Rick Prelinger’s ongoing Lost Landscapes project continues his life’s work of saving thousands of neglected films and putting them back into the public sphere, where these otherwise orphaned moving images generate new knowledge and creative work. In the past decade he has presented archival compilations of rare footage documenting the changes wrought on American cities throughout the twentieth century. Prelinger has presented sold-out shows of Lost Landscapes of Detroit, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. The Skirball Center premiere of his first New York program assembles fresh cinematic views of the city as seen by amateur filmmakers, industrial producers, and little-known directors.
For students and teachers in NYU Cinema Studies and its Moving Image Archiving and Preservation Program, Prelinger’s work continues to inspire and to amplify the work we do. His public advocacy for the significance of sponsored films and home movies, for example, has changed the ways in which we think about the history of documentary film and nonfiction television. His collecting and archiving of tens of thousands of films others thought too ephemeral to save has created an archival consciousness, which in turn helped NYU Tisch School of the Arts build its high-impact master’s degree program in Moving Image Archiving and Preservation (MIAP). When MIAP students work in archives, libraries, museums, and cultural organizations large and small throughout New York, they are now keenly aware of the value of film and video recordings without obvious commercial value. They learn the skills of preserving such work and the importance of making them accessible and showing them to new audiences.
In 2000, when Prelinger Archives offered a thousand digitized orphan films from its collection for free download and creative reuse via the Internet Archive, it was a bold move. Now researchers, media makers, and archivists know well the positive impact that such access brings. Today the number of films available from the Prelinger Collection online is closer to 7,000 (more than a thousand home movies alone), and thanks to the prototype that created this culture of sharing, the Internet Archive now hosts 3.5 million moving-image works.
As a collector, archivist, scholar, author, filmmaker, librarian, advocate, and visionary public intellectual, Rick Prelinger has helped shape the ways in which we use and think about media of many different registers. Amid so many jeremiads about archival loss and fears about media ownership, he offers a sometimes utopian voice about how to recover and revalue the films we have.
Dan Streible, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where he directs the department’s master’s program in Moving Image Archiving and Preservation.