Professor Pepper at the Polytechnic

Interior of the Great Hall at the Royal Polytechnic, from http://www.magiclantern.org.uk

The Magic Lantern Society and the University of Westminster have organised a series of talk and events to be held at the University of Westminster’s central London site at 309 Regent Street, which was formerly the Royal Polytechnic Institution. For much of the nineteenth century the Polytechnic was London’s leading centre for the popularisation of science, hosting lectures, lantern shows, scientific demonstrations, and – on 20 February 1896 – the debut of the Cinématographe Lumière in Britain.

Visual technologies and performance were a stape attraction of the Polytechnic, and it is in this spirit that the series is being presented, under the name of one of the most popular of contemporary stage illusions, Pepper’s Ghost. This invention of ‘Professor’ John Henry Pepper, a director of the Polytechnic, this simple but ingenious illusions whereby ghostly figures could appear on stage was the subject of an earlier post, after its unexpected use in a Paul McCartney pop video.

As the blurb for the series puts it, the one hour talks and events

celebrate the spirit of the old Polytechnic featuring rarely-seen London-based historical material, physical demonstrations of “lost media” and surprisingly new applications of ancient optical techniques by contemporary visual artists, stage performers, filmmakers and designers.

Professor Pepper’s Ghost: Six Evenings of Optical Magic at the Old Polytechnic‘ got underway on 23 September, so apologies for being late with the news, but here’s the full line-up:

Tuesday 23 September
The World’s First Projection Theatre
Jeremy Brooker provides a guide (both virtual and actual) to the Royal Polytechnic’s famous optical theatre.

Tuesday 7 October
3D or Seeing Double
Dr David G. Burder offers a ‘sensational’ guide to the art and history of seeing things in 3-dimensions.

Tuesday 21 October
The Diorama: Weaving Time and Space
Photographer and video artist Simon Warner looks at the work of Daguerre and the Diorama phenomenon in the 1820s and 30s.

Tuesday 4 November
The Charing Cross Whale and the Fleas of Regent Street
Professor Vanessa Toulmin presents an illustrated and astonishing look at the wide range of ephemeral entertainments which captured the public imagination of visitors to London in the 19th century, drawing on rarely-seen flyers and bill material in the National Fairground Archive.

Tuesday 18 November
Old Media: New Light
Freelance illustrator Geoff Coupland showcases his own work and that of his students from the Camberwell College of Art applying what are often referred to as 19th century and earlier ‘dead media’ forms such as the magic lantern, shadow-play and flickbooks, to illustrate modern ideas and points of view.

Tuesday 2 December
The Magic Lantern Believe it or Not
In this unruly entertainment ‘Professor’ Mervyn Heard highlights some of the more bizarre, surprising and often horrifying lantern ‘entertainments’ of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries and attempts to prove that, in the right hands, ‘the lantern lecture’ could be much more than a naive precursor to cinema: instead the basis for inspired live performance.

The prize goes to Professor Vanessa for the catchiest title, but all sound enticing. All the lectures start at 7pm, and admission is free, with tickets issued from 6pm. For further information, visit the University of Westminster site.

Projection Box Awards

Phenakistiscope, from Stephen Herbert’s not-MOMI site

A reminder to you all that entries are welcomed for the 2008-09 Projection Box Essay Awards. Established last year by the UK independent small publisher, The Projection Box, the awards are for essays on a theme relating to historical, artistic or technical aspects of popular optical media. The subject of this year’s competition is Popular Optical Media (to 1900), including nineteenth century photography, Dioramas, Zoetropes, the magic lantern, shadow theatre, panoramas, Victorian cinema, and optical toys.

First prize is £250 and publication in the journal Early Popular Visual Culture (Routledge). Plus book prizes. Last year’s first prize went to Dr John Plunkett for his essay ‘Selling Stereoscopy 1890-1914: penny arcades, automatic machines and American salesmen.’

Submissions are invited for unpublished essays of between 5,000 and 8,000 words. Entry is open to all, and the deadline for entries is 24 January 2009. Full details, including competition rules, are available on the Projection Box Awards site.

(You’ll find not-MOMI (a recreation of parts of the defunct Museum of the Moving Image) at http://easyweb.easynet.co.uk/~s-herbert/momiwelcome.htm.)

Immersed in the past

Visitors viewing the Gettysburg Cyclorama, from http://www.washingtonpost.com

A step back from the silent film to one of its antecedents. On 26 September the Battle of Gettysburg cyclorama opens to the public at the new Gettysburg visitor centre after a five-year, $15 million restoration, contained within its own rotunda. The cyclorama is a 337ft x 42ft panoramic painting of the Battle of Gettysburg, painted by Frenchman Paul Philippoteaux (with twenty assistants) and first exhibited in 1884.

The painting (which weighs some three tons) is a 360-degree oil painting depicting “Pickett’s Charge,” a Confederate attack that took place on 3 July 1863. It was commissioned as a commercial venture by Chicago businessman Charles Louis Willoughby. Philippoteaux, an experience panoramic painter, began work in 1882, making hundreds of sketches of the Gettyburg battlefield and hiring a photographer to produce panoramic photographs of the site. He interviewed veterans to help him with the details, then spent eighteen months producing the painting, hiring assistants to work on specialised features such as horses, soldiers and landscape. The finished work was not just the panoramic painting but included three-dimensional features coming out of the painting, such as trees, walls and fences, which, when added to the tricks in perspective employed by the panorama painters, gave viewers a greater sense of the physical ‘reality’ of the experience. The 3-D aspects are recreated in the restored version.

The panorama was a patented invention, created by the Irishman Robert Barker in 1787. Giant panoramic paintings, known as cycloramas in their 360-degree form, became hugely popular visitor attractions throughout the nineteenth century, inviting audiences to lose themselves in historical scenes, Biblical scenes and exotic journeys, generally with a lecturer to guide them to the highlights to be seen along the way. The form therefore anticipated much of the spectacular and immersive qualities of cinema, and is seen as one of the ‘pre-cinema’ antecedents of motion picture films. Both are imaginatively constructed journeys through time and space.

View a QuickTime panorama of the top half of the pre-restored painting.

The Battle of Gettysburg was so successful following its Chicago debut that Philippoteaux produced a second version for exhibition in Boston, then two further copies (surely painting at its most mechanical and soulless). It is the Boston version, which later moved to the Gettysburg National Military Park, which has been restored. One other copy survives.

There are some thirty or so cycloramas in existence today, in one form or other. Information on these, with links to those with a web presence of some kind, can be found on the Visions & Illusions site. The International Panorama Council’s Panoramapainting.com describes and illustrates panoramas of all kinds to be found worldwide.

There is information on the restoration of the cyclorama from the National Park Service site. The Washington Post reviews the restoration with a somewhat jaundiced eye, looking at its propagandist qualities and its relationship to virtual reality, echoing the need for realistic thrills in modern museum installations. The report also has a short video on the Gettysburg panorama.

Lost sites

Here at The Bioscope we do our best to alert you to interesting new web resources on the subject of silent cinema, or indeed sites that have been around for a while but aren’t necessarily well known. But what about sites that are no more? We’ve all experienced the frustration of the dead link, discovering that some site or page has been taken down because the domain registration wasn’t kept up, the page was taken down because the owner thought it no longer of interest, or the web links on a site have all been changed. Whatever the reason, the Net is an impermanent place, and many worthwhile sites in our field are around no more.

Happily we have the Internet Archive and its ‘Wayback Machine‘, which has archived a great deal of the Internet (85 billion web pages from 1996 to 2008), taking ‘snapshot’ records of sites periodically (usually every few months). Images are not always retained, and you can’t find movie files, databases or other such complexities in the archive, but you will find the plain HTML. But how do you know what to look for? There is no subject guide or keyword searching (yet). You have to know the web address, and even then that only find you what you knew was there to find. What about those lost sites that you never knew were lost?

Despair not. The Bioscope presents this initial guide to some of the silent cinema sites and web pages which can no longer be found on the Web as such, but do lurk within the Internet Archive. There will be many more than those listed below, of course, but it’s a start (do let me know if you know of any). All links will take you to the Internet Archive record.

The Silents Majority
Old hands will have recognise the gentleman at the top of this post as ‘Merton of the Movies’, the silent town crier who featured on Diane MacIntyre and Spike Lewis’ The Silents Majority, the essential silents information site before it disappeared in 2003 and Silent Era took its place. Here you can still find biographies, reproductions of articles, featured books and videos, photo gallery, guest articles and Cooking with the Stars. Not everything remains (some images and the QuickTime movies won’t be found there), but it’s still a treasure trove. Check also for the final year of its existence when it changed its URL and became www.silentsmajority.com.

A Trip to the Moon
A simple but engaging site dedicated to Georges Méliès’ Voyage Dans La Lune, with an essay on the film, Méliés’ own outline and commentary for the film, film stills (not of terribly high quality, unfortunately), and extracts from the associated imaginative literature of Wells, Verne, Poe and others.

Questions Regarding the Genesis of Nonfiction Film
A stimulating essay on early non-fiction filmmaking, its essence, problems of definition, and neglect by film scholars, by renowned Japanese scholar Komatsu Hiroshi. It does exist elsewhere in print in the journal Documentary Box, but a key text like this ought not to be lost to the online research community.

The Human Motor
This stems from a scientific project to map the human body by the University of Colorado, and was part of a larger site, Building Better Humans. It has sound information on the chronophotography of Etienne-Jules Marey and Eadweard Muybridge, complete with a fine selection of images.

Les Frères Lumière et le Japon 1895-1995
This site accompanied a touring exhibition of films shot in Japan in the 1890s by the Lumière cameramen François-Constant Girel and Gabriel Veyre. It comprises an excellent essay (in French) on the first films and filmmaking in Japan by Hiroshi Komatsu.

Eadweard Muybridge: Father of Motion Pictures
An imaginative, beautifully-designed site on the master photographer who captured motion. Some of the photographs no longer appear, but there some animated gifs of Muybridge sequences, and the whole thing is just done with such style.

Dive cinema muto
Italian site (in Italian) devoted to silent film actresses, especially the Italian ‘divas’ such as Lyda Borelli and Francesca Bertini, plus other femme fatales such as Asta Nielsen and Theda Bara. With biographies, essays and illustrations.

Archiving the Internet is becoming a subject of increasing concern. The Internet Archive leads the field, of course, but the UK Web Archiving Consortium is building up to the day when every UK website will be archived as a matter of legal deposit. For those intrigued by dead sites in general, take a look at Ghost Sites of the Web (these are sites that still exist on the Web, but which have been abandoned).

Please let me know of any lost sites (as opposed to dead ones that just aren’t updated any more) on silent cinema, and I’ll update this list. Note also that not every lost site may necessarily be found on the Internet Archive – the website whose passing I most regret, Charl Lucassen’s beautiful Anima site on chronophotography and other optical delights, once one of the genuine treasures of the Web, is nowhere to be found at all. Such a loss.

Instruction, amusement and spectacle

Programme for Poole’s Myriorama show at Victoria Hall in Exeter, 1896, from http://www.sall.ex.ac.uk/projects/screenhistorysw

A call for papers has gone out for Instruction, Amusement and Spectacle: Popular Shows and Exhibitions 1800-1914, a conference taking place 16-18 April 2009, at the Centre for Victorian Studies, University of Exeter.

The conference aims to examine the eclectic range of popular entertainments in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, with a particular focus on exhibition practices. The intention is to provide a forum that brings together the range of research currently being undertaken by different disciplines in this area, including film studies, Victorian studies, history of science, performance studies, English literature, art history and studies of popular culture.

Potential topics could include but are not limited to:

  • The role of visual entertainments (e.g. magic lantern, panoramas, dioramas, photography, peep shows)
  • Early cinema: exhibition and reception
  • Local and regional exhibition cultures
  • Science and technology: demonstration and instruction
  • Improvement and rational recreation
  • Exhibitions of ‘Otherness’ (e.g. freak shows, ethnographic shows, minstrels)
  • Music hall, pantomime, vaudeville and variety
  • Public lectures and lecturing
  • Galleries, museums and civic institutions (e.g. The Royal Polytechnic Institution, Mechanics Institutes)
  • Travelling shows, fairgrounds and circuses
  • World’s Fairs and international exhibitions
  • Magic, illusion and spiritualism
  • Concerts, recitals and readings
  • Pleasure gardens, tourism and seaside exhibitions
  • Dance and physical performance
  • Literary and other representations of popular entertainments
  • Showmen and showmanship
  • Audiences: composition and reception
  • Intermediality and exhibitions
  • Image, narrative and performance

Proposals are invited of no more than 300 words, to be sent together with designation and affiliation to victorianshows@exeter.ac.uk, no later than 31 October 2008.

The conference is one output of the Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project AHRC funded project Moving and Projected Image Entertainment in the South West 1820-1914 at the University of Exeter, which is using a regional study to demonstrate the extensive national distribution of moving and projected images between 1820 and 1914.

John Barnes RIP

It is with sadness that I have to report the death of John Barnes, film historian, collector, curator and filmmaker. John is best known for the five volume series The Beginnings of Cinema in England, 1894-1901, his unparalled study of the earliest years of English cinema. Begun in 1976, completed in 1998, it is as much a work of archaeology as historiography. John’s real passion was for the technology of film in the 1890s, and he was prodigious and exhaustive in tracking down every kind of motion picture machine from the period, explaining its distinctive qualities, tracing its use and recording its ownership.

Around this deep understanding of the technology of the era, he weaved stories of the personalities of the time (his great hero was Robert Paul, whose battles with fellow pioneer and rival Birt Acres he recorded with journalistic fervour), the modes of exhibition, and especially the films – each volume of his history contained filmographies of the whole of British film production for one year, information gleaned from catalogues, journals, posters, flyers, and a host of other sources. Details of hundreds of films from this era have been identified from Barnes’ work alone, a huge benefit to scholars and film archivists alike. An era of cinema that previously had been idly documented and frequently misinterpreted was enriched by an exhaustive study that has inspired a huge range of subsequent studies. No one has been able to write about this period of cinema history without reference to the works of John Barnes. He found the material, provided the signposts, and his work remains the sure foundations on which all other research in the field must be built.

With the Gypsies in Kent (c.1938), film by John and Bill Barnes, from Screen Search

John and his twin brother William (who survives him) were born in 1920 and discovered film during the 1930s, becoming enthusiastic amateur filmmakers while still at school. Two of their films, Gems of the Cornish Riviera (1936) and Cornish Nets (1938) featured at the Pordenone silent film festival in 1997, the year in which both were awarded the prestigious Prix Jean Mitry for services to silent film scholarship. Eighteen of their silent films are now held by Screen Archive South East in Brighton, including The Wheat Harvest (c.1935), In the Garden of England (c.1938) and With the Gypsies in Kent (c.1938), clips from which can be seen on the Archive’s Screen Search site.

On leaving school the brothers studied film design and technique at Edward Carrick’s AAT film school, at which time they began collecting Victorian optical toys and associated literature, often frequenting the bookshops of London’s Cecil Court which three decades before had been ‘Flicker Alley’, home to the nascent British film industry. They hatched a plan to collect artefacts and documents that would trace the history of motion pictures from the 17th to the 20th centuries, an ambition put on hold while they served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War.

After the war, the brothers moved to St Ives in Cornwall, where Bill opened a second-hand bookshop. It was in rooms above this shop in 1951, during the Festival of Britain, that the brothers put on the first exhibition of their film history artefacts, the success of which encouraged them to collect all the more. This was at a time when relatively little was appreciated about pre-cinema tchnologies, and John’s great work was not simply to collect such objects but to understand them, explain them and to be able to contextualise them. Eventually the bookshop was closed and the brothers sold by catalogue alone, supplying books and artefacts to scholars and film museums around the world.

Objects collected by John and Bill Barnes now in Hove Museum

In the 1960s, while Bill went filming overseas, John and his wife Carmen (who also survives him) opened the Barnes Museum of Cinematography in St Ives. This famous collection attracted film scholars from around the world, and its catalogues became treasured documentary sources as serious interest grew in the roots of cinema. Collecting continued, and many objects were lent to museums around the world or formed the subject of illustrations in numerous text books. The Museum never found a London home, as John had hoped, and closed in 1986, its pre-cinema holdings going to the Museo Nazionale del Cinema in Turin, while much of the remainder is now housed in Hove Museum, near Brighton.

But John’s greatest monument is The Beginnings of the Cinema in England. The series began in 1976 with the book of that title, which documented the arrival of film in England, 1894-1896. Establishing his style, the book traced the history through the machinery, out of which followed the personalities involved, the modes of exhibition, and a thorough filmography for the period. It would be hard to underestimate the value this book (which was revised and republished in 1998) to the early cinema specialist. It simply defined a period. Subsequent research has built on his work, and occasionally challenged its findings (Barnes’ arguments around the so-called ‘Paul-Acres camera’), but those solid foundations remain. It was followed by volumes doggedly documenting the cinema in Britain (he wavered between England and Britain in his descriptions) for 1897 (perhaps his best work), 1898, 1899 and 1900, the whole series eventually being republished in a uniform edition by University of Exeter Press in 1998. While the original volumes are quite rare, the re-issued set can be found relatively easily and cheaply and is strongly recommended to any serious student of early film. In the historiography of British film, only Denis Gifford and Rachael Low can match John Barnes’ achievements.

John Barnes devoted his life to the history of cinema. He was as much a pioneer in his field as were those whose lives and technologies he championed in theirs. He faced innumerable battles with publishers and institutions, but that all goes with the part played in being an independent scholar-collector. His knowledge, unfailing help and sturdy friendship were valued by scholars and enthusiasts around the world, and his parting (he died on June 1st) will be recognised as a huge loss. But few of us who work in this field will be able to leave behind so much of such solid and lasting value: objects rescued, identified and their importance recognised; documents saved, preserved and republished; films identified and treasured; and books written that preserve the knowledge of a lifetime and which will benefit research for many years to come.

I’ll finish with a section from a review I made of The Beginnings of Cinema in England when the series was republished, as it rather sums things up for me:

Enthusiasm is the key to John Barnes’ history. Perhaps the chief reason why this area of film studies is so vital, is that in the hearts of its enthusiasts it is as if it were happening now. While other areas of academic cinema history seem doomed to atrophy, as films that were once entertaining no longer entertain, Victorian cinema is alive with debate and discovery … This is perhaps Barnes’ greatest achievement, to have achieved the trick that film has always claimed to do, to abolish time. Thanks to the finest work of empirical early film history that there is, the cinema of the 1890s is very much with us still.

Thank you John.

Of Mutoscopes, Filoscopes and Kinoras

http://www.flipbook.info

Another day, another outstanding website. Out of the blue Flipbook.info has appeared (well, out of the blue to me – it’s been around for a while), and I warmly recommend it to you. It is a site dedicated to the history, definition and usage of the flipbook, that sister technology of the silent cinema. It defines the flip book, or flick book, thus:

A flip book is a collection of combined pictures intended to be flipped over to give the illusion of movement and create an animated sequence from a simple small book without machine.

Flipbooks became very popular in the late nineteenth century, and are still produced today – indeed, who among us has not created their own basic flip sequence by drawing successive figures at the corner of the pages of a school exercise book? (You mean you haven’t? – go out and do so straight away and discover what intermittent motion and animation mean). But it was at the end of the nineteenth and into the early years of the twentieth century that flipbook technology overlapped with, indeed shared with cinema technology.

The Mutoscope (left), better known to many as ‘what the butler saw’, was one of the first photographic motion picture viewers. Invented by Herman Casler in 1895, the Mutoscope presented radially-mounted photographs on card which were flicked over in rapid sequence to give an illusion of movement. The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company was formed to exploit this invention, in tandem with 70mm films created by the Mutagraph camera, so that the same source generated product for showing on the big screen to a variety theatre audience or as a private pleasure for the single peepshow viewer. The company eventually shed the Mutoscope part of the business and became simply Biograph, took on a film director by the name of D.W. Griffith, and you know the rest. Other such hybrid technologies, using cinematograph films to generate the photographic sequences for flip cards, were the smaller Kinora viewer, invented by Auguste and Louis Lumière, and the Filoscope, invented by Henry Short.

All this and much, much more is covered by the site, which describes (with beautiful illustrations) an amazing range of flipbook views from the early years of the twentieth-century, demonstrating the interelationships with cinema, and how the form has been employed to illustrate sport, advertising, comic strips, pornography, even news and politics, how it has been used by artists, and how books themselves have use flipbook images. It is an astonishingly diverse field

And that’s not all. As well as the rich selection of images, there are demonstration movies for some of the types of viewer, including the Filoscope and the Kinora (frame grab right). The bilingual (English and French) site is the creation of Pascal Fouché, and is divided up into History, Typology, Viewers, Links (publishers, retailers, artists etc) and a blog (in French). The pags come with footnotes, and the knowledge on display is mightily impressive. Indeed my only criticism is that the search option only works in French – but do use it, because it brings up a whole load more images from a database, apprently of 4,250 flipbooks. Amazing stuff, lovingly put together, but as accessible as it is scholarly. Go explore.

The horse in animation

Gallop!

http://www.amazon.co.uk

Here’s something intriguing, if somewhat on the fringes of our subject. Rufus Butler Seder’s Gallop! is a very young children’s book, just published, which employs a patented technology, Scanimation. This shows animal figures as a kind of barcode-like strip. The animals move when you open a new page by pulling a scrambled underlying image which lies beneath an acetate strip marked with horizontal bars. Essentially, like silhouetted animations of Muybridge sequence photographs, we see a horse gallop, a chicken walk, a dog run, a cat leap.

The similarity to Muybridge’s work is very noticeable. Seder is described as being “an inventor, artist, and filmmaker fascinated by antique optical toys” and a description of the process points out that it

uses a technology based on the same principles as kinetoscopes, zoetropes, and other nineteenth century antiques that employed an optical illusion using the persistence of memory to create the flow of motion.

(Some confusion over technologies there, but I like the Dali-inspired term persistence of memory over the standard persistence of vision)

It’s not really possible to put over exactly how it looks, so I recommend checking out the children’s section of your local bookshop for the full effect, but Seder’s Eye Think Inc. site displays something of the effect, as in this animated GIF:

Scanimation

http://www.eyethinkinc.com/rulers/horse.html

It’s an intriguing invention, though one suspects that adults are going to be more diverted by the effect than children. Maybe it might register more if it could only generate the effect in colour. But for us it’s a useful illustration of the interconnectness of things: the fascination with optical illusions that led to the optical toys of the nineteenth century which in turn led to motion pictures, and woven into this thread the vision of Muybridge, who sought not simply to make things to move but to capture the motion of real life. And there’s the not unrelated history of the pop-up book (to which Gallop! is to some degree related), three-D, and the wonder of seeing things break out of the confines of a two-dimensional world.

It’s all animation, or animated pictures as the cinema pioneers had it – simply bringing things to life.

The world’s oldest movie

Burnt City’s Wild Goat

The Wild Goat of Burnt City, from http://www.cais-soas.com

Those of us steeped in early film know all about the pre-history of cinema, with the optical toys, Zoetropes, Phenakistiscopes and so on of the nineteenth century and a history of screen practice going back to the seventeenth century and the emergence of the magic lantern. And many have argued that the history can go back as far as you like, some even asserting that cave paintings demonstrate a proto-cinematic imagination.

But here we have a candidate for the world’s oldest piece of animation, even the world’s oldest movie – an ‘animation’ from 2,600 B.C. In the 1970s an Italian archaeological team uncovered a pot in the 5,200-year-old Burnt City of ancient Iran. It was Iranian archaeologist Dr Mansur Sadjadi, who discovered that the five images on the pot, showing a wild goat leaping up to eat the leaves of a tree, formed a related series. Now a documentary film has been made by Mohsen Ramezani which animates the sequence.

Wild Goat

The original five images of the wild goat, from http://www.cais-soas.com

Of course, the ancient Iranians did not invent the animated GIF, and in any case there has been some jiggery-pokery to make the animation succeed (there are more than five images to the animated sequence, the images have been cleaned up, and the background trees are unfeasibly rocksteady). So it’s an animation of an animation. Nevertheless, it’s delightful to see, and does make you think that the wish to capture life in art has always included a need to suggest motion, so that cinematic urge has always been there, in some form. It’s a fundamental human need. Now, were any other such pots made, and where are they?

Find out more about the pot and film from the Cultural Heritage, Tourism and Handicrafts Organization site. Acknowledgment also to the commendable Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub, where I found the story.

What happens next?

Sleep with me series, Pihla, Nanna Saarhelo, 2007

Sleep with me series, Pihla, Nanna Saarhelo, 2007, from PM Gallery

Occasionally on the Bioscope we look to cinema’s roots in chronophotography, optical toys, magic lanterns and such like, and a new exhibition has just opened which both takes us back to chronophotography and up to the present day.

What Happens Next? is an exhibition dedicated to the photographic sequence. It takes as its inspiration the work of the nineteenth century photographer, Eadweard Muybridge, whose sequence photography – or chronophotography – of the 1870s/80s did so much to inspire the creation of cinema. The exhibition runs at the PM Gallery in West London 8 February-15 March 2008, and it explores the work of artists working in sequence photography from the nineteenth century to today. The artists featured are John Blakemore, Julie Cassels, Matt Finn, Steffi Klenz, Mari Mahr, Edweard Muybridge, James Newton, Nanna Saarhelo, Andrew Warstat, Sally Waterman and Cary Welling.

Coinciding with the exhibition is an article on Muybridge in this week’s New Scientist magazine (only an extract is available online). It’s a thoughtful piece (certainly a lot more thoughtful than its dire title, ‘Lights, camera, action!’ would seem to promise), with more emphasis on Muybridge’s Zoopraxiscope discs that one normally finds. The Zoopraxiscope was Muybridge’s proto-animation device, whereby he transferred some of his photographic sequences in silhouette form onto the edges of a glass disc so that they could be projected as fleeting animated images.

What Muybridge did not do was ever show his photographic sequences themselves as projected images in motion – he wasn’t able to. And yet how often to we see something like the animated sequences featured in this video?

This short piece on the exhibition has been posted on YouTube by the New Scientist, which rather goes to show that there are some limits to its knowledge of science. Muybridge’s photographic sequences were never seen in motion like this. To make them move he had to produce silhouettes derived from the photographs, making him a genuine pioneer of the animation film. The pure photographs he only displayed like so:

Ascending Stairs

Ascending Stairs

Of course, it is hugely tempting to animated Muybridge’s images, as has been done ever since Thom Andersen’s 1975 film Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer. Animated Muybridge sequences are found all over the Web, and have become an iconographic staple. But they falsify history – unless one argues that they display what Muybridge wanted to have displayed but was unable to achieve himself. In which case, they are a form of virtual history, which is all well and good, so long as we do not foget the true one.

As What Happens Next? demonstrates, chronophotography or sequence photography is alive and well today, practiced both as an art and as a science (either equally appropriate for Muybridge), for a sequential series both demonstrates a process and betrays a narrative. Chronophotographic sequences were used to striking effect for analysis in the BBC’s coverage of the last Winter Olympics, and there are numerous artists’ sites which display the possibilities of the medium. Some choice examples include P.J. Reptilehouse, Sequences, and my particular favourite, David Crawford, who photographs sequence of people on tube trains and at airports.

There’s also this review of What Happens Next?, which connects Muybridge with The Matrix, on the Telegraph‘s website.