Rezension 2010, Private Eyes (HJFRT )
Private Eyes and the Public Gaze. The Manipulation and Valorisation of Amateur Images, hrsg. v. Sonja Kmec und Viviane Thill, Trier 2009
Ryan Shand, in: Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 31, 2011, S. 305-307
As Gilles Rouffineau, one of the contributors to this edited collection notes, ‘Judging by the current number of exhibitions and publications and by the increasing significance historical research grants it, amateur photography has become an object of privileged attention, a public object’ (p. 117). This is not only true of amateur photography, but amateur cinema as well, as is evident from recent publications on the topic. [For instance Ishizuka and Zimmermann, eds., Mining the Home Movie: excavations in histories and memories, 2008; Craven, ed., Movies on Home Ground: explorations in amateur cinema, 2009.]
Emerging from papers presented at a conference organised by the Centre national de l’audiovisuel in collaboration with the University of Luxembourg, this collection is distinctive in that it features discussion of both amateur photography and film. The editors, Kmec and Thill, attempt to explain this rising scholarly interest by pointing out that, ‘The ‘‘reality effect’’ is obviously what most people hope to find in amateur images and what explains their appeal for artists, film and exhibition makers’ (p. 11). This concern with the indexicality of the image is certainly prominent in many of the essays; from Norris Nicholson’s assertion that, ‘Amateur films are visual vestiges of people’s lives—traces of times past’ (p. 69) to Debraine’s description of a camera phone image taken by a survivor of the 2005 London tube bombing, as they walked along the underground tunnel to safety, the photograph seems all the more real, authentic and convincing. It tells the truth at the right time and in the right place, whereas, in the same place and at the same time, a professional photographer might have been tempted to control the subject more. (p. 130) Therefore, this collection exhibits a strong consensus as to the analysis of amateur film and photography, which both unites the collection, as well as re-enforcing some well-established perspectives. Many of the studies claim amateur film and photography are synonymous with the domestic, private and hence family space; meaning Richard Chalfen’s concept of the ‘home mode’ is particularly relevant and influential (Chalfen, Snapshot Versions of Life, 1987). For example, Petra Pierrette Berger noticed that After looking carefully at the album and leafing back and forth, I noticed an astonishing resemblance between the composition of some of the amateur’s own pictures and that of professional photographs, mostly postcards, they had purchased and included in the album . . . The professional photos might have served as inspiration for the amateur photos. (p. 37) This echoes Chalfen’s article, ‘Tourist Photography’ (in Afterimage, Rochester, NY: Visual Studies Workshop 8, 1 & 2: 26–29, 1972), but without using his theoretical framework in a critical or reflective way, perhaps missing an opportunity to push the debate in new directions. Sandra Starke’s illuminating chapter, ‘Papi Is Joking—SS Men as Amateur Photographers’, looks at the domestic photography of a commander at a German concentration camp during the Second World War. Noting that, ‘Snapshot photographers such as Ha¨nsel and Brendle were not much interested in arty work and camera handling. Their photographs were made to look back on the splendid time they had in Buchenwald and to visually prove this narrative’ (p. 85). If any proof were needed of the limitations of the ‘home mode’ in terms of visual evidence, this is surely it. While the editors state that, ‘Amateur images call into question the opposition between private and public practices and discourses’ (p. 9), some contributors are more aware than others that, ‘Not all cine film engages directly with family memories’ (p. 69). Indeed, the influence photographic and cine societies had on this leisure activity is still a cause of anxiety for scholars in this field; for example it is pointed out that, ‘this kind of family filmmaking was disdained by amateur filmmakers who considered their hobby a serious business: they hated the family snapshot tradition of pushing the button on and off. A film like Jetty was to them a kind of ‘‘cinematic disease’’’ (p. 49). Moreover, the seduction of the ‘reality effect’ is evident in the comment that, ‘One could say that a ‘well made home movie’ is not a ‘real’ home movie: it becomes too polished, which will prevent the viewer from fully appreciating the movie’ (p. 50). However, it is precisely this ambivalent position of the serious amateur that is so potentially fascinating. A useful conceptual model for this practice was suggested in Photography: a middlebrow art (Bourdieu et al., 1996) a work that looks at both private and club photography. Leenaerts draws on this book and summarises camera clubs in the following way, their practice is founded on a series of rejections that distinguishes their practice from that of the majority of amateurs: the refusal to subordinate to the family institution, the refusal of the automatic techniques, and finally the refusal of the obviousness or prettiness of certain subjects with a documentary, educational or romantic character. (p. 28) The amateur film equivalent of camera clubs, known as cine clubs, are the subject of on-going research, but what is encouraging and potentially very rewarding is the emerging work on amateurism in former Socialist states. Leska Krenz’s chapter, ‘Private Cinema in the GDR: Daily Life in the GDR on Amateur Film’, details a cinematic practice that was anything but private, perhaps better considered ‘semiprofessional’. While amateur cine clubs in the West struggled on with limited funding and sometimes institutional indifference, ‘The GDR was home to collectives, clubs, societies, studios and even amateur film centres. But within the Socialist system, these entities fulfilled a role that went beyond that assumed by comparable entities in the West’ (p. 91). In some ways, this was the serious amateurs dream; training provided for those who were interested, as well as the funding to make films. However, this support came at a heavy cost, as Krenz’s indicates, ‘The real object of this form of organisation was thus control of amateur film production. It was in fact a political as well as cultural control of amateurs’ (p. 91). Unfortunately, amateur film production in totalitarian countries was often a way to produce propaganda at cheaper costs, although some amateurs managed to subvert this system.
Case studies such as this one are incredibly useful in challenging the ideological value of the ‘amateur’ in very different social and political contexts, as well as illuminating the post-Socialist scepticism towards sentimental notions of ‘collectives’ and ‘community’. Overall, this collection emerged out of a conference that, ‘sought to shed light on the usage of amateur images (as opposed to the production processes)’ (p. 8). So little is currently known about organised amateur practices that it seems odd that here production is taken for granted, while the subsequent artistic interpretation of them is so valorised. Some chapters therefore duplicate many of the subjective observations of contributors to Mining the Home Movie, in their frequent attempt to posit an essentialist account of amateur aesthetics, rather than trying to understand amateurism as a historically based creative practice, within particular social formations. Indeed, organised amateurism often flourishes within civic or community spaces such as rented premises and town halls that are neither private nor public, but somewhere in-between.