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MoMA's (Still) Missing Film Stills? Not Exactly.

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by Anthony Kaufman
January 11, 2012 7:52 PM
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In 2002, the Museum of Modern Art closed off its venerable Film Stills Achive--an essential resource for archivists and academics--and fired its chief staffers Mary Corliss and Terry Geesken, causing rancor among cinephiles everywhere. I covered the story for the Village Voice almost exactly ten years ago this week ("Freeze Frame"). Now Time Magazine critic (and Mary's husband) Richard Corliss has resurrected the issue of the Archive, and its relocation to MoMA's Celeste Bartos Film Preservation Center in Hamlin, PA, also known as the "bunker." On Wednesday, he wrote a column, protesting the continuing "inaccessible" nature of the archive's some 4 million photographs.

A decade ago, Mary Corliss told me: "The Hamlin facility was never supposed to be a place where you could retrieve materials instantly," she said. "When you have something that is such a jewel, it belongs to the world; it doesn't belong in dead storage."

While this may be true to an extent, and the ready availability of photos from the collection is certainly not what it used to be, I have to report that Corliss exaggerates the state of the photos in his current column. While what happened to Corliss and Geesken remains unforgivenable, and appeared to be largely motivated by anti-union busting (read the Voice story), the photos are not exactly unattainable, although they may be a hassle to get to (Hamlin is more than two hours from the city).

Though MoMA Film Chief Rajendra Roy told me the Archive will never return to 53rd Street, the photos are still accessible via appointment in Hamlin through the highly capable Film Collections Manager, Katie Trainor, who New Yorkers might remember as the manager of the IFC Center.

"Katie handles all incoming requests and they are vetted by curators," Roy told me via email. "Access will always be challenging," he admitted. "But it is safely and securely kept, in an organized manner."

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