Robert & Frances Flaherty Study Center

Welcome to the Robert and Frances Flaherty Study Center!

The Study Center was established to support research and teaching related to the new art of the moving image, both film and video, seen in the context of other art media, with its focus on the pioneering contributions of Robert and Frances Flaherty. Their work has been of continuing interest to those engaged in media studies for a variety of reasons:

  • The Flahertys were among the first filmmakers to explore in-depth the special resources which the moving image can bring to the recording and interpretation of everyday life, in contrast to its dominant use as an extension of theater forms.
  • Their primary interest was the depiction of diverse ways in which human societies relate to their environments, and they often explored these relationships in contexts of cross-cultural communication.
  • And they thought that a defining factor in these relationships was human creativity and imagination, and sought to show how the non-fiction film could become a powerful tool for imagination to use in addressing key issues in the contemporary world.

The Center has served the larger scholarly and artistic communities through such activities as the production of visual indices to the Flaherty photographs, of study versions of extensive outtake and exploratory footage from MAN OF ARAN and LOUISIANA STORY, and of study copies of audio recordings in the Flaherty collection. The Center also makes original materials available to other institutions for the purposes of study or exhibition.

Among the institutions with which the Center has cooperated are the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences; Brattleboro Art Museum; Directors Guild of America; Indian and Northern Affairs, Government of Canada; International Center of Photography; International Documentary Association; Los Angeles International Film Exposition; National Film Board of Canada; Vancouver Art Gallery. Ministere de la Culture et de la Francophonie and Ministere de l'Education Nationale, France; Metropolitan Museum of Art; National Archives of Canada; Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University; Southeast Museum of Photography; Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum of Ethnography, Koeln; and Office of Archives, American Samoan Government.

The Center has also contributed to the publication of a wide range of scholarly and popular materials. Typical works include Cecile Starr, Discovering the Movies; Jo-Anne Birnie Danzker, Robert Flaherty/ Photographer/Filmmaker; and George Stoney, How the Myth Was Made, an hour-long film for PBS on social and cultural aspects of the making of Man of Aran.

The Flaherty collection is divided into four groupings: photographs, motion picture film, audio recordings, and print materials. Some highlights of the collection are described below.

Still Photographs

During the more than 35 years during which the Flahertys made films, they also produced a considerable number of still photographs. As might be expected, a number of these were made for publicity purposes, and some were perhaps taken for their own sake; Alison Nordstrom, who has investigated the circumstances surrounding Frances Flaherty's photography in Samoa, has shown that the Flahertys were familiar with leading art photography of the time and may have been influenced by it.

But the larger number of photographs were generated for a different purpose. The style of filmmaking which the Flahertys evolved made relatively little use of traditional scripts; Frances Flaherty described it rather as exploratory, with the structure of the film slowly emerging out of the screening of considerable amounts of footage taken without any strong sense of how it might function in the finished film, a process which editors John Goldman and Helen van Dongen Durant have described in detail.

Especially in the case of the earlier films, and perhaps because of economic considerations, a good deal of this exploration was done with a still camera, and many of the photos in the collection represent efforts to determine how the lens would transform a potential subject into an image.

The present ordering of images in the collection is mostly topical, although many of these images were at one time apparently also organized into rough sequences, rather like the storyboard in classic animation. Except as noted, this ordering was largely done in the 1960s by Frances Flaherty and by Robert Flaherty's brother David, who also worked on several of the films.

The photographs related to the Canadian explorations and to the production of NANOOK OF THE NORTH are grouped into five subsections: Canadian studies; geological studies; photographs made during trips on the schooner "The Laddie"; photographs directly related to NANOOK; and miscellaneous northern subjects.

Other photographs are assembled into groupings according to the film or project to which they are related; these include MOANA, the Acoma project, MAN OF ARAN, THE LAND, and LOUISIANA STORY. There is also a small collection of photographs of the Flahertys and their collaborators, to which the Center holds subject but not necessarily other rights. The Flahertys not only made photographs but collected them as well, and scholars have over the years assisted the Center to clarify authorship in uncertain cases.

Motion Picture Footage

The Center holds study copies of the major Flaherty films and of THE LOUISIANA STORY STUDY FILM and HIDDEN AND SEEKING, but has also preserved and prepared study versions of a considerable amount of motion picture footage not available elsewhere:

A compilation of miscellaneous material has been made, which includes some early home movies and a very brief clip which may be related to the preparation of a proposed film about the Acoma pueblo.

It was believed that after the completion of MAN OF ARAN, Robert Flaherty destroyed all outtake materials, but several reels had in fact found their way to the National Library of Ireland, where with the help of its deputy director Alf Mac Lochlainn it was made available to the Study Center, which has preserved and organized it into a study film.

These outtakes include screen tests of some of the characters, visual exploration of the sea and cliffs, material from the garden-building and other sequences, and a rough cut of a deleted sequence showing Mikeleen riding a donkey into the village carrying fish he has caught. In view of the rather Eisensteinian rhythms which John Goldman contributed to the film, the uncut outtakes are of considerable interest in that they preserve the original rhythms of Flaherty's camerawork.

Approximately ten minutes of exploratory footage shot in 16mm Kodachrome for THE LAND also survive, comprising primarily aerial shots of contour plowing similar to those in the finished film.

Sixteen-millimeter color film was also used in preparation for the films commissioned by Standard Oil, and more than an hour of this survives. Much of it is given over to extensive studies of refineries; other footage begins to explore the special qualities of the bayou country, of its water and plant life and homes, and a short section introduces some small boys at play. This color footage has also been organized into a study film.

Audio Recordings

The Center holds in excess of 200 audio recordings made by the Flahertys, their coworkers, and participants in early Flaherty Seminars. These have been catalogued, and study copies of them are available at the Center.

Print Materials & Documents

The Flaherty collection of written and printed materials has been placed on deposit by International Film Seminars at Butler Library, Columbia University, New York City, which also holds parallel collections deposited by others who worked with the Flahertys. These materials have been organized into broad categories and microfilmed. Requests for permission to view these documents may be directed to Butler Library.

A small collection of printed materials is also available at the Center.

The Center is open by appointment from mid-September to mid-May; it may be reached by mail at 1325 North College Avenue, Claremont CA 91711; by phone at 909-447-2531; by fax at 909-626-7062; or by e-mail at