We're working on a new version of PRX. Want a sneak peek?

Transcript for the Piece Audio version of Restoring Old New York

HOST INTRO: A long-lost film treasure has been brought back to life, thanks to the work of a New Hampshire film preservationist. The 1920 experimental film has been fully restored using the latest in digital technology, and will screen tonight in Hanover. Word of Mouth’s Avishay Artsy has the story.

In 1920, artists Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler collaborated on a twelve-minute black and white film called Manhatta.

Sunlight glimmers off skyscrapers. Waves ripple in the harbor. Clouds billow from smokestacks, steamships and trains. Multitudes of people in suits and hats crowd the avenues. Title screens show lines from Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass.”

The abstract images revealed New York City in an entirely new way. Film historian Bruce Posner (POSE-nur) lives in Cornish, New Hampshire. He included Manhatta in a collection of early American avant-garde films called Unseen Cinema. But then the National Gallery of Art held a Charles Sheeler retrospective in 2006.

“And when I walked in the gallery at the National Gallery of Art, and saw a large image of Manhatta on a large flat-screen TV next to all these beautiful paintings and drawings by Sheeler, I was just shocked and horrified, because the film looked horrible, in comparison to these really pristine paintings and pictures.”

“It had the makings of a fabulous film but you really realized as you looked at it that it wasn’t the film that they had made.”

That’s Naomi Rosenblum, a photo historian and personal friend of Strand’s. She says other films of that era documented the speed of life in New York.

“But Strand and Sheeler wanted to do something else. They wanted to make an evocative artistic film, and it’s the first of its kind.”
The film is now revered as a classic of early cinema. But Posner says its initial impact was minimal.

“Well [laughs] I have to laugh. This is what’s even more amazing about this film. It seems to maybe have had a total of five screenings from late 1920 to 1927.”

It screened in New York, Los Angeles, Paris and London. And then it disappeared. Literally. For 25 years, no one knew where it was. And then, in 1949, the British Film Institute found the last remaining print sitting in their vaults.

“And they immediately contacted Sheeler and Strand to let them know they found it and asked their permission to copy it. And at that time a 35 millimeter black and white negative was made of this print, and that has been the source of all known copies of the film since then. Until now.”

Posner realized new technology could restore Manhatta to something close to its original state. But going digital means Hollywood-level production. And that costs big bucks.

“It’s made for commercial, you know, go out there and make our Star Wars. It’s not made for a little independent art film that was made in 1920.”

Posner brought in some of the biggest arts and cultural institutions in the world. The Museum of Modern Art. Anthology Film Archives. The Library of Congress. And others. Even Paul Strand’s estate contributed. He estimates that restoring the twelve-minute film cost about 156-thousand dollars. But he says raising the money was just one obstacle – Manhatta had just about every problem a motion picture film could have.

“It had the typical normal candidates of dirt and scratches and shakiness, bad contrast, bad exposure timing, you know, go light, dark, it was all over the places. Scratches running vertically through the frame, rips in the frame, image just, like, dissolving in places.”

And those are all things the digital technology can fix. But what drove the team crazy was the shaking. It wasn’t the typical way old movies shake because of film shrinkage or poor duplication. But they finally realized what it was.

“And it was Strand and Sheeler, when they shot the film.”

The two were using a new French camera at the time, which was hand-cranked. But they hadn’t mounted it properly on the tripod, causing the image to jiggle. Another key to fixing Manhatta came from Sheeler himself. When he cut the film negative, he kept the trimmed frames at the ends. After his death in 1965, fourteen photographic stills were discovered in his studio, matted and framed.

“And these photographic prints show us exactly what the film should look like in its clarity, its tonality, and its structure. And it was perfectly beautiful. It was like a little instruction from the past of where to go with this.”

Posner says cleaning up the film and removing the shaking go beyond simple restoration. Fixing some problems revealed other ones. While the computer could replace dust specks, vertical scratches had to be painted over by hand. The whole process took about 9-hundred hours. Yet Posner thinks Strand and Sheeler would have approved. Just look at the precision of their own prints and paintings, he says.

“Strand was so crazed, so to speak, that he’d take these small two-and-a-quarter, and three-and-a-quarter negatives, that he would stipple them with these thousands and thousands of pencil markings on the back to do touch-up work, and to manipulate the image before making the print. If he liked doing that with a pencil I can’t imagine what he’d like doing with a light stick.”

Charles Brock curated the 2006 Charles Sheeler retrospective at the National Gallery of Art. He says Sheeler had the same tendencies.

“He’s known as a precisionist painter. His whole aesthetic is about crisp, clear, precise renderings. And so to see this film that was scratched and the image wasn’t stable, it was clearly something that would have been completely antithetical to what Sheeler had hoped for when he set out to make the film with Strand in 1920.”

Now, the restored film treasure is cleaner and less jumpy. And a new audience can better appreciate it for what it is – a poetic depiction of lower Manhattan through the lens of two of the twentieth century’s finest American photographers. For Word of Mouth, I’m Avishay Artsy.