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Historicizing Home Movie Practices: Two Complementary Perspectives

Recently, two doctoral dissertations on the home movie as a twentieth-century cultural practice saw the light of day. Tim van der Heijden defended his dissertation Hybrid Histories: Technologies of Memory and the Cultural Dynamics of Home Movies, 1895-2005 at Maastricht University in January. Tom Slootweg followed suit in April, when he defended his dissertation Resistance, Disruption and Belonging: Electronic Video in Three Amateur Modes at the University of Groningen. 

The results of both doctoral research projects are the outcome of the larger research project ‘Changing Platforms of Ritualized Memory Practices: The Cultural Dynamics of Home Movies’, funded by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). The project entailed a collaboration between the University of Groningen, Maastricht University, the University of Luxembourg and various partners from the cultural heritage field. The research team consisted of Andreas Fickers (University of Luxembourg), Jo Wachelder (Maastricht University), Susan Aasman (University of Groningen), Tom Slootweg (University of Groningen) and Tim van der Heijden (Maastricht University). Based on the recently finished doctoral dissertations, this blog post presents two complementary perspectives on historicizing the home movie as a twentieth-century cultural practice.

A brief history of amateur film

One of the central objectives of the project was to study the development of film, video and digital media technologies, and how changes in these so-called ‘technologies of memory’ have influenced the practices of home movie making and screening during the twentieth century. While nowadays everyone seems able to record their family memories with their smartphone, these practices used to be much more complicated technically and moreover accessible only to wealthy families and hobbyists. Covering more than a hundred years of amateur media practices, the research project aimed to study the interrelations between the materiality of film, video and digital media technologies, their social usages and cultural meanings from a long-term historical perspective.

Van der Heijden distinguishes between various phases of development and transition in the history of home movie making and screening between 1895 and 2005. 1895 marks the start of the period of investigation, because this was the year in which the Lumière brothers recorded and screened Le Repas de Bébé (‘Baby’s Breakfast’). Considered to be the first home movie, this forty-one-seconds film was recorded with the Cinematograph, one of the first moving image recording and screening devices.

After the invention of the film camera, at the end of the nineteenth century, many amateur photographers and technical hobbyists became fascinated by the possibility to make and screen so-called ‘living images’. In 1923, the French film production company Pathé and the American photography company Eastman Kodak released their 9.5mm and 16mm films, cameras and projectors for amateurs. It marks the start of the next phase in the history of amateur filmmaking. Unlike the professional standard, 35mm film, the Pathé and Kodak ‘small-gauges’ were not based on highly flammable nitrate film but rather on cellulose acetate. This meant an important change for amateur filmmakers who wanted to safely handle their films at home.

Children’s first steps: a common theme in home movies. Source: Piet Schendstok, ‘Jetty vanaf twee weken tot haar eerste stapjes’, 1941-1942, The Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision.

Kodak released another popular small-gauge film format in 1932: 8mm. This new format was used in particular by family filmmakers as a cheaper alternative to 9.5mm and 16mm film. With the arrival of its successor Super 8, in 1965, amateur film equipment not only became increasingly smaller, lighter and cheaper, but also more ‘easy to use’. As of this moment, the film strip was encased in a plastic cartridge, so the manual insertion of film reels in the camera was no longer required. This innovation, arguably, made home movie making more accessible to a new generation of users.

The arrival of video

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, with the arrival of consumer video technologies like VHS, Betamax and Video2000, many aspects of home movie making significantly changed. The VCR became part of the household media ensemble and the television set gradually replaced the film projector and projection screen. Video technologies generated a new sense of immediacy with their extended recording time. Also their ability to record sound and image synchronously, and the ease of instant replay or erasing recordings afterwards contributed to this. Video’s new possibilities, however, were not immediately accepted. Many members of the established amateur cine-clubs disliked video. The so-called ‘video boom’ of the late 1980s and early 1990s would nevertheless lead to gradual acceptance of video.

Finally, with the growing availability of digital technologies in the late 1990s and 2000s, home movie practices were no longer bound by the private or domestic, but increasingly entered the online, often public spaces of streaming video and social media platforms.

Perspective I: Hybrid Histories

According to Van der Heijden’s research, the transitions described above, and the manner in which they influenced the practices of home movie making and screening, are characterized by multiple continuities and discontinuities. Families, for instance, continued to record their children’s first steps, birthday parties and holidays, yet with changing technologies and techniques. These discontinuities entailed aesthetic changes (from black-and-white to colour, from silent to sound), material changes (from heavy and large to lightweight and compact recording devices), and perceptual changes (from screening with film projectors to smartphones, from the limited recording time of a film reel to real-time video making and screening online).

Besides all these long-term historical changes and continuities, many things also occurred ‘in between’ these developments. Many of the above-mentioned periods of transition, Van der Heijden moreover found, are characterized by some forms of hybridity, conceptualized as the interrelations and co-existence of media technologies, amateur practices and user discourses. In the late-1970s, for instance, various hybrid screening devices were released enabling the electronic screening of (Super) 8mm films on the television set. In addition, the first video recorders were described in terms of other media technologies, such as the ‘tape recorder for film’. On the basis of these findings, Van der Heijden developed a new perspective on the history of home movie practices, and furthermore pleaded for a hybrid approach to media historiography.

Perspective II: Video in Three Amateur Modes

Tom Slootweg’s research focused on the arrival of consumer video technologies and offers a complementary perspective on the notion of the “amateur”. The slow introduction of video as a consumer media technology, from the mid-1960s to the 1980s, set in motion a long phase in which expectations were rife with video’s potential for everyday users in terms of participation and media democratisation. Slootweg’s research revealed that video was able to capture popular imagination for a considerable amount of time during the second half of the twentieth century. By studying a wide array of sometimes forgotten sources, from official as well as private archives, a new picture emerged of a turbulent time in which the possibilities of video were understood in various ways in, what Slootweg termed, the home mode, community mode and counter mode.

With three case studies of distinct historical amateur media practitioners, the dissertation showed that video acquired meaning in terms of resistance, disruption and belonging. The thesis successively discussed a progressive video collective from The Hague, a traditional amateur film club in Groningen and a Dutch expat family in the Middle East. Whereas the idealistic collective claimed video to bring about socio-political change, and to give a voice to the under-represented, outspoken members of the amateur film club regarded the use of video as a threat to the cherished hobby and the spirit of community. The expat family, in contrast, saw many new possibilities in video to capture the dynamic of the family, in sound and vision, against the backdrop of a foreign environment that became their new, temporary home.

A father tapes his child with a “compact video” camcorder, August 7, 1985. Source: ANP photo archive, reproduced for non-commercial use under the creative commons licence.


With their respective dissertations, Van der Heijden and Slootweg provided new grounds for future scholarship on many fascinating topics. For more information about the research project, which also includes outcomes like two museum exhibitions, a best practice guide, various journal and book publications, and an edited volume, see the blog:

The book covers of the two doctoral dissertations as well as of the forthcoming edited volume Materializing Memories: Dispositifs, Generations, Amateurs, edited by research project team members Susan Aasman, Andreas Fickers and Joseph Wachelder.

Tim van der Heijden is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Luxembourg, where he also coordinates a Doctoral Training Unit (DTU) on ‘Digital History & Hermeneutics’.

Tom Slootweg is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Groningen and CLARIAH. He currently investigates the affordances of video annotation tools for doing media historical research in digitized archival collections.