Friday, February 27, 2015

The Magic Lantern

In some ways, it's the original optical medium, the lanterna magica, the method behind the madness of Robertson's Phantasmagoria, the first device ever to "throw" an image on a screen. The great-granddaddy of the slide projector and the PowerPoint presentation, the technology that made the 'carousel' of life go 'round for Kodak, a mass medium and later a home entertainment system.

And, as Don Draper observed, it's about coming back to where we began, and feeling that strange 'twinge' of nostalgia -- which is why, I think, the Magic Lantern is presently enjoying a new life, a new vogue, and a new kind of magic. It began with folks such as Terry and Deborah Borton, who quit their day jobs to form the American Magic Lantern Theatre, and to write the first comprehensive account of the work of Joseph Boggs Beale, the premiere American lantern slide artist. It began with Joe and Alice Koch back in Tacoma, Washington in the 1960's; it began with Bill Douglas, Bob BishopOldřich Albrecht, Judith Thurman and Jonathan David, Julius Pfranger, John Barnes, and Steve Humphries -- all of whom rediscovered this lost medium and helped retrace its history even as they brought it back to life. For, as it turned out, audiences today were as readily enthralled -- though perhaps for different reasons -- as were their grandparent and great-grandparents in the heyday of the Magic Lantern. Old lanterns could be found and collected, as could old slides; put the two together, add a top-hat and a booming voice, and all the ingredients were there for a revival of this lost art.

In class today, we'll see the lantern demonstrated for us by Carolyn Gennari, the creator of such multi-old-media entertainments as The Wonder Show, which used magic lantern slides, crankies, music, and readings to re-create the perils and perplexities of an Arctic voyage of exploration from 1819. She's one of a new generation of such artists, who all around the world today are both curating and creating old and new shows of every imaginable kind. For in that darkened room, when the lights go down, it's the lantern that led the way for the cinema, and for every other kind of visual entertainment that has followed.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

A Nation on the Move

For a young nation yet to celebrate its centennial, the moving panorama gave the United States a perfect means of self-representation.  Russell & Purrington's Whaling Voyage 'Round the World dramatized the whaling trade, which for much of the nineteenth century provided the most common household illuminant of the time, whale oil. Transportation and trade were also dramatized in the various Mississippi River panoramas, as well as in amusements that replicated the experience of a passenger on a train, such as Hale's Tours of the World.

The exploration of the Arctic regions was the subject of dozens of panoramas, many of them detailing the career of Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, who'd sailed north twice in search of the lost British explorer Sir John Franklin, before returning home and dying young. Many of these were actually narrated by members of Kane's crew.

Western expansion was another common subject, with panoramas extolling the virtues of California and Oregon, and dramatizing some of the challenges emigrants would meet along the way. Some specific groups, such as the Mormons, used panoramas to embody the sense that their westward journey was guided by divine providence.

Natural wonders, such as the Great Falls of the Niagara, or Mammoth Cave, were popular, as were political subjects; the former slave Henry "Box" Brown traveled with a panorama known as the "Mirror of Slavery," though eventually he switched to more general subjects. Still, it was to be the Civil War which, above all else, was the most popular and enduring subject, both of fixed great-circle panoramas and cycloramas, as well as of moving panoramas, from shortly after the end of the war through to the 1880's.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Illusions in Motion

From the 1820's through to the 1890's, a new form of visual spectacle swept the world: the "moving" panorama. Unlike its circular and static namesake, the moving panorama actually did move, with new scenes emerging one by one from the right-hand side of the painting, while old scenes scrolled away. It was, above all, a narrative form, perfectly suited for journeys from one place to another, as well a for representing current events or familiar stories, ranging from Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (a panel from a panorama of which is shown above) to the military campaigns of Garibaldi (this panorama is preserved at Brown University) to journeys up (or down) the Mississippi River.

Unlike great-circle panoramas, these scrolling painting required a narrator, typically a man in a top hat and tails who used a pointer to direct attention to specific parts of the canvas, and who served as a sort of conductor for this virtual journey. Most were professional showmen, but sometimes the attempt was made to have someone actually involved with the scenes depicted appear at, or even narrate, the painting. The pre-eminent Scottish firm of Messrs. Marshall & Co. hired a survivor from the wreck of the Medusa to appear with their depiction of the subject; the combined effect was so dramatic that it forced the exhibition of Géricault's great painting of "The Raft of the Medusa" -- then exhibiting in the same town -- out of business. Similarly, exhibitors of panoramas about Arctic exploration often hired the explorers themselves to narrate the scenes.

And it was not just the canvas the moved. Most had music, and employed a variety of special effects: lantern images were projected from behind the canvas; smoke was blown through holes in the cloth when the painted "cannons" were meant to fire; colored lights and sometimes even the shaking of the fabric were also used. Moving panoramas also had the advantage that they were far more portable than their fixed cousins, and could travel from town to town via horse-drawn carriage or train; in this manner they criss-crossed the UK, the US, and many other countries, sometimes being shown for more than a decade, until the pain began to chip off.

In their later years, attendance declined, and showmen had to resort to such 'captive' audiences as churches and schools. In his parodic story "The Scriptural Panoramist," Mark Twain made great fun of a showman with a Bible-story panorama who, his regular accompanist unavailable, hired the piano player from a local saloon, who ruined one religious moment after another by playing popular drinking songs.

With the emergence of film though, the days of moving panoramas were numbered. In 1903, the veteran panorama showman Rufus C. Somerby reflected on his career in the pages of The Billboard, a showman's periodical that later became Billboard Magazine. Writing as "The Old Panoramist," he reflected on the decline and fall of a medium which had once been well-known in nearly every town in America.

Prompt: Watch one of the two panoramas available online -- in the links above, there's a video of the Panorama of Pilgrim's Progress, and via Brown's website you can view the Garibaldi Panorama with its original narration. Then read Charles Dickens's tongue-in-cheek "Some Account of an Extraordinary Traveler," in which one "Mr. Booley is praised for his virtual-reality globetrotting.

Then respond with your comment: What do you think made this medium so popular in its day? Do we have any contemporary entertainments that parallel it? Who are the Mr. Booleys of today and what are they watching? Think through a wide range of media -- television, film, the web, etc. -- as you frame your thoughts.