Fieldwork as Filmwork: Professionalism, Exploration, Cinema

< Program > PANEL NO. 2: The Professionalization of Filmmaking

This paper considers how the professionalism and scientific labors of geographical exploration are imagined through the dispositif of cinema. How did cinema help professionalize anthropology, geography, and surveying in the first quarter of the twentieth century, justifying their imperial goals while simultaneously promoting film’s potential as a machine for knowing the world?  I begin with an analysis of the rich visual culture of exploration in popular culture, from Méliès’s obsession with the subject to fictional as well as nonfictional films representing geographers and surveyors. What counter-histories of cinema’s role in the professionalization of exploration can we deduce from early cinematic representations of geographers, surveyors and other knowledge seekers? I then turn to alternative infrastructures of film exhibition, such as the Explorers Club in New York City, a place where expedition film’s professional tricks of the trade could be modeled, dissected or simply enjoyed in weekly men-only lectures and film screenings. The informal homosocial smoker lectures created a laboratory-like environment for considering cinema’s place within the overlapping fields of exploration, the Q&A following the occasionally risqué illustrated lectures always adding what one member called “interest and color” to the proceedings. Unlike their encounters with native peoples in the field, no one was ever considered a stranger at the Club, and the lecture hall and infamous Long Table, where photographs were passed around and men recruited to join expeditions, forged a culture of co-operation and experimentation around expedition image-making. Thinking about cinematic labor through the lens of exploration helps us better understand film’s link to other professions, professions that in their own way refined how cinema could be used as a scientific, geographic, and ethnographic tool. Through trial and error, adapting technology to better suit harsh environmental conditions and learning on the fly, explorers were tradesmen of a different ilk but remained deeply involved in professionalizing cinema’s utility within the arts and sciences of exploration.

Alison Griffiths (Baruch College, City University of New York)

Alison Griffiths is Distinguished Professor of Film and Media Studies at Baruch College, The City University of New York and the CUNY Graduate Center. She is the author of the multiple award-winning Wondrous Difference: Cinema, Anthropology, and Turn-of-the-Century Visual Culture (Columbia, 2002), Shivers Down Your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View (Columbia, 2008) and Carceral Fantasies: Cinema and Prison in Early Twentieth-Century America (Columbia, 2016). Supported by a 2018 Guggenheim Fellowship and ACLS grant, her current book project, Nomadic Cinema: A Cultural History of the Expedition Film, is under contract with Columbia University Press.