Picturegoing

'They were permitted to drink deep of oblivion of all the trouble of the world’: illustration by Wladyslaw T. Benda that accompanied Mary Heaton Vorse’s article‘Some Picture Show Audiences’, Outlook, 24 June 1911
‘They were permitted to drink deep of oblivion of all the trouble of the world’: illustration by Wladyslaw T. Benda that accompanied Mary Heaton Vorse’s article‘Some Picture Show Audiences’, Outlook, 24 June 1911

I’m happy to announce a new website that I’ve been working on for the past couple of months, Picturegoing.

I say a couple of months, but this builds on research which I’ve done for some years now. Back in 2005 I was co-researcher on The London Project, a Birkbeck University of London project looking at the origins of the cinema industry in London. My subject was the cinemas (and other films venues) of London from before the First World War, and their audiences. The main output of the project was a database of cinemas and other London film businesses, plus assorted articles. But as part of the research into audiences I started gathering eyewitness testimony of the experience of going to cinema in those early days. The general critical consensus was that the audience from that period was ‘unrecoverable’, because no one had interviewed them at the time, and no one from that time was left alive to be interviewed now.

I disagreed. Certainly there was no one left around from those times, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t possible to track down what they thought. The first interviews with London cinema audience members weren’t held until 1916, and then only under very partial circumstances, but the children of those times grew up and wrote memoirs. A few were published; many more were donated as unpublished manuscripts to archives and libraries. I went round every borough archive in London and found many of these memoirs of pre-WWI life, a good many of which included references to cinemagoing, with a freshness and keen observational eye that showed how important the cinema was for the children of that time. I found more evidence in oral history interviews, especially those undertaken by Paul Thompson and his team as part of a study of the Edwardian era which resulted in Thompson’s book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (1975), for which the original recordings are held by the British Library and the transcripts by the UK Data Archive.

So I started transcribing all I could find, and picking up other testimonies that weren’t from London pre-WWI but still seemed worth gathering. The evidence I then used in assorted writings, and in a mini-show, ‘Only the Screen was Silent’, which dramatised the child’s experience of early cinema. I also reproduced some of the testimony on my silent film blog The Bioscope (now defunct), where they never quite fitted.

Then a couple of months ago, when I was telling myself I really wasn’t going to be writing anything more online about film history, I thought once more of a project idea I’ve been mulling for years now. The Open University has a marvelous research project with database called the Reading Experience Database. This documents the historical experience of reading worldwide through transcribed and categorised evidence from printed sources. And my thought was, what about the Viewing Experience Database? What about the way we look at things? What about cinema, art works, exhibitions, television, illustrations, magic lanterns, the Web, mobile video? For some of these subjects there is a good body of work on their audiences; for others there is shamefully little (how much had been written about the historical experience of going to see paintings as opposed to reacting to them outside their social contexts?).

Well, that could be a grand project indeed, but best to start small. Why it hadn’t occurred to me earlier to gather all of this testimony in one place I don’t know, but I idly looked up a web addresses, and was amazed to discover that picturegoing.com hadn’t been used by anybody. Well, some things are meant to be, and here I am launching Picturegoing today.

Poster from 1896 advertising the Cinématographe Lumière, with the heterogeneous audience watching L’Arroseur Arrosé
Poster from 1896 advertising the Cinématographe Lumière, with the heterogeneous audience watching L’Arroseur Arrosé

The aim of Picturegoing is to document the experience of going to see pictures. It reproduces eyewitness testimony of watching films, from the 1890s to the present day. The intention is to be global in reach and to cover all time periods, but to begin with it mostly focusses on the UK to the 1940s. The documents cited include (or will include) diaries, memoirs, essays, film trade papers, newspapers, works of fiction, poems, interviews, official reports, web texts, photographs, cartoons and artworks. Texts therefore have been chosen whether they are contemporary or retrospective. The selection does not include conventional film reviews.

For each document the original source is given, the text is reproduced verbatim, and a comment provides contextualising information. The decade covered, the country and the type of document are noted under categories; other subject terms are listed under tags. No distinction or qualification is made about the form of the memory recorded. All written records, and all memories, are subjective. They are there for users to interpret them as they think best. (In researching the site I came across someone’s thesis on filmgoing who used memoir evidence but spent 40 pages or more contextualising and qualifying the choice of this material – good grief, if you are that worried about evidence, don’t write history at all).

The documents are a combination of complete texts and extracts from documents. The extracts focus on that part of the document that is most relevant to the subject of picturegoing. Extracts are also used for in-copyright works and are quoted for the purposes of criticism and review. Many of the older texts have been taken from public domain sites, such as the Internet Archive, Hathi Trust and Project Gutenberg.

It’s very much a work in progress, please note. There are 117 testimonies recorded on the site so far, and I don’t think it will have achieved critical mass (as we say in the trade) until it reaches 500. I have a long list of documents that I will be adding in due course, but I’m really keen to hear from people who can point me to examples I can use – if already transcribed, so much the better! There’s a contact form on the site to encourage such contributions. Remember, I’m not interested in film reviews – it’s the audience experience and the experience of being in the audience that matters. This sort of testimony tends to predominate for the early years, when the phenomenon of picturegoing so exercised commentators, after which point we all try to be film critics rather than observers of the social scene. I’m also keen to expand more beyond Britain – evidence of picturegoing in India, China, Brazil, Eastern Europe, the African nations, and in venues that aren’t just cinemas. It would be quite something to have such a global resource. Then we can start thinking about the paintings, TV, magic lanterns and other enticing forms of the visual.

Advertisement for the Brixton Scala, Brixton Free Press, 1914
Advertisement for the Brixton Scala, Brixton Free Press, 1914

If you are dipping into Picturegoing I recommend using the categories and tags to browse across theme – for example, Serials, Interviews, Talking (i.e. while the film is going on), or Fear. Alternatively, here are some of the key testimonies posted so far:

And much more besides. Picturegoing is not just about cinema history; it’s about people, and how they see things. It’s about all different kinds of people: young and old, intellectual and plain-speaking, rich and poor, from north, south, east and west. It’s also about people as individuals. I have a strong dislike for that part of film studies branded as ‘spectatorship’ where it views the audience as a homogeneous mass, all thinking alike, stripped of all personality. We each of us see things differently, even as we continue to choose to view things together, collectively. There’s the mystery, and the beauty of it all.

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2 thoughts on “Picturegoing

  1. Thank you Amanda. A mad project, maybe – particularly if it grows as I think it could grow. The perils of having a sudden thought and not really thinking ahead where it might lead.

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