My British great-aunt, Nita Harvey, was selected by Cecil B. DeMille in a worldwide Paramount beauty contest, shipped over and signed to Hollywood’s Paramount Studios for a three-film contract in 1933. As Harvey’s descendant, I inherited her physical archive in 2007, after it had been stored in my aunt’s garage since 1987, upon Harvey’s death. The archive exists in my sole, private ownership and is housed physically in my London studio.
Drawing directly from the Nita Harvey archive (London,1928-38), using feminist film and photographic theory together with wider theories including cultural, memory, oral history, trauma, reparative aesthetics, archival studies and specifically studies of early Hollywood Cinema to underpin my approach, I will excavate Harvey’s history. I will argue the case for embedding it posthumously as an unpublished narrative to the body of her existing archive, aligning Harvey’s voice to her archive in such a way as to establish new significant evidence of marginalised women’s history and experience in 1930’s Hollywood.
I am using a ten-year period in the archive (1928-1938), to create a counter-hegemonic discourse that punctures 1930’s Hollywood mythology by excavating Harvey’s oral narrative, aligning it to her archival evidence and hidden history, and reframing our understanding of then and now.
Significantly, my introduction to Harvey’s archive came in the form of familial visits with my mother, to Harvey’s home in London (1979-1987). During these visits, Harvey would draw out black and white photographs of herself pictured in 1930s Hollywood, either on set or in publicity shots. Harvey would accompany these images with disquieting narratives of casting couch culture, so that her repeated oral history became embedded as part of my viewing of the photographs. Martha Langford’s writings, introduces the idea of photography as a non-exclusively visual medium, that can be animated and spoken through performed or narrated oral histories. Langford offers a new way of understanding the mnemonic role of photography and memory when performed as an oral history. The combination of memory and performance of the photographic album embeds new symbolic meaning to the viewing of the collective photographs. Since Harvey attached stories to her Hollywood photographs, performing the photographs to me as a child, she offered me this experience, with her unhappy Hollywood tales, and in doing so shifted my fundamental viewing of the images she held in front of me, to an encoded, darker place. The photographs became inscribed with embedded signs of Harvey’s trauma, objectification and lived experience.
Using innovative archival practice approach in order to embody Harvey’s feminine experience as a woman in Hollywood through the archive, I have visited four main sites that Harvey stayed in Hollywood. Collaborating with an atelier, who created two key outfits, using the archival photographs to pattern-cut: 1. The Hollywood Casting Bikini (Figures 1– 5), 2. The Wool Suit (figures 6–10), 3. The Knitting Pattern. When photographing the four key Hollywood location sites (Paramount Studios/ The Roosevelt Hotel, Los Angeles Grand Union Station/ The Hollywood Sign), I am performing the archive through her outfits, embodying Harvey’s experience and inhabiting the archive through my new take on Harvey’s narrative. Wearing elements of the archive through a fashion historical lens is relevant for the empathic and reparative aspect of this research. And essential to the permanent disturbance of the Hollywood ephemera and its mythology, by fixing Harvey’s oral narrative through my creative re-use of the archive.
Martha Langford, Speaking the Album: An Application of the Oral-Photographic Framework.