Aug 14, 2019

Cowling's Roof of the World

In response to my previous post, "Underground," archivist-historian and Orphans veteran Paul Spehr sent a Facebook comment  about early advocacy for underground storage for film preservation.

          "In the early 1960s the LoC was presented with a collection of 35mm negatives of films shot by Herford Cowling for Burton Holmes for showing at the 1933 Chicago World Fair. Cowling had been a very early consultant on standards for storage of motion picture film --- going back to the 1920s and contributing to the establishment of the National Archives film archive in 1934-36. He was a very early advocate of stable cold temperature and RH.
           One of his very early recommendations was use of caves when proper vault space wasn't available. He had access to a cave near Luray Caverns, Virginia and had kept his films there  -- and they were in the best condition I ever experienced."
     -- Paul Spehr, Orphan Film Symposium Facebook group, Aug. 10, 2019.

As it happens, Luray Caverns is 40 miles from the bunkers that now house the LoC National Audio Visual Conservation Center's film vaults in Culpeper, Virginia.

Herford Tynes Cowling (1890-1980) was born (and died) in Virginia but traveled the world as a photographer, cinematographer, film director, producer -- and freemason!  The book 10,000 Freemasons (William R. Denslow, 1957) offers this bio: “Was chief photographer for U.S. Reclamation Service in 1906-1916 traveling extensively in U.S., Canada and Mexico. Headed cinematographic expedition to Formosa, Philippines, Indo-China, Siam, Tasmania, and South Sea islands, producing semi-educational [sic] movies in 1917. Was chief cinematographer for Paramount (Burton Holmes Travel Films). He has also been technical advisor for Eastman Kodak, official photographer of Century of Progress in Chicago, technical director for U.S. National Archives, Washington, chief of photographic services, Dept. of Labor. In 1922 was on expedition to East Africa, Uganda, Congo and The Sudan. Made movies in Tibet and was China war correspondent in 1924.”

 portrait of Herford Cowling ----  Image from Singapore Film Locations Archive,

At the 2001 Orphan Film Symposium, Buckey Grimm's talk "Early Preservation Initiatives" included further details. In 1932, the Society of Motion Picture Engineers' first Committee on the Preservation of Film included Cowling, Carl Louis Gregory, and Terry Ramsaye. In 1934, the new Motion Picture Division of the U.S. National Archives hired Cowling. "Cowling’s expertise was well documented," Grimm reported. "His career began in 1910 as chief photographer for the Interior Department. In 1916, he made a series of travelogues called See America First for Metro Pictures, then was Technical Director for Eastman Teaching Films. He was a recognized expert in storage and handling of nitrate film."

After World War II, Colonel Cowling remained in the U.S. Air Force, working at the film lab at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio -- the very location that became the Library of Congress Motion Picture Conservation Center in 1981.  The veteran filmmaker joined the Society of American Archivists in 1948. He was also a source for Hermine M. Baumhofer's essay "Motion Pictures Become Federal Records," in The American Archivist (January 1952). She recounts his work with the Interior Department. "Between 1912 and 1915 all areas set aside as national parks were photographed, the filming and editing being done by Mr. Cowling." His See America First series, he told her, were 52 one-reelers released by Metro and Gaumont, "the first Government film to be distributed in this manner" (20). Expect to read much more about this as film historian Jennifer Peterson publishes her latest research about films from the National Park Service.

What of the materials Cowling gave to the Library of Congress? Its online catalog has entries for books, films, and photographs credited to Cowling. Only four items are listed as part of a "Cowling (Herford Tynes) Collection." As Paul Spehr correctly recalls, these are gifts from Cowling dated ca. 1962, and associated with the 1933-34 Chicago fair, aka the Century of Progress International Exposition.
  • 1934: The World's Fair Black Forest / Burton Holmes Films (Kaufmann & Fabry Co., 1934)  16mm, 144 feet, ca. 4 mins.
  • 1934--Villages of the World's Fair, 16mm, 140 feet
  • A Century of Progress Exposition -- Indian village (Burton Holmes Films in assoc. with Herford T. Cowling, 1933) 16mm, 114 feet; 2 positive prints + duplicate negative.  
The fourth item stands apart: East Indian Island (Eastman Teaching Films, Inc., 1930?); Encyclopædia Britannica Films no. 1077 [ca. 1945]) 16mm, ca. 396 feet, silent b/w; + 35mm, ca. 990 feet, 2 reels, tinted, the latter an exchange copy from the George Eastman House.

However there are a couple dozen other films the LoC catalog says Cowling made and/or donated. Most are from the Century of Progress Expo, such as The World a Million Years Ago, The Fair at Night, Sally Rand [fan dancer], Faith Bacon the Fan Dancer of Hollywood, The Fair from the Air, and Around the Fair with Burton Holmes no. 1 and no. 2.

The Quarterly Journal of the Library of Congress (January 1964) mentioned only that Cowling donated a "small collection of films made in Africa, India, and Southeast Asia in the 1920's" (62).

Other pieces are incompletely catalogued portions of Cowling's nonfiction travelogue work. Several are described curiously as "book," 16mm, such as
* [Kashmir] [Motion picture] [n.p.] Herford Tynes Cowling, 1923.    
* An Indian Durbar [Motion picture] [n.p.] Burton Holmes Lectures, 1926, a silent 1,200 feet lecture version and  a later, shorter sound version. "Shows the coronation of 'Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir,' March 1926."

Both of those can be linked to fragments that survive elsewhere. Like other globetrotting camera operators of the era, Cowling shot footage that commercial newsreel services purchased. The University of South Carolina Moving Image Research Collections reference catalog lists Cowling as the camera operator for Fox newsreel footage described originally  as [Leopard] (three shots taken in 1923) and Coronation of the Maharajah of Kashmir (June 10, 1926). Portions of both were used in theatrical newsreel releases. In fact, the company hyped the footage in a puff piece by sales manager Fred C. Quimby: "Fox News Helps Educate the World," Exhibitors Herald, (September 11, 1926). Without naming Cowling, he boasted of his newsreel's international reach, saying "a special emissary just emerged from the Vale of the Cashmere, near the Afghan border, where he succeeded in making pictures showing the almost fabulous and barbaric beauty and wealth of the land of the Maharajah of that distant spot."  Cowling's images were widely seen even if he was not as well known as Burton Holmes.

A final note about the Library of Congress catalog's clues to Cowling's films, now orphaned or lost. The entry attributing Cowling as photographer is for 72 photographs on glass lantern slides from 1923. The assigned title is "[Tibet and Asian landscapes and people, includes mountain expeditions, travel on elephants, tiger hunting, Herford Tynes with dead tiger and posing with his camera]." These are described as unprocessed items in the Prints and Photographs Division, with the note: "Gift to MBRS [Motion Picture, Broadcasting, Recorded Sound]  from Col. Cowling. Photographs are probably associated with the filming of Burton Holmes' To the Roof of the World in Tibet. This catalog record contains preliminary data."

The note is curious in that Holmes filmographies do not include this title. The lone reference I have found is from International Photographer, April 1933.  A column authored by Herford Tynes Cowling, "Around the World," No. 1, features a page of his ten-year-old photos under the heading "To the Roof of the World in Tibet." Are some of these images also on the LoC lantern slides that have yet to be processed? Are these the only remnants of the companion motion picture? Was there a film by that title or was the footage only part of Holmes or Cowling travelogue lecture?

"This was the first moving picture expedition ever made into Tibet for the purpose of filming the people and customs of the country," Cowling claimed in 1933. He refers to "about one hundred thousand feet of film exposed which, incidentally, kept very well at the high, dry altitude" [in re: our subject of cold storage as film preservation]. "About four thousand still pictures were taken during the trip, all of which were developed en route." He adds "The people had never seen a motion picture and could only understand an ordinary photograph with considerable difficulty." 

Such a description of a Westerner’s first encounter with non-Westerners’ first encounter with movies resembles similar accounts of the period. Cowling had been doing such work since the 1910s, but this 1923 expedition came only a year after the release of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North. As Flaherty and Cowling acknowledged, the communities they photographed participated in the labor of processing the films as they were shot. Cowling describes hiring dozens of Tibetans who made possible his four-month trek through the mountains. Thus the contradiction in his account that Tibetans "could only understand an ordinary photograph with considerable difficulty,” even though teams in his employ helped process 100,000 feet of 35mm motion-picture film and 4,000 still photographs.

The LoC online catalog offers only one photograph.

Cowling photo of Tibetans

The title assigned to it is [Lama with headdress and Caucasian man seated in front of nine boys and men, Tibet].  The "Caucasian" man appears to be Cowling himself. So who took the photo? or is that a shutter release cable in his right hand?

More important, what happened to the 20 hours of footage he claims to have shot in Kashmir and Tibet? and is there a film called To the Roof of the World in Tibet that might survive under different titles or within later film compilations?
The best photographic evidence comes from both the International Photographer piece and the more contemporary account in American Cinematographer (February 1924), "Photographing the Roof of the World," by "Herford Tynes Cowling, A.S.C."  The first page of this is missing from the digitized copy I accessed and the images are of low resolution. But here is some of the photo-documentation of H. T. C. at work.

Cowling in Tibet, 1923

"I believe I have secured the only existing films of this nature."

Cowling at glacier

Pages harvested from 

Cowling Tiber

Cowling Tibet 1923

According to the Exhibitors Herald, the Tibetan expedition was made possible by Sir Hari Singh, who "later commissioned Cowling to officially photograph his coronation" in Kashmir -- "though it was to rest only in Sir Hari's private archives."  ("Fame of A.S.C. Spreads," Sep. 4, 1926.")