Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Virtual Week

Thanks to this week's snow, our class has been obliged to find its way in today's 'virtual' world -- which in some ways is as klunky and awkward as any Victorian version of the same. Still, we must make the most of the situation -- and so I've placed both the list of early London Panoramas and the excerpt from The First Panoramas online here on our blog (see the right-hand sidebar) where we can peruse them at our leisure. I encourage everyone to comment, both on the Oetterman materials in our first posting, the excerpt from Oleksijczuk's The First Panoaramas, and the selected panorama programmes.

I hope that the forecast for next Monday will be for modest amounts of snow -- modest enough, at least, to enable us to meet in person and continue the lively discussion that I hope will begin in the comments field of these posts; if, on the other hand, the college does close, I will continue to make all our materials available here.

Update: Classes have been cancelled for tomorrow, February 2nd! Watch this space -- I will have a fresh post and some prompts to respond to shortly!

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Panorama

Our collective appetite for visual spectacles has a history which long predates the projections of the earliest film, back to the early nineteenth century, when crowds lined up across Europe and America to see massive depictions of spectacular disasters, ranging from the Battle of Waterloo to the Great Earthquake of Lisbon to the burning of Sebastapol. If our own time can be characterized, as it was by Guy Debord, as that of the 'Society of the Spectacle,' then its timeline must be extended to include the Panorama, where the very sense of society self-seen in the mirror of media was born, and whose technology was as characteristic of its age as the cinema is of the twentieth century.

For the "panorama" was not found, but invented, and patented as well, by Robert Barker in 1794. The technical challenge was to create a painting on a curved surface that looked like the view from a great distance, and in every direction. Some geometrical calculations were involved to ensure that the landscape did not seem distorted, a problem Barker was said to have solved by looking at the lines made on the floor of his prison cell by the grid of bars. A small one was first exhibited in Edinburgh, to which Barker invited the eminent authority Sir Joshua Reynolds. There was a feeling, at that time, that things which merely mimicked reality did not count as art -- Barker wanted very much to have his paintings considered as art -- a desire to which Sir Joshua gave his seal of approval. A purpose-built structure -- which still stands (see this GoogleEarth view) -- was erected in London's Leicester-square, and the first Panorama, of 'London from the Roof of the Albion Mills,' was unveiled. This was soon followed by a view of the British fleet at Spithead, was unveiled. The effect was said to be so realistic that it made Queen Charlotte seasick.

The phenomenon spread all around the world; by the mid-nineteenth century there was hardly a major city in Europe or America without at least one Panorama rotunda; many had several. Here in the United States, there were dozens, beginning with Vanderlyn's Panorama of the Palace and Gardens of Versailles (the building is long gone, but the painting survives at New York's Metropolitan Museum), the recently-restored Gettysburg Cyclorama in Gettysburg, and the Cyclorama of the Burning of Atlanta in Atlanta (A "Cyclorama" is a Panorama with the addition of false scenery and other special effects). Boston had one too -- a so-called "Cyclorama" of the Civil War -- but its case is the opposite of Vanderlyn's; the painting is gone but the building still stands.

Stephan Oetterman insists, and perhaps rightly so, that one should not seek to understand the Panorama primarily as the predecessor of the cinema. He emphasizes instead its historical disjunction, and cites Adorno's cautionary admonition that "nothing is more detrimental to a theoretical understanding of modern art than attempts to reduce it to similarities with what went before." Yet the kind of history at stake in the Panorama seems not to be the "progressive" history of which Adorno was so suspect, but rather a kind of Borgesian history, in which the present casts its shadow upon the past, and artists 'invent their precursors.' And now, as the "Panorama" option on the iPhone enables everyone to create all-encompassing views, we can look back to the original London Panorama as a shadow of ourselves, one which we should be perfectly free to regard as an early Victorian version of 'virtual reality.'

Saturday, January 3, 2015


Welcome to the blog for our Spring 2015 graduate seminar. The field of visual culture has been a rapidly expanding one, growing with our awareness of the complexities of human production and perception of images, and their relationship to cultural norms and notions of identity, nation, gender, and place. The history of our mass media goes back, it turns out, long before the invention of television or film, and is tied up in the earliest productions of theatrical and artistic spectacle.

We'll start with the Victorian era, in both Britain and the United States, a period in which visual culture began to take on its modern form. Beginning with the 'virtual realities' of panoramas, moving panoramas, dioramas, and optical toys, we began to educate the eye, as well as to deceive it. Victorian technologies of sight next brought to the public an incremental series of wonders, beginning with the invention of photography in 1839, and progressing through the mass-production of prints, glass lantern slides, stereoviews, and illusory motion -- as with the phenakistoscope disc shown above: when it spun, before a mirror, the figures seemed to move, a form of animation that preceeded cinematic cartoons by more than fifty years. We'll look at some of these ourselves, and use our own digital technology to see and reconstruct other pre-cinematic media. Our journey will continue through the birth of motion pictures, and the invention of television, both of which -- I suspect -- you'll find were invented much earlier than you'd imagined. Along the way, we'll read short critical texts by historians of mass media and visual technology, and work to understand how our ways of seeing have, over time, become ways of believing.