In memoriam: Paul Spehr and Eileen Bowser

Eileen Bowser & Paul Spehr. Photos by Eva Orbanz.

27 January 2020

Last month the international film archive community lost two deeply respected colleagues: Paul Spehr (1931–2019) and Eileen Bowser (1928–2019).

Paul Spehr

On Friday 20 December 2019 the film archivist and early film expert Paul Spehr died, after a short illness, at the age of 88. He had worked from 1958 until his retirement in 1993 at the Library of Congress, and from 1979 he was its Assistant Chief, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division. He was no less active in retirement, continuing to work on film heritage and contributing to a renewed interest in the early years of cinema. He wrote many books, including Civil War in Motion Pictures: A Bibliography of Films Produced in the United States since 1897 (1961), The Man Who Made Movies: W.K.L. Dickson (2008), and numerous articles on early film history and film conservation.

Spehr held several management positions within the film archive world and was awarded many distinctions. In 1996 he was given a Silver Light Award by the AMIA (Association of Moving Picture Archivists) in recognition of his contributions to the field. The archive world played a central role in his life; his marriage to his colleague Susan Dalton in 2000 was held at an AMIA conference in Los Angeles.

For Eye Paul Spehr was an important expert on, and researcher into, the Biograph and the Mutoscope. In 2014 Spehr spoke at the Eye International Conference Orphans 9, presenting a programme of Eye/BFI restorations of 68mm films made by the Nederlandsche Biograaf- en Mutoscope Maatschappij and the British Mutoscope and Biograph Syndicate.

Eileen Bowser

On 24 December 2019, a few days after Paul Spehr’s death, the film archive world suffered another blow: the death, aged 91, of the film archivist and historian Eileen Bowser. Eileen Bowser started in 1953 at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, where she worked, after a number of other posts, as a film curator for over twenty years. After leaving this job in 1992 she continued to lecture at New York University, to perform research, and to publish. She authored several books, including The Transformation of Cinema (1990), and edited A Handbook for Film Archives. Based on the Experiences of Members of the International Federation of Film Archives (1980) together with John Kuiper.

Bowser was a prominent member of FIAF (the International Federation of Film Archives) and over four decades she held many posts within the organization. Between 1971 and 1991 she was a member of its Executive Committee; she was its Vice-President from 1977 to 1985; and for many years she was the Head of its Documentation Committee. She had a key role in the organization of many FIAF symposia held in the 1970s and 1980s, including the conference on early cinema in Brighton in 1978, which became an important turning point in collaborations between archivists and academics, and the Slapstick Symposium in New York in 1985. In the early 1970s she joined the editorial board of the newly-launched FIAF Bulletin / Journal of Film Preservation, and was still on the board at the time of her death, fifty years later. She was elected an honourable member of FIAF in 1993.

Hoos Blotkamp, the former director of the Nederlands Filmmuseum, and Eileen Bowser were active correspondents between 1988 and 1992, working together wherever possible on themes important to Eye, such as Jean Desmet, Joris Ivens and 68mm films.

Prestigious Jean Mitry Award

Spehr and Bowser were close friends of film heritage festivals such as Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone from the beginning. In Pordenone they were both given the prestigious Jean Mitry Award in recognition of their contributions towards the preservation and appreciation of silent film heritage: Eileen Bowser in 1989, and Paul Spehr for himself and his late wife, Susan Dalton (1944–2013), in 2014.

Knowledge and colour

Paul Spehr and Eileen Bowser were of enormous importance to Eye and to the international film archive community in general. They personified the transition from a generation of collectors to one that carried out and enabled film historic research; one that understood both the value of preservation, and that of presenting film history and of keeping it alive. With their passing the film archive world has lost their knowledge and their colour.

A memorial service for Paul Spehr will be held in the Library of Congress at 1pm on 31 January 2020.