Scenes of New York City in 1945 Colorized & Revived with Artificial Intelligence

Are you irked when a movie or video you’re attempt­ing to enjoy is con­stant­ly inter­rupt­ed by the com­men­tary of a chat­ty fel­low audi­ence mem­ber?

If so, don’t watch archivist Rick Prelinger’s 2017 assem­blage, Lost Land­scapes of New York, in the com­pa­ny of a New York­er.

Unlike Open Cul­ture favorite NASS’s five minute sam­ple of Lost Land­scapes of New York, above, which adds col­or and ambi­ent audio to the unvar­nished found footage,  Prelinger — described by the New York Times’ Manohla Dar­gis as a “col­lec­tor extraordinaire…one of the great, under­sung his­to­ri­ans of 20th cen­tu­ry cin­e­ma” — rel­ish­es such mouthi­ness from the audi­ence. His black and white com­pi­la­tions are most­ly silent.

If you are a New York­er, view that as an invi­ta­tion here.

For every­one else, on behalf of New York­ers every­where, we con­cede that our con­fi­dent utter­ances may indeed dri­ve you out of your gourd…

Tourists with just one vis­it to their name can be for­giv­en for flaunt­ing their per­son­al brush­es with such hall of famers as the Brook­lyn Bridge and the Wash­ing­ton Square Arch, but there’s no com­pet­ing with long time res­i­dents’ inti­mate knowl­edge of the city’s geog­ra­phy.

It’s snob­bery of a type, but have pity on us long time res­i­dents, who know we will be viewed as sub­or­di­nates by those who were born with­in the five Bor­oughs.

(We sub­mit that there are lay­ers to this…a native of, say, the Hoosier State, who can remem­ber the orig­i­nal Penn Sta­tion should be con­sid­ered to have at least as much street cred as a mil­len­ni­al whose  birth in Brook­lyn, Harlem or the West Vil­lage con­fers native New York­er sta­tus.)

How­ev­er you slice it, con­sid­er this fair warn­ing that some of us, view­ing Lost Land­scapes of New York in your com­pa­ny, will not be able to stop our­selves from tri­umphant­ly crow­ing, “That’s 8th between 43rd and 44th!”

Again, it’s some­thing Prelinger courts in local live screen­ings of his Lost Land­scapes series

The phe­nom­e­non is not lim­it­ed to New York.

Be the set­ting San Fran­cis­co, Los Ange­les, or Detroit, he views audi­ence out­bursts as the sound­tracks to his most­ly silent, non-nar­ra­tive pas­tich­es drawn from his vast archive of vin­tage home movies, gov­ern­ment-pro­duced films, and back­ground footage shot with an eye toward com­posit­ing into a fea­ture film.

In a con­ver­sa­tion with The Essay Review’s Lucy Schiller, he remarked:

I’ve dis­cov­ered that home movies become some­thing else when blown up to the­ater-screen size. The change of scale pro­vokes a role change in the audi­ence, who with­out nec­es­sar­i­ly expect­ing it become more than sim­ple com­men­ta­tors. They turn into ethno­g­ra­phers, notic­ing and often remark­ing on every vis­i­ble detail of kin­ship, word and ges­ture and every inter­per­son­al exchange. They also respond as cul­tur­al geo­g­ra­phers, call­ing out streets and neigh­bor­hoods and build­ings, read­ing signs aloud, repeat­ing trade­names and brands and mark­ing extinct details in the cityscape. If I could cap­ture them (and I gen­er­al­ly can­not, because it is hard to intel­li­gi­bly record the voic­es of hun­dreds of peo­ple in one room), it would play back like an urban research project dis­trib­uted through a crowd of inves­ti­ga­tors. Each suc­cess­ful iden­ti­fi­ca­tion, each nam­ing achieved, is an endor­phin trig­ger.

Prelinger is hap­py to play fast and loose with chrono­log­i­cal order, scram­bling peri­od fash­ions, and col­or and black-and-white stock. This crazy quilt approach is in step with his resis­tance to con­struct­ing nar­ra­tives (“the curse of con­tem­po­rary doc­u­men­tary”) and admi­ra­tion for the way enthu­si­as­tic ama­teurs’ footage ren­ders “caste dis­tinc­tions between ani­mals and humans, between places and their inhab­i­tants” moot:

I am much less inter­est­ed in the minu­ti­ae of local his­to­ry than I am in the process of day­light­ing it, in the rela­tion­ship of his­to­ry and con­tem­po­rary life.

His approach allows those of us who live or have lived here to rev­el in New York City’s long stand­ing capac­i­ty for rein­ven­tion.

Like the anony­mous tide of human­i­ty bustling along our side­walks (and dart­ing into traf­fic, mid-block), the mar­quees, restau­rant names and words on the deliv­ery trucks aren’t fixed. We claim to hate it, but philoso­phers might sug­gest it’s what keeps us engaged.

You won’t find many street ven­dors hawk­ing frumpy cot­ton undies these days, but there are plen­ty of cor­ners where you can buy fruit and veg… and iPhone cas­es, ear­buds, and COVID-19 era face masks.

As excit­ing as it is to suc­cess­ful­ly peg the quin­tes­sen­tial­ly New York things that remain, there’s an equal thrill to rec­og­niz­ing and shout­ing out the things that don’t, espe­cial­ly if there’s a sig­nif­i­cant per­son­al con­nec­tion.

It makes us feel like we’re notable, con­tribut­ing in some way.

You con­tribute, too, by watch­ing Lost Land­scapes of New York (2017) here, while simul­tanous­ly keep­ing your eyes peeled for grat­i­fy­ing­ly well attend­ed, high­ly par­tic­i­pat­ed live screen­ings.

If vin­tage ama­teur footage you’re in pos­ses­sion of is gath­er­ing dust, con­sid­er donat­ing it to expand Prelinger’s archive, already some 60,000 films strong.

Watch Prelinger’s Lost Land­scapes com­pi­la­tions of oth­er cities here and here (see episode 7 of his San Fran­cis­co series above).

Explore his mas­sive archive on the Inter­net Archive.

And if you want to prac­tice sound­ing like a “real New York­er,” head back up to the top of the page, skip to the end, and inform every­one with­in earshot that that build­ing is the old James A. Far­ley Post Office at 32nd and 8th:

“Now it’s Moyni­han Train Hall! It opened on Jan­u­ary 1! It’s part of Penn Sta­tion! Don’t for­get to look up inside the 33rd street entrance, or you’ll miss Kehinde Wiley’s incred­i­ble stained-glass ceil­ing! And if you want a snack for the ride, you should hit H‑Mart on 32nd just east of Gree­ley Square!”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

See New York City in the 1930s and Now: A Side-by-Side Com­par­i­son of the Same Streets & Land­marks

Immac­u­late­ly Restored Film Lets You Revis­it Life in New York City in 1911

An Online Gallery of Over 900,000 Breath­tak­ing Pho­tos of His­toric New York City

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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