Watching Nitrate!

The eighth Nitrate Picture Show is opening today on the site of what used to be the estate of Georges Eastman, founder of Kodak in 1880 in Rochester, New York – and like every year since 2015, those attending don’t know what they are going to watch during the five-day festival.

Indeed, the program is traditionally only revealed to filmgoers on the first day of the festival, after most of them have travelled hundreds or thousands of miles to get to the historic world center of raw film production.

Yet people do care about what they will watch at the Nitrate Picture Show. There is no doubt that the stellar programming of previous editions puts most at ease. From The Wizard of Oz to Der Blaue Engel, from a short film made by an electrical company for the World Fair to screen tests of Gone with the Wind, the history of films on nitrate emanates from the diversity of forms and narratives that are put forth.

Being lucky enough to attend the Nitrate Picture Show is to experience the rare idea of (nitrate) film projection as (nitrate) film preservation. Spectators are invited to watch original prints from a specific time, authenticated by the material fabric of the print itself. As such, programmers and presenters go out of their way to talk about the print – its condition, its circulation, its challenges – as much as they talk about the film, and therefore provide a too often missing link between materiality of film and its aesthetics.

These days of nitrate projection are made possible by the exceptional facilities at the Dreyden Theater, part of the George Eastman Museum. The booth and the projectors are specifically designed to contain any fire arising from the old nitrate prints; projectionists are trained to handle this specific material; immense care and thought go into the organization of the projection inside and outside the booth.

If the rarity of the experience offered by the team at the Nitrate Picture Show holds some of its appeal, the idea of proposing the projection of historic prints as a worthwhile venture with its own merits and not simply as a cumbersome necessity resonates around the world.

Challenges abound in Rochester and elsewhere to defend the living and breathing art of film projection as an essential part of our collective film heritage and contemporary film practice. Machines need to be repaired and maintained, projectionists need to be trained, collaborations between venues and archives fostered. Nonetheless, every time such an ambitious venture, such as the Nitrate Picture Show makes it to the eyes of spectators, the core principles on which it is built appear flagrantly as of the utmost importance for our contemporary relationship to moving images


Image Credit : Intolerance (USA 1916, D. W. Griffith). Credit: Library of Congress. Photographs of the pretinted nitrate print by Barbara Flueckiger (