UCB Libraries

Stan Brakhage (photographer unknown)

Featured Collections:
         Stan Brakhage Papers

Stan Brakhage was one of the leading figures in American experimental cinema. During a career that began in the early 1950s and continued until his death in March 2003, Brakhage made about 400 films. He also wrote about film and taught extensively. Brakhage avoided working in a photographic medium most commonly defined by storytelling and reproduction of real-world objects and events. Instead, he made films with no narrative, often representational, and at times dispensed with photography altogether. The majority of his films also were made without sound, which he believed would diminish the intensity of the visual experience.


Brakhage was an admirer of Ezra Pound and a close associate and frequent correspondent with such poets as Kenneth Rexroth, Robert Creeley, and Robert Duncan. Brakhage films were metaphorical and abstract in nature; he liked to think of them as a “kind of poetry written with light”. The Princeton University film historian, P. Adams Sitney, characterized Brakhage as a “painter or poet in cinema,” not a “novelist like everybody else”. Sitney predicted that in “the entire history of the medium, when all the pop-culture interests have faded, a hundred years from now, he will be considered the preeminent artist of the 20th century. ”


Brakhage’s work was notable for its variety and inventiveness. As A.O. Scott of the New York Times described it, “some of his films last only a few seconds, while others are epic in scope and duration; they include meditations on sexuality and domestic life, as well as wholly abstract compositions made by scratching, dyeing and otherwise altering the celluloid itself”. In “Anticipation of the Night” (1958), Brakhage at one point considered finishing a scene with his own suicide, an idea that cast him in the center of the underground film world. In “window Water Baby Moving” (1959), he documented the birth of one of his children long before video-recorders became common place in delivery rooms. In “Mothlight” (1963), he placed leaves, petals, and insect parts between strips of perforated tape, transferring their images to film. In “Text of Light” (1974), he explored the shadings and refractions of light filtered through a glass ashtray.


For all of their difference of mood, style, and method, Brakhage’s films were the expression of a singular vision, which he articulated in numerous lectures and essays. “Imagine an eye unruled by man-made laws of perspective,” he wrote in 1963, “an eye unprejudiced by compositional logic, an eye which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception”. The notion that the very physical act of seeing could be separated or liberated from the physical nature of the object itself, or even from our preconceptions about them, largely comprised the philosophy behind much of Brakhage’s work.


Born in a Kansas, Missouri orphanage on January 14, 1933, Brakhage was adopted two weeks later by Ludwig and Clara Brakhage, who named him James Stanley. Growing up, he performed on radio as a boy soprano and attended high school in Denver. He left Dartmouth after two months, and made his first film, “Interim” shortly afterward in 1952. His early influences were Jean Cocteau and the Italian neo-realists before gravitating to the avant-garde scene after arriving in New York in 1954. Amidst the flourishing New York avant-garde world, he drew particular inspiration from such artists and film makers as Maya Deren, Marie Menken, as well as Joseph Cornell, with whom he occasionally collaborated. Jonas Mekas, film maker and director of the Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan, noted that before Brakhage, “the avant-garde was very much in the classical French/German tradition, and here comes this guy in his 20s from Colorado with this electric personal style, very open and free, and that was the beginning of the American avant-garde”. Mekas compared Brakhage to abstract expressionist painters like Willem de Kooning, especially with his painted films like “Dante Quartet,” as though he “had been able to transform the implicit velocity of action painting into actual, literal movement. ”


The Brakhage papers include a broad variety of material, including voluminous personal and business correspondence with leading artists in the avant-garde world, manuscripts, papers related to his film making, film, audio tapes, and a wide assortment of other materials.


*See A.O. Scott, “Stan Brakhage, Avant-Garde Filmmaker, Dies at 70, New York Times, March 12, 2003.


See also: The Stan Brakhage Collection

See also: Stan Brakhage (Film Studies)

See also: Stan Brakhage Materials