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This cellulose nitrate film has decayed beyond salvation. Photo by wikimedia user Hansmuller and used under CC BY-SA 4.0.

Lost media: a look at art lost to time and space

When mediaareplural.ca went offline back in 2018, a year after I had stopped updating it, all the content (sort of) disappeared. It had been indexed on the Wayback Machine though, so you could go there to reread anything I had written. Nothing is ever truly deleted from the internet, after all, so it wasn’t a case of lost media. But all the links to the old site were dead.

The content also existed offline on my computer, because that’s where I had written it all. That is, with one exception.

For some reason, I wrote a first-person account about drinking IPAs entirely on my website’s backend. (I acknowledge it was a bit of a stretch to put that story on a media blog but ignore that for now.) It’s a well-known best practice of web content creation to write articles in a separate program so you have a backup. I follow this rule nine times out of 10. Yet, on one of my biggest projects, one of my most popular articles, I elected to totally ignore this advice for reasons that are unclear to me three years later. Blame it on the beer, I guess.

The Wayback Machine and other caches are a unique feature of the internet, one for which a lot of old-fashioned terrestrial media doesn’t have an analogue. They back up all sorts of online content and serve as a great historical tool. But for media that existed before the internet, it was not impossible – nor even uncommon – for works to go missing, lost in time and space forever.

Library of Alexandria

The Library of Alexandria is the first thing I thought of when I decided to write about lost media. But what I didn’t realize is that its demise is disputed. Various accounts point blame at Julius Caesar in 48 BCE, Emperor Theodosius I in 391 CE and Amr ibn al-As in 640 CE. “Alexandria was often a volatile city,” as the article I’ve linked to from ancient.eu puts it. Though, Britannica suggests growing agreement among scholars that accounts that blame Caesar and Theodosius are accurate while those blaming Amr are fabricated.

Regardless of who did it, the amount of writing that was lost is immense. There are scholars whose names we know from surviving works that mention them but whose work did not make it. Such was life before movable-type printing and photocopying. To copy or reproduce a work, you had to literally rewrite the whole thing by hand. It’s annoying enough to repost one of my old articles, and that’s mainly just copying and pasting. We’ll never know the extent of what was in that library, and it’s just one example of many such ancient libraries whose work was lost.

Meanderings of Memory by Nightlark

Even after printing presses became commonplace, literary works sometimes got lost. Much of what I found online had to do with destroyed or stolen drafts. But what about actual published, distributed work that has gone missing? The 1852 book Meanderings of Memory by Nightlark seems to fit the bill.

The first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary cites Meanderings of Memory as a first or early source on more than 50 words. And yet, no one knows where a copy of the book might be. The OED has appealed to the public for help locating the book, but nothing has turned up yet. It’s not clear what exactly the book is, though the OED’s principal bibliographer Veronica Hurst said in a 2013 Guardian article she figures it’s a small piece of work and possibly poetry. Perhaps even pornography.

One thing that seems certain is that this work isn’t a 19th-century hoax. After the OED’s appeal, while no one has come forward with a copy, someone did find a Sotheby’s catalogue from 1854 that listed a copy for sale, suggesting the book did in fact exist.

Duchamp’s Fountain

Duchamp's Fountain
Duchamp’s Fountain has to be among the most well-known examples of lost media.

Man takes urinal, flips it around, writes something on it and, boom, most influential work of the 20th century. And yet somehow no one kept it? Yes, Marcel Duchamp’s famous found-art masterpiece, Fountain, is lost.

What’s interesting about this work is that, in a very modern way, it does still exist. It’s been reproduced in photographs (including here), reproduced as replicas and written about by thousands of people. You’ve probably seen this artwork before, and you’ll probably see it again at some point in your life. You probably have a very strong opinion about it. And yet, few people alive have actually seen it.

Photography enables us to reproduce visual media as easily as the printing press allowed us to reproduce works of literature. It’s remarkable how many lost works we can still see whenever we want. Just look at all the pictures on the Lost Artworks page on Wikipedia. If the original versions never turn up, the world can at least enjoy these reproduced versions.

So much film it’s pathetic

Pre-digitization photography and film, however, is also susceptible to destruction. And indeed, many films have been lost to time. The Film Foundation estimates that 90 percent of silent films and 50 percent of all movies from before 1950 have been lost. The Library of Congress isn’t much more hopeful in its view that less than 20 percent of American silent films survive, and it agrees only half shot before 1950 survive.

Part of the problem is film’s inherent tendency to degrade. Cellulose nitrate film, along with cellulose acetate film, are chemically unstable and break down. The former is extremely flammable, while the latter just starts to get brittle and smell like vinegar. In either case, once the breakdown occurs, even if it doesn’t result in the film literally bursting into flames, your footage will be lost.

Good old-fashioned greed plays a big part in the loss of old films too. Once a studio felt it could no longer extract any more commercial value from a film, the studio discarded it. This accelerated rapidly when films with sound became dominant in the 1930s. Sometimes, old cellulose nitrate films, which were made with silver, were even melted down to remove and reuse the silver content.

The news isn’t all bad for old movies, though. All the links above come from organizations actively trying to preserve film history in the United States. In the U.K., the British Film Institute created a list of the 75 lost films it most wants to find. And several of them have been found. The Toronto International Film Festival in Canada also has a restoration project, which has restored 7,470 feet of film.

Now it’s time for me to get lost

These four examples by no means encapsulate the scope of the media that once existed but is now lost. Don’t be surprised if you see a few articles from me in the future that expand on these themes. Lost media is a fascinating topic, and one I’ve long been interested in. If you know of some lost media with interesting stories that I didn’t cover here, get in touch either on Twitter or by email at editor@mediaareplural.ca.

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