October 6, 2014
Henry S. Breitrose, founder of Stanford's world-renowned documentary film program, dead at 78
Colleagues described Breitrose, who taught the history of film and film aesthetics at Stanford for more than five decades, as a man "absolutely in love" with film.
By Kathleen J. Sullivan
Henry Breitrose is remembered as a superb teacher who was "absolutely in love" with film. (Photo: Chuck Painter)
Henry S. Breitrose, the founder and "lodestar" of Stanford's world-renowned graduate program in documentary filmmaking, died Oct. 2 at his campus home. He was 78.
Breitrose taught courses on the history of film and film aesthetics. His most recent research focused on the intellectual history of the documentary idea.
The department has established a web page to share memories of Breitrose, who became a professor emeritus of communication in 2005 and remained active on campus after his retirement.
Born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, Breitrose graduated from Stuyvesant High School.
He was introduced to the world of filmmaking during his undergraduate years at the University of Wisconsin, where he earned a bachelor's degree in English and history in 1958. To help support his studies, Breitrose took a job as a grip, carrying the lights, cameras and tripods for the university's audio-visual unit from one location to another.
Breitrose earned a master's degree in film in 1959 at Northwestern University. Soon after, he accepted an appointment to teach Film for Television at Stanford, where he served as an instructor in the Department of Communication from 1959 to 1965. He simultaneously earned a doctorate in communication research at Stanford and joined the faculty in 1966.
Alan Rosenthal, an award-winning documentary filmmaker and a 1962 graduate of Stanford's program, described Breitrose as a "superb teacher" and as "the brightest spark" in the department.
"Henry was funny, learned, witty and inspiring," Rosenthal said. "He pointed me toward the path of documentary, with the idea it could change the world. He became a source of wisdom and support for me for the rest of my life. He found me my first job at San Francisco State University. He was always there with letters of support. And he was always a fountain of good sense for me when I faced serious life choices."
Donald F. Roberts, professor emeritus of communication who knew Breitrose for more than four decades, said his longtime friend was "absolutely in love" with film.
"Henry just reveled in talking about film," said Roberts, a former chair of the department. "He also reveled in having students who were engaged in making films. He never stopped talking about his students. He just loved what he did."
Currently, more than 500 graduates of Stanford's documentary film program are working as filmmakers around the world, said Kristine Samuelson, professor emerita of art and art history at Stanford who taught in the documentary film program for more than 30 years. (Originally known as the Documentary Film and Television Program, the program is now known as the Documentary Film and Video Program and is situated in the Department of Art & Art History.)
Samuelson described Breitrose as the "lodestar" of the program.
"Henry was the driving force that developed the program from its infancy into a vibrant laboratory of filmmaking," she said.
Asked if Breitrose had favorite documentaries, Samuelson said he greatly admired the early classics of the documentary genre, including Nanook of the North, Song of Ceylon and works of the British GPO/Crown Film Unit, such as A Diary for Timothy.
"At the same time he was always curious about the latest development in the field, particularly work from Europe, Africa and Asia," Samuelson said.
"He was deeply active in the International Association of Film and Television Schools, where he served on the executive council from 1995 to 2008 as vice president of research and publications. He also served on its developing countries board. As a leader in the organization, he helped foster the development of film pedagogy and became part of a much wider documentary community. He was incredibly generous in sharing these connections, making it possible for junior colleges and students to participate in international conference and exchanges."
As chair of the Communication Department from 1977 to 1983, Breitrose played a critical role in establishing a new home for its faculty – including state-of-the art film and television production studios, and social science laboratories – in McClatchy Hall, where the department is housed, said communication Professor Byron Reeves.
Reeves, whose research focuses on experiments about psychological responses to different features of media, said he relished conversations with Breitrose.
"Almost every feature I was studying had a counterpart in literature and discussion in the humanities and film studies, such as discontinuity in scene changes," Reeves said. "Henry was always so good at talking about what a filmmaker might think about the features I was studying. I knew what perceptual psychologists were saying. He knew what film critics and film studies people were saying. My favorite conversations with Henry bounced between those two worlds."
Breitrose was a founding member of the editorial board of Quarterly Review of Film Studies and a founding general editor of Cambridge Studies in Film. He published articles in two general areas: film aesthetics and criticism, in journals such as Film Quarterly, and experimental attitude change and non-verbal communication, in journals such as the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology and the Journal of Education Psychology.
Breitrose is survived by his wife, Prudence Breitrose, of Stanford; daughter, Becky, of Portland, Oregon; and son, Charlie, of Watertown, Massachusetts. The Communication Department is planning to hold a memorial service on campus.