely than many of us might once have been
willing to admit, I wonder whether we'll be able to use moving image evidence to support more ﬂuid
and plural histories of childhood.
I'd end with a prediction that further developments in understanding non-human species (including
both animals and creatures of code) and interspecies relations may be heavily inﬂuenced by our
understanding of discourses of childhood. In this plane, our work today has longterm implications
that go far beyond our current engagement with the world as recorded in Kodachrome.