Over the past year and a half, what we have been living through in the present tense – a global pandemic, seismic calls for racial justice, and, in the United States, political violence unprecedented in recent history – recasts our sense of time and history. This conversation explores how filmmakers, photographers, and writers have, through documentary media, encountered 2020-2021 – and how this differs from but connects to attempts to document other watershed moments. We approach this question from the perspectives of documentary history and theory (via Paula Rabinowitz’s essay on Deaths of Documentary), documentary practice (Alice Arnold’s Covid Nites photographs), and documentary pedagogy (Alice Lovejoy’s university seminar Documenting the Present). How, we ask, do the “big” stories of history intertwine with the intimate details of everyday life? How do we understand the present as “historical”? How, over time, do accounts of the present transform into canonical versions of historical events? And how can we address these topics with students, audiences, and spectators? Through Visible Evidence’s Conversation format, we stage a broader dialogue about the complex intertwining between personal experience and the subject (documentary) that we study, make, and teach.
In 2020, I was invited to participate in a virtual roundtable on “Images of the Real” for a special issue of Cinema: Journal of Philosophy and Moving Image. I expected to write a few paragraphs on the topic – which has consumed me since the 1970s – and be done with it. I found myself reexamining the practice of documentary as one chiefly concerned with death – nothing new there, Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida had mined the field, at least for still images, years before. But deaths loomed larger now – my son was a third-year resident at Bellevue Hospital in Manhattan, caring (if that’s the proper word) for dozens of patients on ventilators and dying of coronavirus; my husband died of COVID-19 on May 1 in Queens, then epicenter of the epicenter of the pandemic; and we could finally bury his ashes in Brooklyn the day after George Floyd was murdered a few blocks from our former home in Minneapolis. My academic interest in the theory and expression of memory and archives took a different turn, coming in the midst of my decades-long book project, Cold War Dads: Fathers, Secrets, and National Security, to unearth the hidden stories of my father and father-in-law.
Paula Rabinowitz, Professor Emerita of English, University of Minnesota, serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Literature. She is the author or editor of numerous essays and books on mid-20th-century-American politics and culture, including They Must Be Represented: The Politics of Documentary, Black & White and Noir: America’s Pulp Modernism and the prize-winning American Pulp: How Paperbacks Brought Modernism to Main Street. Her co-edited 1987 collection, Writing Red: An Anthology of American Women’s Writings, 1930-1940, will be reissued by Haymarket Books. She is working on two books: “Into the Image,” essays written since 2000; and a double biography of two fathers’ secrets.
Who is out at night during a pandemic? Covid Nites, a photography project started in New York City just days before the implementation of the New York Pause order, explores city life and urban space in this new iteration of the city that never sleeps.
Michel de Certeau, in writing about the urban environment, discussed the role of city walkers in bringing the city to life. But now that the city is devoid of crowds, city life is being redefined. Familiar city views shift, well-known patterns are disrupted, and the energy of the city is transformed. This prompts a new examination of the urban environment and a search for the walkers and passersby who animate the city.
On the shadowy streets, areas of brightness in the urban environment frame the nocturnal activities of New Yorkers against the bodegas, delis, liquor stores and other pockets of light in the city. These electric lights are beacons in the dark street, gathering people towards them. The bright glow of the lights signals warmth and cheeriness, perhaps some solace against the alienation, loneliness and bleakness that many now confront in their day-to-day life. But as these photographs attest, city life goes on.
Alice Arnold is a documentary media maker and educator. She creates, edits, designs, writes and photographs projects that explore the urban environment and visual culture—from street art to advertising and from sidewalks to electric signs. Her films are in the collections of university libraries throughout the United States and have screened at MoMA and elsewhere. She is a NYFA Photography Fellow, a Fulbright Fellow in film and an Adjunct Professor at CUNY. Recent and current projects include a book chapter in Bauhaus Futures (MIT Press); a documentary film about the arcades in Prague; and a book project on visual construction for media makers.
This paper reflects on a seminar entitled Documenting the Present that I am teaching at the University of Minnesota in 2021-2022. Emerging from the same conceptual questions that structure this Conversation, the seminar focuses on the Twin Cities as a particularly fraught site for considering a history of the present. Indeed, 2020 found Minneapolis and St. Paul not only coping with the Covid-19 pandemic and the heightened political tensions preceding (and following) the presidential election, but also reeling from the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. The seminar frames its local subject in a wider historical and geographic lens, via letters and diaries, documentary film and newsreels, photographs, and oral histories engaging with U.S. slavery, the Spanish Civil War, World Wars I and II and the Holocaust in Europe, and 1968 globally. I discuss these texts in the context of the seminar’s structure and assignments — which combine critical and practice-based work — as well as in light of the complex personal narratives students (and I) bring to the class.
Alice Lovejoy is Associate Professor in the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature and the Moving Image Studies program at the University of Minnesota. She is the author of Army Film and the Avant Garde: Cinema and Experiment in the Czechoslovak Military (2015) and co-editor of the forthcoming Remapping Cold War Media: Institutions, Infrastructures, Translations. She is at work on a book entitled Militant Chemistry: Film and its Raw Materials, and is co-editing a volume on the history of film stock.