Taxidermist at Work on the Roosevelt Safari Specimens (1911, Smithsonian Institute Archives)
Posting has been slow and infrequent these last couple of weeks, mostly because I am lucky to be on research leave this semester and I have been trying to focus my writing energies elsewhere. At the moment, I am in the middle of revising a chapter that examines the intersection between ethnographic writing and cinema. It begins with the following excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt:
I almost always had some volume with me, either in my saddle pocket or in the cartridge-bag which one of my gun bearers carried to hold odds and ends. Often, my reading would be done while resting under a tree at noon, perhaps beside the carcass of a beast I killed, or else waiting for camp to be pitched; and in either case it might be impossible to get water for washings. In consequence the books were stained with blood, sweat, gun oil, dust, and ashes; ordinary bindings either vanished or became loathsome, whereas pigskin merely grew to look as a well-used saddle looks.”
A new film collection has just been introduced. It stretches from 1897-1944. It is the product of 11 years of labor; preservation support from Giornate del Cinema Muto and the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation at George Eastman House; and a collaboration between Paolo Cherchi Usai and Joshua Yumibe.
The relationship between this archive and history, early film, and other virtual archives is difficult to describe. From the website:
This database is a record of the 35mm nitrate film frame clippings collected by Italian film historian Davide Turconi (1911-2005) from the Josef Joye Collection in Switzerland and from other unidentified sources. The collection consists of 23,491 clippings in total (usually two to three frames each). The vast majority of the frames cover the early years of cinema (from ca. 1897 to 1915); however, some items in the collection represent films produced as late as 1944.
Another history here. The complete clip/fragment collection can be viewed here. The Turconi Collection (a name that displaces/conceals the layers of collecting/archiving at work) raises a number of important questions for early film historians: what is the value of the (literal) film fragment? What history can we tell with a frame or two, multiplied by 23,491? What kind of (imaginary, phantom) history does it allow us to write, encouraged perhaps by the dazzling colors of the collection? The archive sends us down a rabbit hole of historical and archival exchanges: from Cherchi Usai to Turconi to Joye to the anonymous others in-between. It also sends us to the mirror as we self-reflexively consider the (seemingly limitless) boundaries of the contemporary digital archive.
In honouring “Turconi’s belief that knowledge is a treasure to be shared,” perhaps we can also ask: what kind of knowledge is constituted here? And what is its relationship to the visual treasure?
Correction: A previous version of this post referred to the Turconi Collection as the “Turconi Archive.” Nowhere in the project’s description/site materials is this term actually used.