Carl Louis Gregory, Founder of Film Preservation at NARA

Before the National Archives held more than half a million reels of film, nearly 200,000 videos, and over 300,000 sound recordings originating from dozens of government agencies (and decades before the existence of the National Archives) Carl Louis Gregory was a motion picture cameraman dedicated to the evolution of the field.

Staff identification card for Carl Louis Gregory, 1941-1942. (NAID: 12091208)

Carl Gregory is not a very well known figure, even in film preservationist circles.[1] Most of the founding generation of film archivists in the United States and abroad were associated with institutions like the Museum of Modern Art, George Eastman House, or the Cinemathèque Française, that collected “cinema.” These early preservation warriors fought to gather film collections for the sake of preserving art, and their names are rightfully synonymous with film preservation, but they are not the whole story.[2] Gregory came to film preservation from a different path, starting first as a still photographer (including work for the Bureau of Reclamation and United States Geological Survey), then as a motion picture cameraman at Edison Studios and the Thanhouser Company.

At Thanhouser, Gregory was known as a skilled cameraman and director, and was promoted by the studio as “one of the youngest and best camera men in the business,” and a “wizard of trick picture making.” We are fortunate to hold an example of one of the films Gregory made for Thanhouser in the records of the Bureau of Mines. Although it was not made by the United States government, it was used by that agency as an industrial safety film. The film, An American in the Making, was made for the United States Steel Corporation, and shows the journey of an immigrant from Eastern Europe to a steel mill in Gary, Indiana. The film was included in the National Film Preservation Foundation collection “Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film” (Their page on the selection includes much more context for the film and a piano score.)

When the United States film business moved from the East Coast to Hollywood and established itself as a major industry in the mid-1910s, Gregory turned his attention to furthering the technical aspects of cinematography through standardization and education. He was one of the founding members of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers (SMPE), the organization that established standards for everything from the shape, size, and placement of the perforations in 35mm film in 1916, to the specifications for common video file formats being adopted today. Gregory’s first address to the organization argued for the need to standardize motion picture cameras, including the positioning of frame lines in 35mm film, among other aspects, a move which he said would prevent the waste of time and money. He was also an active member of the Cinema Camera Club, a precursor organization to the American Society of Cinematographers.

In 1917, when the United States entered the First World War, Carl Gregory joined up to become Chief Instructor at the Signal Corps School of Photography at Columbia University. As Lieutenant Gregory, he created and taught the courses that would lead to the competent filming of much of the World War I footage in our holdings. So far, Gregory has been identified in three of the photographs digitized as part of our World War I project, although he may be present in more.

Signal Corps School of Photography at Columbia University, 1918. Local Identifier: 165-WW-103D-15 (NAID: 26425759)

After the war, Gregory stayed on as a film instructor for a short-lived program at Columbia University, and published the first version of a text book on motion picture photography. He spent a couple of years traveling in Asia and shooting footage for educational films. Gregory returned Stateside to become Dean of the New York Institute of Photography. The revised version of his cinematography textbook, Motion Picture Photography, was published in 1927 and is available online. The volume includes a mix of instructional material, historical information, and personal stories.

In the early 1930s, Carl Gregory’s work with SMPE turned to documenting and collecting the history of motion picture technology. As chair of the Historical Committee, he reported on plans to collect “relics, films, and documents of importance concerned with the early history of the industry,” and find an appropriate institution to house them. He also communicated an urgency to record the stories of the earliest of the film pioneers while they were still alive.

In 1932, as the United States government began planning the National Archives building, architects working for the Department of Treasury consulted SMPE on the requirements for film storage. In response, SMPE formed the Committee on the Preservation of Film, gathering data and making recommendations for the new space. The group visited several agency film vaults to assess their conditions. Carl Gregory was one of nine film experts on the committee. For anyone with an interest in film preservation, the full report is well worth reading. It suggests a storage orientation (flat, never vertical), an ideal location (underground) and environmental conditions that would best prolong the life of the films soon to be in the care of the National Archives. Further, the committee recommended that the National Archives “arrange the handling of the film [so] that it will be disturbed as little as possible,” with duplicate copies produced and stored in a separate location and 16mm reduction prints made for access. Most of the practices in the group’s recommendations were adopted by the National Archives. Guidelines have evolved over the past 80 years, but we still aim to keep film cool and dry and severely limit the handling of originals, practices that have protected the films we are entrusted to preserve.   

Having Gregory on board before there was a film collection may have been the single most important thing that the National Archives did in those first days of establishing the country’s historical film collection. In the history of the National Archives, Carl Louis Gregory is overshadowed by John G. Bradley, chief of the Motion Picture and Sound Recordings Department, but Gregory was the expert, and without him it seems unlikely that we would have established standards for storage and care of archival film so soon after the institution was formed. We’ll share more about Gregory’s work at the National Archives in a future installment, but if you’re curious, you can explore these records we have tagged in the Catalog.

Many, many thanks to Buckey Grimm, who spoke with us about his research in the summer of 2020 and continues to be generous in sharing his work and answering our questions. All contemporary published sources were found via Lantern, the search platform for the Media History Digital Library.

[1] In fact, the entirety of published work on Gregory exists in a single article by independent scholar Charles “Buckey” Grimm, who wrote “Carl Louis Gregory: Life through a Lens” for the journal Film History in 2001 and a blog post internal to NARA written by archivist Alan Walker. The basic biographical details and research leads in this post were from Buckey’s work and conversations we have had with him about his decades of research.

[2] Much, much more of the history of film archives in the United States and the founding of the International Federation of Film Archives in 1938, can be found in the book Saving Cinema: The Politics of Preservation, by Caroline Frick.