The Steenbeck As Archaeological Tool

One of the Steenbeck editing machines at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center

When I first talked to Elena Rossi-Snook at the Reserve Film and Video Collection of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, she casually remarked, “You know, not much in youth media has changed except for the medium.”  After spending the past several weeks engaged in excavating the Young Filmmakers Foundation of the 1960s and 1970s, Elena’s observation is beginning to resonate even further.  Erkki Huhtamo and Jussi Parikka cite Jeffrey Sconce’s  observation of electronic presence as a social phenomena, “manifested by the familiar stories that appear in new incarnations with the advent of each new medium” (10).  After my own experience working with various youth media organizations and projects in New York City, I recognize its story, even though 16mm film is no longer used as its medium.

My project has narrowed even further as I re-visit the definition of media archaeology, allowing my research to carve out “secret paths in history, which might help us to find our way into a future” (10) of youth media.  How does the story of one organization (Young Filmmakers Foundation) that began in the mind of one man (Rodger Larson) lend itself to the understanding of present-day paths of youth media organizations and their own founders?  The past of youth media (Young Filmmakers Foundation) will more clearly act as a foundation for youth media’s present when thematic entities are mapped and related to each other, telling the “familiar story” of youth media in New York City.

Erkki Huhtamo’s approach is particularly inspiring in my own work.  Huhtamo’s topos approach “demonstrates how the media’s past(s) lives on in the present, guiding and informing people’s attitudes in their daily lives [through] detect[ing] novelties, innovations, and media-cultural ruptures as well” (14).  The bricks of youth media past are made of the same materials that youth media present is built.

Young Filmmakers Foundation Film Reel in Canister

One of my focuses has been on plotting locations of youth films.  The neighborhood film is a genre that permeates youth media making culture as young filmmakers from underresourced neighborhoods document their worlds using recording equipment. They become cartographers of their own urban experiences.  Many of the 16mm films in the Young Filmmakers Foundation collection at New York Public Library for the Performing Arts are neighborhood films that act as studies for how youth in a Lower East Side filmmaking program interpreted their city.  Teenagers took cameras into other neighborhoods, if they went to school outside of the Lower East Side (many of the teenagers dropped out of high school) or were some of the small percentage of non-Lower East Siders that took part in the program.  (One film, Young Braves, by Michael Jacobsshon (of Flushing, Queens) acts as an (almost) anthropological study of Puerto Rican teenagers from the Lower East Side – a teenager from the ‘outside’ investigating how other teenagers explore their own neighborhood.)

Screen Shot from Projector for "Coney Island," a YFF film by Phil Buehler and Steve Siegel

One of the most fascinating parts about mapping film locations, is the physical aspect of watching 16mm films on the Steenbeck, an analog-editing machine.  Just like any media archaeological tool, there are certain aspects that lend themselves to precision more then others.  For example, screen shots on the Steenbeck are more precise because I can start, stop, rewind and fast forward.  Sound is a bit less cooperative, but many of the films lack dialogue or narrative so the spontaneous bursts of ambient sound and music offer enough information.

There is a certain urgency to watching these films and gleaning as much information as possible from them because (1) many of them are unsorted and their categorization offers important historical information and (2) many of them are beginning to decay – librarians have to smell the film reel for the now-familiar vinegar odor of the acetate, before I can put it on the Steenbeck. Kind of like bacteria on food, a decaying film reel can affect other film reels that are viewed after it.

A cart of uncatalogued films from YFF
The hand wind machine at NYPL is used to wind film in a direction that is appropriate for the Steenbeck machine

My process for reviewing these films is two-fold:  (1) scouring the library catalogue for films that have already been entered into the system and ordering them a week in advance from the cold storage facility and (2) gradually making my way through a film cart with uncatalogued films, aiding the library by filling in missing information along the way and contributing to my own research with a significant “rummaging” (Huhtamo and Parikka 3) through more invisible archives that deserve to be reviewed.

Steenbeck screenshot from Tar Beach Party; a YFF film by The Photo Unit of the Neighborhood Youth Corps; supervised by Rodger Larson

Tar Beach Party takes place on the roof of a building located at 218 East 108th Street.  “Interesting,” Elena told me when I mentioned this detail to her.  “I’ve had researchers come in to look at films made in this particular area.  Now I can add this one to the list of recommended works.”  The category-trail that I am leaving in my research adds a new layer of importance to these youth-made films of the 1960s/70s.  It is fascinating to imagine, beyond the theoretical implications of the media archaeology field, whether the teenage media makers of the past could have ever believed their films into becoming artifacts for researchers of the future.

Work Cited:

Huhtamo, Erkki, and Jussi Parikka. Media Archaeology: Approaches, Applications, and Implications. University of California Press, 2011. 1 – 25.


  1. Beautiful, Alex! So many layers of history and materiality here. How wonderful to think that your work is bringing new life and accessibility (by aiding in classification) of so many of these films. And what an interesting irony that smell — one sensory register that film can’t easily convey (outside of synaesthetic references or gimmicks like smell-o-vision) — is the very sense we use to determine the health of these historical films.

  2. I don’t have anything constructive to add to this except that I really enjoyed reading it, and had no idea that youth media films were so prevalent. It’s a fascinating perspective. Trekking around East Harlem looking at murals has brought me into contact with a few youths, and I often feel that if anybody they should be the ones documenting the public arts in their community (and it would probably be a lot more insightful), instead of me.

    Other than that i love the quote, “nothing in youth media has changed except the medium”. This whole post makes me want to rethink the nature of media production and its purpose.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *