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Meaning and practice, 1927–77

Amateur film: Meaning and practice 1927–77 traces the development of non-professional interests in making and showing film. It explores how amateur cinematography gained a following among the wealthy, following the launch of lightweight portable cine equipment by Kodak and Pathé in Britain during the early 1920s. As social access to the new hobby widened, enthusiasts began to use cine equipment at home, work, on holiday and elsewhere. Some amateurs made films only for themselves while others became cine club members, contributors to the hobby literature and participated in film competitions from local to international level.

The stories of individual filmmakers, clubs and the emergence of an independent hobby press, as well as the non-fiction films made by groups and individuals, provide a unique lens through which contemporary responses to daily experience may be understood over fifty years of profound social, cultural and economic change. Using regional film archive collections, oral testimony and textual sources, this book explores aspects of family life, working experience, locality and social issues, leisure time and overseas travel as captured by filmmakers from northern and northwest England. This study of visual memory, identity and status sets cine camera use within a wider trajectory of personal record making, and discusses the implications of footage moving from private to public spaces as digitisation widens access and transforms contemporary archive practice.

Heather Norris Nicholson

Chapter 2 examines how Britain’s amateur film movement developed a flourishing network of clubs and supportive organisations that promoted, sustained and diversified non-professional activity. The earliest clubs are traceable to the mid 1920s, although numbers expanded rapidly during the 1930s, and mushroomed post-war before witnessing retrenchment and refocus as organised leisure activities and cine technologies gave way to video-recording systems during the 1980s. Issues of club membership and organisation, specialisation, competitive spirit and reputation, along with gender roles, local geography and changing social, cultural and economic circumstances provide a vibrant and at times feisty range of regional club practices that along with the national codes and practices offered by the Institute of Amateur Cinematographers (IAC) and other umbrella organisations testify to the dynamic club scene of Britain’s amateur film movement. Oral testimony, club records, correspondence, printed club-related news in the hobby press, and discussion of club productions and individual members’ films underpin this chapter’s historical overview and analysis of trends in club formation, transformation and the complex relationship between amateur and professional filmmaking.

in Amateur film
Heather Norris Nicholson

Chapter 3 traces the development of a specialist hobby literature that was written by, for and about amateur film practitioners and their films. Focusing primarily but not exclusively on Britain’s two key serial publications, Amateur Cine World and its successor Movie Maker, this discussion explores the hobby or advisory press as a important and evolving source of contemporary written and visual comment on recreational film practice. Discussion acknowledges the self-promotional tone, its enthusiasm and self-advocacy, its wartime morale-boosting, its balance between humour, practical tips, news and analysis, and also its wider role in strengthening the direction, purpose, integrity and reputation of the hobby. From how film practitioners wrote about their interests, and sought to inform, sustain and stretch their readers’ cinematic and visual practice derive important insights into the aesthetics of amateur activity, its relationship with professional cinema, newsreel, television and advertising, men and women’s involvement, the role of competitions, international connections, and the interplay of technology, social, economic, cultural and ideological influences upon a specific leisure activity as cine equipment gained wider social use in different settings.

in Amateur film
Heather Norris Nicholson

Chapter 1 introduces this fifty year survey of amateur film practice, outlining the hobby’s evolution, changing popular appeal and varied uses as a personal record of domestic and family life, holiday and overseas travel diary, chronicle of local and regional events, continuities and changes, and also as a creatively used medium for non-professional documentary and fictional productions. An outline of the book’s structure and key themes are introduced. Important interdisciplinary frames of reference and contexts are identified so that discussion of how people made and showed amateur films is set within a broader consideration of personal record-making, film history, identity, memory, cultural and social change and also changing visual and archive practice.

in Amateur film
Heather Norris Nicholson

Chapter 5 explores how local life became prominent in amateur cinematic practice and how these informal, unofficial records enrich our understanding of historical change. Films about working lives, notable occasions, and individuals, community events and daily routines connect local and regional experiences to national and global trends, highlight unevenness in patterns of continuity and change, and offer more inclusive narratives of the past beyond the national and metropolitan scale. These stories of community life, endeavour, moments of celebration and commemoration, planned and unexpected changes, made often by insiders familiar with the best vantage points, key contacts, local characters and details offer finely grained and nuanced visual records that augment other historical sources.

Filmmakers approached local matter differently. Some used their cine cameras as visual diaries as they chanced upon subject matter. Others, working alone or on a club production, planned, shot and edited lengthy non-fiction documentaries. Whether self-appointed chroniclers charting newsworthy events, or collaborative team members, amateur filmmakers produced and screened to different audiences footage that now offers unique insights into what made communities and localities distinctive. The making and communal watching of this footage is explored as is its contemporary relevance at community level.

in Amateur film
Heather Norris Nicholson

Chapter 4 identifies the variety of family-related footage found in archival collections and its wider significance as evidence of social, cultural and demographic change. Scenes of weddings, family picnics, toddlers and children playing on the beach long epitomised the seeming banality, clichéd content and ordinariness of amateur film footage. Looking into and beyond these apparently happy families captured doing similar activities over the decades raises issues about the making and passing on of visual memories, parental dynamics in constructing family narratives on camera, childhood play and development. Implicit in these personal stories are recurring motifs, locations and activities that have both personal and collective significance, embodying cultural practices, expectations, aspirations and how identities, gender roles, and relationships evolve. Clothes, toys, places and people position these visual snippets that gain different significance as they move from private into public arenas. Personal histories interweave with wider historical change so that domestic details unwittingly denote particular moments in time and space –whether in late colonial settings overseas, Britain’s migration and settlement histories, or the glimpses of specific ideological changes that have affected the daily lives and life chances of the young, the old and those in between.

in Amateur film
Heather Norris Nicholson

Chapter 7 considers how cine users recorded days out, holidays and work-related overseas travel for home and wider audiences. Unprecedented patterns of peacetime recreational travel and personal mobility coincide with the rise and development of amateur cinema. Family picnics, seaside visits and hiking in the 1930s, overseas touring and cruising holidays, package holidays and long-haul travel provided changing contexts for amateur filmmakers. The films are a rich evidential source on tourism and leisure history at home and abroad in their capturing of personal responses to being somewhere else. Places and peoples framed as part of individual travel and holiday narratives disclose attitudes, assumptions, prejudices and preferences, gender roles, relationships and patterns of authority. Some people filmed for family reasons while others undertook journeys and filmed with educational and fund-raising purposes in mind. Ethnographic approaches and careful editing contrast with the unedited spontaneous snapshot visual diary approaches of other camera users. Undoubtedly impressionistic, eclectic and fragmented, much imagery found in travel-related and holiday footage raises issues of modernity and speed, privilege, visual politics, voyeurism, aesthetics and pictorialism and may be set against wider socio-economic, technological, cultural and ideological processes operating from local to global level.

in Amateur film
Heather Norris Nicholson

Chapter 6 considers how different work places and labour practices are captured in amateur footage. Recreational filming of other people at work highlights the elite nature of early cine usage and provides visual records of specific working conditions in rural and urban areas. Footage evidences gender roles, the use or absence of specialised working clothes and aspects of local and regional employment that may have been transformed or no longer exist. Mills, mines, factories, farming, foundries and fishing feature as do traditional crafts and rural-based industries. Some films resemble promotional and industrial films and reflect the cine interests of employers or their friends. Later films attest to widening cine usage and record varied forms of employment including school canteens and public transport. Motives varied for making and showing people at work as did different filmmakers’ aesthetic interests and their use of light, shadow, tone and composition. Factory-gate shots, topicals, documentaries and regional television news reporting influence changing amateur practice and filmmakers’ interests. Clues to strikes, unemployment, closures and automation link to wider social, economic and cultural change and footage of workers’ outings, social clubs, nurseries and overseas trading partners point to past patterns of patronage, privilege and local/global connections.

in Amateur film
Heather Norris Nicholson

Chapter 8 focuses on amateur films that addressed current social issues. Drawing on varied examples discussion explores the periodic trenchant criticisms of amateurs’ neglect of socially relevant topic concerns found within the specialist press and highlights aspects of filmmaking that overtly respond to contemporary issues. While much amateur footage discloses details of time and place, attention focuses here first on films about public health, welfare and housing before and after the start of the National Health Service, as well as the effects of post war urban redevelopment. Shot in hospitals, training centres and in the midst of urban slum clearance, such material varies stylistically from early actuality, topicals and documentaries to the visual reportage of Standard and Super 8mm users, and also the experimentation of post-war cinema, and reflects the changing involvement and interests of younger filmmakers. Issues of morality, violence, pornography, substance abuse and discrimination feature among later amateur productions as do issues of conflict and international insecurity, poverty, and growing up. Choice of topic and its handling denote shifting attitudes too, as seen in films concerning disability and homelessness. While socially engaged film-making represents a relatively small proportion of overall amateur activity, it is too important to ignore.

in Amateur film