Visual archaeology

A couple of items on magic lanterns in America. Firstly, the Museum of Modern Art in New York is currently hosting an exhibition, Panoramas of the Moving Image: Mechanical Slides and Dissolving Views from Nineteenth-Century Magic Lantern Shows. This is a combination of modern and traditional takes on ‘pre-cinema’ technology. At the heart of the exhibition is experimental media artist Ernie Gehr’s Panoramas of the Moving Image (2005), a synchronized five-channel video installation that uses eighty-seven original slides and views selected from Gehr’s personal collection and that of film archivist and magic lantern collector David Francis. This is accompanied by a display of paper Zoetrope strips and Phenakistiscope discs, complementary nineteenth-century moving image technologies. The exhibition runs until 25 February 2008.

Herman Bollaert

Herman Bollaert uses all three lenses of his 19th-century magic lantern to give the “Warehouse in Flames” image added smoke-and-fire effects, from

Meanwhile, in Washington, we have the Belgian Herman Bollaert and his troupe of musicians putting on the The Lanterna Magica Galantee Show at the French embassy. There’s a fine review by Philip Kennicott of this recreation of a nineteenth-century magic lantern show in The Washington Post, which places the lantern within a wider history of visual technologies, following its inheritance through to PowerPoint and the Xbox:

Watching Herman Bollaert and his crew of projectionists manipulate his 19th-century magic lantern is a bit like watching a very old and finicky sailboat being steered into the wind. There is a lot of fussing and fiddling, turning and cranking, all in the service of a charmingly antiquated technology. If you would rather take a powerboat than sail, or watch “The Matrix” on DVD than spend an evening with hand-painted slides of country cottages and windmills, there’s really no point in showing up this evening at the French Embassy, where Bollaert and his Belgian troupe of musicians and lanternists are performing a bit of visual archaeology.

Bollaert’s contraption, a three-lens wooden box from 1880, was made during the great era of magic-lantern shows. Its basic technology was in use during the 17th century, and quite possibly much, much earlier. But in the 19th century, with the growth of all forms of popular entertainment, lanterns became the precursors of the cinema. Slides with moving parts created special effects. Popular novels were presented in narrated slide shows, and science was taught to professionals and amateurs alike through projected images. Musicians often accompanied such popular entertainments, which could include a survey of historic places, short parables and stories, religious spectacles and Gothic horror shows.

The technology was basic – limelight (made by superheated limestone) or kerosene flames were used to project the images onto screens – but its impact was long-lasting. The magic lantern enjoyed popularity well into the 20th century, fading only as cinema took over. It persisted in the form of school slide shows and filmstrips, and is still the animating spirit behind projected PowerPoint presentations. Whole generations of Americans got their first glimpse of human sex organs in health class through a filmstrip projector – a descendant of Bollaert’s machine – which cast lurid pictures into the semi-darkness, into a room of tittering, blushing and sometimes salivating adolescents.

You can read the rest of the article, which brings in Arthur Schopenhauer and Marcel Proust, on the Washington Post site. But here’s the thoughtful final paragraph:

It’s difficult to coax the contemporary mind into the position of someone of two or three centuries ago, who found the basic images projected by lanterns to be amazingly lifelike (aesthetically), emotionally powerful (artistically) and profoundly troubling (philosophically). But like the water wheel set turning by Bollaert’s expert hand, things will come full circle. With the rise of ever more complex virtual realities, once again the philosophical mind is set puzzling over the nature of the real. But now, in our world of Xboxes and Wii consoles, one is hardly aware of the machine that creates the representation, there is no tactile connection between the image and its master, and the boat of illusions sails forth with no hands on deck.

The so-called optical toys of the nineteenth-century, such as the Phenakistiscope, the Zoetrope and the Thaumatrope, were sometimes referred to as philosophical toys. We should always bring a philosophical mind to the moving images placed before us. It is what they are there for.

3 responses

  1. I saw the magic lantern presentation by David Francis and Joss Marsh in Berkeley ( The magic lantern itself was an impressive piece of machinery– brass, wood, and glass, like a prop from a steampunk movie– and it *is* remarkable to see how much skill it takes to operate. Definitely go see a magic lantern show live– the experience can’t be brought to DVD!

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