Amateur film – history as it happened

Fri, 18 Jan 2013 15:40:00 GMT

Heather publishes the first major history of twentieth century amateur filmmaking‌

Heather Nicholson FROM the 1920s until well into the 1970s, growing numbers of amateur enthusiasts equipped themselves with cine cameras and filmed history as it happened.  They created a remarkable record of the life and times of their communities which researchers are now treating as precious source material.

But it was touch and go how many of the films would survive.  When the big switch from cine to VHS took place in the 1980s, old reels of film – often unplayable when technology moved on – were widely regarded as disposable. 

“Perhaps the projector bulb went, or the person who made the films might have passed on or lost interest.  These reels of film were stories about twentieth century life that were disappearing into skips and landfill sites by the later 1970s,” says University of Huddersfield senior research fellow Dr Heather Norris Nicholson (pictured). 

‌Fortunately, there was mounting recognition that amateur films provided a fascinating visual history of Britain.  From 1977, a network of regional film archives was gradually established which set about rescuing, restoring and now digitising thousands of  home movies – many of them can be seen online and are the basis of TV programmes. 

‌Dr Nicholson has just published the first major history of twentieth century amateur filmmaking in Britain.  It shows how a hobby that was originally a rich person’s pastime became more and more popular as the price of equipment fell. 

Black and White film footage Amateur movie makers 

Although the earliest clubs date to the 1920s, large numbers sprang up during the fifties and sixties – with dedicated enthusiasts and regular meetings.  There were flourishing competitions and specialist magazines catering for the amateur cine film movement.  Dr Nicholson has drawn on printed material, on oral testimony and, of course, the films themselves to produce the pioneering book, entitled Amateur Film: Meaning and Practice, 1927-1977. 

Black and White film footage Based at the University of Huddersfield’s Centre for Oral and Visual History Research, she is now working on a co-written book that explores the under-recognised contributions of women at home and overseas who became keen and proficient amateur movie makers.  The impetus for this research comes in part from Lucy Fairbank, a local filmmaker who started to document life in the Colne Valley in the 1930s. 

Burnley hospital Dr Nicholson is also currently seeking information and material in connection with Kathleen Lockwood, who was one of the founder members of Holmfirth Cine Club and filmed the Holme Valley in the 1940s. 

Memories, motives and meanings 

Black and White film footage Dr Nicholson, whose inter-disciplinary career spans a range of academic posts and periods of research in Canada, first started to publish her work on amateur film and use it in undergraduate teaching during the 1990s.  She originally studied geography and archaeology,‌ and she draws a clear thread between this and her current field of study. 

‌‌“In some ways my work with film really goes back to being an archaeologist, trying to make sense of the fascinating visual evidence in front of me and posing questions – trying to excavate memories, motives and meanings – from how people have told stories about themselves and the world around them using pictures. “I’m also fascinated by the gaps and silences – what the filmmakers choose not to film or say, and how this informs our understanding of memory, remembering and forgetting.” 

An initial interest in early travel films and their contribution to histories of tourism and landscape history broadened considerably, especially when she started to use material from the Northwest Film Archives at Manchester Metropolitan University with graduate students. 

‌“It was the visual wonder and the unofficial histories found in people’s cine films about their families, growing up, going to work, how they spent their leisure time, and how they used their cameras in different ways  to make documentaries as well as fiction films – all that captivated me,” says Dr Nicholson. 

“Amateur film doesn’t have an official agenda and is only self-censored by its maker, although that prompted a number of complaints over content in the hobby press during the late sixties!  It’s highly selective and represents the view and world of the person behind the camera so much is personal, whimsical, eclectic and often very spontaneous,” she adds. 

A lost generation 

But while the earlier twentieth century cine film has provided her with a rich vein of material, she is fully aware of the challenges posed by the technological shift that took place during the 1980s. 

Although many cine enthusiasts did make the switch to film, there is a risk that the visual inheritance of the film era is neglected and less understood, ‌especially now in a digital world that sees people throw out clunky VHS cassettes which they can longer play.  It is important that more film archives also preserve video as well as film, says Dr Nicholson, conscious that more recent social, cultural and environmental changes risk being under-represented. 

“Otherwise there will be a lost generation; a lost 20 years of visual history.”Heather Nicholson's book

Film use is also the link from the analogue era to today’s digital visual technologies.  And that raises yet another next challenge – how to preserve for posterity the mini-movies, often regarded as instantly disposable, being filmed on mobile phones and other devices. ‌

  • Amateur Film: Meaning and Practice, 1927-1977 by Heather Norris Nicholson, is published by Manchester University Press. (pictured right)
  • All film images courtesy of North West Film Archive at Manchester Metropolitan University.  Click here to view Sam Hanna's film collection featured in the images above.
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