Charles L. Turner, 6th Avenue–Subway–Post (1942-44), digital preservation of 16mm film. (all images courtesy The Museum of Modern Art)

To watch a home movie is often to engage in a staring contest with the person on screen — if you observe them long enough, they’ll smile. It’s the effect of the portable camera, inevitably wielded by someone with a personal relationship to whoever is put in front of it. In “Private Lives Public Spaces,” MoMA’s first exhibition composed entirely of home movies, visitors are placed into the perspective of these amateur filmmakers, lovingly capturing their subjects on these costly new machines. It’s easy to settle into the experience of wandering through the lives of strangers, ever so often stumbling upon a choice moment — a young girl eating a popsicle in slow-motion, the way a mother looks at her newborn — and feeling, perhaps like the cameraperson did at the time, like you’ve just struck gold. 

Unidentified filmmaker, Father & Kid NYC (c. 1940s), digital preservation of 16mm film

The 47 hours of footage that make up “Private Lives” are meant to be taken in piecemeal, with viewers cycling through the 102 screens divided among the Museum’s lower levels. The exhibition’s design was inspired by MoMA’s 1955 photography exhibition “The Family of Man,” organized by Edward Steichen, which aimed, in a post-war display of peace and optimism, to show the universality of human experience, from birth until death. While now considered a pivotal event in the history of photography exhibition, the show has also been harshly criticized. At the time Roland Barthes accused the exhibit of employing sentimentality to essentialize humanity, ignoring the historical alienation and injustices encountered by some communities.

Installation view of Private Live Public Spaces (October 21, 2019-July 5, 2020), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, digital Image © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art (photo by Martin Seck)

Still, the curators cite the “immersive display style” and “multitude and diversity of content” of Steichen’s show as an influence on Private Lives, scattering screens across the gallery walls like family photos crowding a stairwell. This over-stimulating effect is meant to mimic social media, which the organizers see as the inheritor to the home movie. Perhaps more akin to an Instagram “discover page,” there’s less a sense of the infinite scroll than of an all-out visual bombardment. 

Installation view of Private Live Public Spaces (October 21, 2019-July 5, 2020), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, digital Image © 2019 The Museum of Modern Art (photo by Martin Seck)

To include this exhibit in the opening slate of the “new MoMA” signals the Museum’s effort to democratize the way we experience art and redefine who we classify as an artist. If the offerings in “Private Lives” seem homogenous, it’s largely due to who had the resources to purchase equipment, and who MoMA was historically collecting — all works hail from the Museum’s collection, having been donated by either artists, collectors, or more recently, staff members. With the advent of the small-gauge, portable movie camera in 1922, those who could afford it started to document their daily lives. The introduction of the more economical Super 8 camera in 1965 further expanded filmmaking into the homes of the average family. The exhibit tracks this evolution of accessibility, recalling a time when these non-professional recordings were far from commonplace. 

Edit deAk, with Patrick Fox, Beyond Genre (1977-86), digital preservation of Super 8mm film

The show is divided into three categories, displaying “hardcore amateur” home movies, films by “artful amateurs,” and ones by artists who “honor the amateur aesthetic.” The visitor is responsible for making these distinctions themselves, perhaps recognizing the early work of Cindy Sherman and Ken Jacobs, or the home movies of Salvador Dalí, James Joyce, and other artists experimenting with this personal iteration of the filmic medium. The curators also put MoMA’s own home movies on display — offering behind the scenes looks at the day Picasso’s “Guernica” was transferred back to Spain in 1981, and a rather explosive documentation of a nitrate test from 1994, demonstrating which film storage cabinets were the least flammable. 

Anny Aviram, Kate Keller, The Departure of Guernica (1981), from Super 8mm

One major difference between the films made by artists and “hardcore amateurs” may be the quality of the film itself. Several from the latter group are presented in their degraded form, some orphaned by those who made them and not properly preserved — unlike, say, the amateur films of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. A noteworthy example is the three hours of footage of the Jaretts, a Black family living in Pittsburgh. Between 1958 and 1967, Dave Jarett filmed his family celebrating birthdays, weddings, or just playfully posturing for the camera in the kitchen. The 8mm film is severely disintegrating, at times resembling the peeling paint of a mosaic in motion. In “Trip to Kessel Kamp on the Good Ship Orson,” another film in this category shot on 35mm in 1916, sailors make faces for the camera in what amount to moving portraits as the film almost appears to boil up and dissolve before materializing again. These are some of the most captivating visuals in the entire exhibit — adding a textured dimension to the otherwise 2D experience. For some, viewing these decaying reels may be just as thrilling as witnessing the more polished films from the archives of more affluent households, like those of Russell Stover or Charles Pathé. In most cases, when comparing the films of the artists and the “hardcore amateurs” without the help of wall text, it’s hard to tell the difference.

Jarret family, Home movies (1958-67), digital preservation of Standard 8mm film 

Private Lives Public Spaces continues at the Museum of Modern Art (11 West 53 Street, Midtown) through July 5, 2020. The exhibition was curated by Ron Magliozzi, Curator, and Brittany Shaw, Curatorial Assistant, with Katie Trainor, Collections Manager, Ashley Swinnerton, Collection Specialist, Peter Williamson, Film Preservation Officer, and Peter Oleksik, Associate Media Conservator, The David Booth Conservation Department.

Susannah Gruder is a writer born and raised in Brooklyn. Her film criticism has been published in Reverse Shot, Bright Wall/Dark Room, MUBI Notebook, and IndieWire. She graduated from Kenyon College with...