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Papermaking Through Time: The Films of Elaine and Sidney Koretsky

Summer 2021
Summer 2021
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As a kinetic practice, papermaking is best documented and viewed in moving pictures. I was first introduced to Elaine and Sidney Koretsky’s documentaries in 2016 when I was a student at the University of Iowa Center for the Book. I was immediately drawn into their world of field research, a refreshing break from the sometimes painstakingly dense accounts attempting to capture the history and technique of papermaking in written form. Revisiting the Koretskys’ films for this article was a complete delight.

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Asa kinetic practice, papermaking is best documented and viewed in moving pictures. I was first introduced to Elaine and Sidney Koretsky’s documentaries in 2016 when I was a student at the University of Iowa Center for the Book. I was immediately drawn into their world of field research, a refreshing break from the sometimes painstakingly dense accounts attempting to capture the history and technique of papermaking in written form. Revisiting the Koretskys’ films for this article was a complete delight. Each viewing brought something new to my attention, something I missed, or perhaps an important detail that was only revealed by Elaine’s witty commentary or through the observant lens ofSidney’s filming. Their comprehensive body of work is an invaluable part of the documentation of papermaking history. You, the viewer become part of their journey, observing alongside them, encountering new tools and techniques justas they are making the discoveries themselves. Their non-pretentious presentation of information feels sincere. They evidently established close connections with their interview subjects, perhaps over multiple visits, and through their films present an honest portrayal without being patronizing. Since their two-month honeymoon to Europe in 1953, Elaine and Sidney would annually explore a new corner of the world. Before Elaine got involved in papermaking, she worked as a woodworker and furniture designer. In1974, hoping to make use of all the sawdust produced from her woodworking,Elaine’s venture into handmade paper began. After being completely engulfed in the process, Carriage House Handmade PaperWorks was established in 1975. One year later, in 1976, Elaine and Sidney embarked on their first research trip investigating handmade paper in Japan with the help of Asao Shimura as a guide and translator. From then on papermaking was the main focus of their travels, documenting the craft in the far corners of the world and bringing home tools and materials along with important documentation of what they had seen.1 Their first documentary film about papermaking was created in 1993 after a journey along the Silk Road starting in Xian, crossing part of the Great Gobi Desert, the width of the Taklamakan Desert, finally arriving in Hotan where they were able to observe and document traditional papermaking in the region. LastPapermakers on the Silk Road gives us a valuable insight into the process in an area that was once an important meeting point for traders of East Asia andCentral Asia. The region might have played a pivotal role in the transmission of the craft on its long journey towards Europe. Prompted by the realization that papermaking might die out in the many remote areas they visited, Elaine and Sidney made a total of sixteen documentaries about the craft with recorded material spanning from 1976 to 2013. Each film is produced in their distinct style, where Elaine narrates the story while Sidney operates the camera. Their subjects are often just observed instead of being compelled to play-act. There is no professional lighting or directional microphones in use. Elaine andSidney’s filmmaking resembles the taking of an oral history, letting the subjects and their actions tell us their stories. Sidney’s camera captures everyday details and minute nuances, giving us an intimate view and allowing surprises to occur, all resulting in a genuine portrait, albeit a less polished story. One could perhaps argue that a professionally staffed production team could produce a more accurate, scholarly documentary. Yet the Koretskys’ films convey a very precise representation of their subjects. Their footage, coupled with the equipment and paper samples collected onsite, create a rich and full portrait of the papermakers and their production. Furthermore, I would argue that their observational filmmaking as a medium for documenting a craft like papermaking results in amore objective form of documentation than a written text. The documentaries made by Elaine and Sidney capture a great scope of detail that can be interpreted differently by each viewer, and, as it has been for me, can be interpreted differently and with more depth with multiple viewings. But this is not to say that there is a lack of a point of view. Sidney is very present in each shot and serves as an active onlooker as well as a passive bystander. There is a memorable moment in Traditional Hand Papermaking in Laos (1995) in which Sidney is standing in place while his camera follows the papermaker off to the distance.It gives the viewer a familiar feeling of getting lost in thought while observing.A wide shot like this provides the opportunity to study all the details, even those that might not even be part of the camera’s focal point. Sidney andElaine maintain a respectful approach, which allows us a peek into remarkable processes and methods that we might only have read about. You get the impression, asElaine fills in the gaps with her narration, that we are part of something very special indeed, something that we would not otherwise have the opportunity to see or experience. Sheet Formation Around the World 1976–2002 gives a completely unique insight into the various techniques and nuances of different methods of sheet formation. It is a remarkable document—a video compiled of clips recorded by Elaine and Sidney during their travels from 1976 through 2002. Since they consciously captured the papermaking process in a similar fashion at each location, and edited the clips side by side, it is possible to observe and study the different techniques comparatively. In Evolution of Papermaking through theCenturies (2004) we see all the various styles and techniques broken down into the different steps so one can compare, contrast, and learn what makes each one special or similar. They demonstrate how the moulds are built and used, explain how the different types of raw materials are processed, and show us how the pulps are distributed onto the mould by various methods. It is striking how similar most styles of papermaking are, yet at the same time, there are very different techniques that have developed and spread all around the globe. With several viewings of their films, I made numerous insightful connections between the various styles of papermaking just within Asia. The connections of course were there the entire time, but it took multiple viewings for me to see them. Documented in film by the eye of a practicing papermaker makes all the difference. The steps are often shown several times so one can see a succession of similar movements.We are able to gain a deeper understanding of the production setting and begin to comprehend the scale, energy, and effort taken by each individual. At the end of Evolution of Papermaking through the Centuries, Elaine speaks directly to the viewer and openly asks what the future of hand papermaking holds, and if there needs to be a new definition of hand papermaking. Perhaps Elaine’s questions are an invitation for viewers to open their eyes to the cultural and historical value papermaking holds, and to inspire researchers and craftspeople to continue to document the craft. It also brings me back to the start of their journey into papermaking. I imagine that these questions could have been part of their inspiration to start their research. Techniques and technologies are changing in the field of hand papermaking. Recorded over several years, these documentaries serve as a strong and accessible baseline for further research. Their research methodologies are often portrayed in their films, like in Traditional Hand Papermaking in Laos, where they lay out the chronology of their discoveries:first locating and interviewing a seller of paper in a market, then tracing the paper back to its source; all word of mouth and dependent on the knowledge or memory of those around them at the time. Their approach reminds me of my own research in Central Asia, where a chance encounter in one city led me across the border of Uzbekistan into Tajikistan in search of an old paper mill. It is hard not to mention Dard Hunter in the context of the Koretskys. Like them, a half century earlier, Hunter did extensive field research to document hand papermaking. Unlike the scholarly writing of his time, Hunter’s accounts were straightforward and personal. In this regard the Koretskys and Hunter had a similar approach. In A Tribute to Dard Hunter (2006), the Koretskys revisit a number of places visited by Hunter in the 1920s. This film gives an insight into the changing world of hand papermaking from Hunter’s time to today’s age. Much of the Koretskys’ research was pre-internet. Now even though it is significantly easier to find our way in the world with mapping apps and GPS, our connection with other people, and local connection with craft is seriously displaced. We now rely on memories of a grandfather or village elder who may have seen a craft in practice, but do not have the experiential knowledge of having done it themselves.When a particular craft tradition disappears, we are left to piece together the story by reading written accounts like those in Dard Hunter’s books, by talking to people who remember, by studying artifacts used in the tradition, and by absorbing the visual information presented in the Koretskys’ videos. We are so fortunate that the Koretskys decided to immortalize their memories into film for us to carry forth these treasures into the future. filmography Pith Paper (known as “Rice Paper”), Taiwan (1987) The Last Papermakers Along the Silk Road (1993)Bamboo Papermaking in Sichuan Province, China (1993) Traditional Hand Papermaking in Laos (1995) Burmese Festival of Paper Fire-Balloons (1995) Origin of Paper in China, IPH China Expedition (1999) Traditional Papermaking inVietnam, 1987 & 2000 (2000) Sheet Formation Around the World 1976–2002(2002) Himalayan Papermaking 1978–2003 (2003) Evolution of Papermaking Through the Centuries (2004) Papermaking on the Roof of the World, 1987–2004 (2005) A Linguistic Analysis of the Chinese Role in Papermaking (2005) A Tribute to Dard Hunter (2006) Making Very Large Sheets of Paper in China (2007) A Garden of Papermaking Plants (2008) Final Papermakers of the Royal Family of Thailand(2013) All films are available for viewing on YouTube, courtesy of Donna Koretsky. Use the search term “International Paper Museum.” ___________


notes1.Donna Koretsky, e-mail message to the author, December 12, 2020. For more, see DonnaKoretsky, Winifred Lutz, Tin Tin Nyo, & Wu Zeng Ou, “Elaine Koretsky: In Memoriam,”Hand Papermaking vol. 34, no. 2 (Winter 2019): 33–36.


On the way toThimphu, Bhutan, at Dochula Pass, over 10,000

feet, December 20,1982. From left to right: the jeep driver, Elaine

Koretsky, Sidney Koretsky, and the cook. Travel footage appears in

the Koretskys’ filmHimalayan Papermaking 1978–2003 (2003). All

photos courtesy of Donna Koretsky unless otherwise noted.


Elaine Koretsky with papermaker in Nobding, Bhutan, December 20, 1982. Papermaking

footage appears in the Koretskys’ film Himalayan Papermaking 1978–2003 (2003).


Sidney Korestsky photographing paper drying inside of moulds, Xishuangbanna,



Elaine Koretsky on her fourth visit to a papermaking area in Heqing county, Yunnan

province,China, 2007.


Elaine Koretsky inspecting moulds with paper drying in them, Hotan, Xinjiang

Autonomous Region,1993. This photo appears in Killing Green (The Legacy Press,

2009).Courtesy of The Legacy Press, Ann Arbor.


Elaine Koretsky examining bundles of bamboo stacked to dry after

being retted for many months, Guang Rong village, Guangzhou city,

Guangdong province,China, 1999. This photo appears in Killing Green

(TheLegacy Press, 2009). Courtesy of The Legacy Press, Ann Arbor.


Elaine, Sidney, and their guide Wu, pausing at an altitude of 6,168

meters, en route to Dege, in far northwestern Sichuan province,



Elaine Koretsky with papermakers in Rumtek, Sikkim, India, December 12, 1982; this

footage is included in the Koretskys’ film Himalayan Papermaking 1978–2003 (2003).