“I’m really moved by landscape–by the changing of the light as it comes into contact with earth and rocks,” says Victorina Z. Peterson, who shot ten experimental 16-millimeter films on the coast of Maine during the 1970s and early ’80s. “I wanted to find a vocabulary that matched that kind of energy.”
A painter before she became a filmmaker, she shot each frame separately, catching the shifting light in a particular place, sometimes turning the camera to capture images and patterns from different angles. Her jumpy, abstract silent films often return to different takes on the same image. “It took a long time to get five minutes of footage,” says Peterson. “I had to watch the light and the tide. I worked a lot in the evenings, when the light cast interesting shadows. I’d be there from late afternoon until it was dark. If anybody invited me to dinner, the stipulation was that I would come only if it rained.”
In those days she was part of New York City’s thriving experimental film community, which revolved around Jonas Mekas’s Film-Maker’s Cooperative. A founding editor of the Millennium Film Journal, Peterson, who then called herself Vicki Z., was a one-woman operation, shooting and editing and arranging regular screenings of her films. “I would finish a 100-foot roll–[three minutes] of footage,” she says. “Then I’d send it to the lab in New Jersey and wait at least two weeks for it to come back so I could look at it. Sometimes I’d have to wait a month…to finish a sequence I really liked. Sometimes I’d have to wait years.”
She stopped making films shortly after moving here in 1982. Her labor-intensive method was prohibitively expensive, and “Chicago wasn’t quite as active with experimental film, the way it is now,” she explains. “I felt a little isolated, and it became harder and harder to make a lot of trips to New York.” Instead she spent four years studying stage design at Northwestern–her husband taught in the medical school there, so her tuition was waived–but gave it up before she finished her MFA, choosing to study meditation and mysticism. “It was time for me to do something else that was important, in terms of the way I looked at my life,” she says. “But I always missed being an artist.”
She was on sabbatical with her husband in Washington, D.C., two years ago when she mentioned her films to a colleague’s son. Josh Goldberg was finishing up a PhD in media at NYU, knew digital editing, and wanted to see her work. “I didn’t even know where to start,” she recalls. “I hadn’t opened a can in over 15 years. It was sitting in my closet. I thought that part of my life was gone.”
He suggested she transfer her work from the fragile film stock to digital video and gave her the names of some New York labs that specialized in such work. She transferred her favorite film–1978’s Scrolls, a 22-minute examination of the horizon line that was still in good shape–with the help of a colorist, and Goldberg was impressed. “It was very encouraging to have somebody delight over what I did,” says Peterson. “I saw my work as though I was another person.”
She digitized three more films and some unedited footage from the 80s, but it wasn’t until Goldberg asked if he could project her work on the wall at a disco that she started to think about what she wanted–and didn’t want–to do with them. “Listen,” she remembers saying, “I’m not ready to be wallpaper yet.” She turned to Mekas, who now runs New York’s Anthology Film Archives, for advice about resurrecting her film career. He said, “Start here; I’ll give you a show.”
Encouraged, she bought a DV camera and began shooting footage in Maine, where she and her husband now have a summerhouse. Due to a last-minute equipment failure, Goldberg had to help her put the finishing touches on the two pieces that resulted from the trip the night before the AFA screening. “It’s a lot easier,” she says of the new technology. “But I don’t make the same films I used to. It isn’t really possible to do one frame at a time. But I still use the landscape….Because I’m still discovering the camera and the process, some of this is an exploration of the medium at the same time–almost like it was when I first started.”
She’ll show Scrolls and 1975’s Rainbow Bridge as well as her two latest DV works, Transforming Obsidian (Part I) and Sea Changes…An Evolving Series, on Friday, January 31, at 8 as part of a program called “The Nature of Things: New and Old Work by Vicki Z. Peterson.” The screening, sponsored by Chicago Filmmakers, takes place at Columbia College’s Ferguson Theater, 600 S. Michigan, and tickets are $7; call 773-293-1447.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.