The Harry and Reba Swiff Collection: Family Celebrations (1956-1958)

Watch on Texas Archive of the Moving Image

Institution: Texas Archive of the Moving Image
Collection: Harry and Reba Swiff Collection

Running time: 16m 30s
Source film:  color; silent
Year: 1956 – 1958
Camera: Harry Swiff


When I was young — particularly during adolescence — the holiday season from roughly October through January seemed to unfold as a series of discrete events, each celebration marked by its own sights, smells, sounds, and flavors. The rest periods between them (i.e., school) always crawled at a snail’s pace, allowing the anticipation for each to build to proper crescendo. In adulthood, though, that illusion has eroded with each passing year. These same holidays now occur as a blurry blob of celebratory activity, with beginnings and endings almost entirely indistinguishable if not for the correlating bank statements and smartphone images that neatly divide by monthly markers.

Home movies on photographic film — 8mm or Super 8 in particular — might have been the best format for expressing this idea of the holidays as jumbled sprint. A sort of holiday fever-dream is conveyed by the absence of sound and the natural jump “cuts” that occurred as a camera operator tried to preserve film on a three-minute reel for future events. Despite the cultural differences in family traditions, the holiday home movies shot by Harry Swiff, formerly of Galveston, TX, look remarkably similar to those I’ve seen from my own family: the kids squint at the light bar used to illuminate dark interiors, and adults wave awkwardly at the camera operator while smoking indoors.

The “Family Celebrations” movies, courtesy of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image, depict children’s birthday parties, a Thanksgiving dinner, and two separate Passover seders, with a 1957 Hanukkah celebration in between. During the latter event, the kids of the family assemble around a table stacked high with wrapped presents for a posed shot, a plastic menorah standing on a shelf in the background. As is the case in almost all home movies of family events, shots of people eventually give way to close-ups of the food spread. This serves as further evidence that Instagram alone can neither be blamed nor credited with the phenomenon of unabating amateur food photography.


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