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 GĂ©ricault'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.

12 comments:

  1. The moving panorama strikes me as an unusually, for the time, passive form of viewership. The most comparable medium at the time would be theater, but the difference being how the moving panorama focuses on scenes and action. During a play there is something of a simulated reality being created on the stage. A conversation in a room is replicated through people having a conversation in a room, and, thus, the viewership requirements of both is comparable. The viewer of a play follows the flow of the play, focuses on a speaker, ignores a character doing nothing, and stays aware of any subtle actions occurring simultaneous with a speech. This viewership is often aided by tricks of the theater, lighting a character to hide distractions, actor blocking designed to draw attention, etc.

    Television and film (which have the capacity of being supremely passive mediums) have no such requirements of the viewership. Where a play might need to darken the background and put a spot light on an actor to isolate the viewer's attention, a camera merely needs a close-up. The moving panorama functions similarly. The moving panorama has little concern for shepherding the attention of the viewer because there is no space to be lost in.

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    1. Excellent comment. And yet -- unless many of the commentators of the time wrote to deceive, the panorama managed to create what many of them took as an 'aura' of reality. Looking at them today, we see the daubs of paint, and think how odd it would be that viewers then would be so naive, but when one thinks of it, they often had nothing to compare it to. In small towns in rural areas of the UK and US, the theatre was something many had never experienced.

      The other point is that the narrator -- if a skilled one -- could exercise considerable control in 'shepherding the attention' of the viewers. A closer modern parallel might be a science or travel documentary on television, when voiceover is quite common.

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  2. I think one of the things that made the moving panorama so popular was that it was cheap. It allowed people to "see the world" in a way that was affordable to the common person without having to pack up one's life and get on a boat. And I do believe people thought of the moving panorama's "conveyance" as a form of actual travel. Although Mr. Booley's satirized account of this invention seems comical, to me it seems believable because of the way we interact with comparable media now. It made me think at first of documentaries or Buzzfeed content -- images or video accompanied by some sort of narration that guides the viewer through the virtual landscape. We enjoy these things for similar reasons that Mr. Booley enjoyed the moving panorama: They're cheap, accessible, and they make us feel like experts. If we watch a documentary about penguins in Antarctica, we can feel like experts about the subject, since it is more than extremely likely that none of our friends have been to Antarctica either, and at worst, they'll only have seen the same (or a similar) documentary, so we can both enjoy our status as expert elites in this department.

    But the more I thought about it, the more I considered that it is in someways different from the totally passive experience of Netflix-ing a documentary or surfing Buzzfeed channels. I think what makes it different is the illusion of being there. Also, the fact that you can share that illusion with others. The moving panorama is not a totally solitary experience; instead, there are other spectators (who could interact with one another), and the real presence of a guide/narrator. Because of this, I feel there is a certain level of immersive interactivity that is not present in some of today's more passive media. I think it can be more closely compared, then, to a theme park ride (particularly the more "educational" kind) at a place like Disneyland. It's definitely a spectacle that is more or less static, but it creates the illusion of transporting people someplace else, while preserving the person's semi-autonomous ability to explore and interact with the environment. Another thing I drew a connection with was video games, which create the illusion of autonomy within a virtual reality world (sometimes with other people, as in most online gaming), but all the while is carefully constructed and designed to shunt the character through a series of predetermined scenarios.

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    1. Good points all round. I do think, though, that it was more common for audience members to notice one another and interact at the fixed panoramas, where they could see one another in the muted light and there was no narrator to interrupt. Moving panoramas were usually shown in a darkened room, although, as Twain notes in his story, by the later 19th century the darkness had other uses: "Young bucks and heifers -- they always come out strong on panoramas, you know, because it gives them a chance to taste each other's mugs in the dark.".

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  3. In his discussion of the stationary panorama, Oettermann outlined the ways in which this new art form appealed to the masses - the size and scope of the artwork, the ability to view the image from all angles, the contemporary subject matter (especially the "ripped from the headlines" battle scenes), etc. Due to the attempts of European panoramic artists to capture reality - or hyper-reality as the case may be - an audience member need not be an art critic to appreciate the image before him/her. I think that perhaps the popularity of the moving panoramas may be attributed to some of these same traits. The panorama represented a sort of democratization of art, and the moving panorama took that a step further. Forget an education in art, the moving panorama's rotation of images and aural stimulation meant that an audience member need not even have a real attention span in order to enjoy. One's attention is directed by the narrator (and perhaps by the "special effects") to the exact spot on the canvas which is the most important. The requirement of literacy was even removed from the equation - where the audience of a stationary panorama is required to read the guide in order to know exactly what he is seeing, the audience of a moving panorama need only understand a bit of English in order to receive full enjoyment. I believe that all of these factors (coupled with the change in subject matter from European vistas to scenes of travel and the American West) would have appealed to an American audience.

    As to modern media, the descriptions of smoke and lights as "special effects" of moving panoramas reminds me a bit of the "4D" video presentations at theme parks. One that springs to mind is the "A Bug's Life" short at Disney's Animal Kingdom, which exposes the audience to fog, mist, prodding from behind the seat, and 3D imaging in order to make them feel more immersed in the experience - like what they are seeing is actually happening.

    Finally, the protagonist in Dickens' story reminds me quite vividly of Karl Pilkington, who is known for his work with comic Ricky Gervais on the British series "An Idiot Abroad". Like Mr. Booley, Pilkington was loathe to travel outside of the U.K. and was quite resistant to foods and activities that were outside his experience. His sole experience with the world outside of his native country came from television programs and documentaries. Like Mr. Booley, he seemed to be a hyperbolic representation of a certain type of person, and the program ("Idiot Abroad") comedically highlighted his discomfort with all things foreign. I feel like the Mr. Booley's of the modern world spend their time watching docu-series like "Planet Earth," "Life," and "Human Planet".

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    1. Good point about "the requirement of literacy" -- in both Britain and the US, the literacy rate was well under 50% for much of the 19th century. And even beyond that, books were expensive, beyond the reach of many of the working classes. How much more one might learn from a panorama, and painlessly! The panorama proprietors made much of this in their advertising, comparing the cost of a panorama not only to that of an actual trip, but the knowledge acquired as 'greater than that which may be acquired by reading a stack of books"!

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  4. Tatevik MartirosyanFebruary 10, 2015 at 6:32 PM

    As the narrator in The Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress says, audiences were able to enjoy the “moving” panorama because it introduced a “new” and “easy road” for information to reach the brain. Parents could enjoy these panoramas with their children, because while an older and more educated person would both enjoy and understand the events, a younger audience member could simply enjoy the pictures. Therefore, it was accessible to wider audiences. I believe this is one of the reasons the moving panorama became so popular in the nineteenth century, because audiences were not required to read and absorb the material, but rather, the moving panorama, through its musical effects, paintings, and narration created a pleasant environment. The combination of paintings, and narration allowed viewers to go back in time. In addition, while at a theatre or at a viewing of a play you are focused more on the actors, here, the main emphasis is on the paintings, while the narrator’s words accompany what is happening. While watching the panorama, it had the effect of placing the audience in the past. Going back to the first weeks reading, the word “panorama” comes from the words “to see” and “all,” and I believe this just what the moving panorama achieves, by allowing us to see the past in great detail. Through each moving scene I felt as though I was a part of the action, and a witness of the events, which again contribute to the many reasons why the moving panorama was so popular in its day.
    After reading Charles Dickens’s “Some Account of an Extraordinary Traveler,” I have to state that Dickens achieved something that in my opinion not many authors can, and that is making his readers, or at least, me, believe that Mr. Booley’s trip was a realty. Dickens’s descriptions of the events are so vivid. He writes, “A little farther towards the west, and the trees and flowers were changed, the moss was gone …” (74). These small details have the ability to situate the reader in the place being described. This story is a small panorama in itself, because its distinct images provide the experience that we were on this trip with Mr. Booley. Today, one can see people similar to the character of Mr. Booley on channels such as the “travel channel,” which showcase a variety of places one has not been to, but can “feel” the experience simply by watching the show. Similar to the Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress, Mr. Booley also takes the reader on a journey around the world. I agree with Gabe that today, compared to the moving panorama, a historic documentary film for example, does not have the same effect on its viewers. There are many different reasons for this. Today, media has advanced so much that while watching a documentary we think of it as another television show. The moving panorama, however, has the ability to make me stop for a minute and enjoy the artwork, which so carefully depicts each character and event.
    It is also interesting that while watching The Panorama of Pilgrim’s Progress, we were similar to Mr. Booley’s character, because without actually leaving our homes, we were left with a sensation that we too had been on a journey.

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  5. There seems to be educational value in the moving panorama. I'm not sure "educational" is the best word; "enlightening" seems appropriate, even though we are talking about the 19th century here. But what I'm thinking is both the panorama video I watched (Pilgrim's Progress) and the Dickens suggest that the panorama's ability to efficiently produce knowledge and understanding provided for its popularity. At the beginning of Pilgrim's Progress, the narrator describes the panoramic version of the tale as a "new and easy road by which this book may get to the brain," and, throughout the Dickens, Mr. Booley is praised for his insatiable "appetite for knowledge." At the end of the Dickens, it's suggested that what is so valuable about the panoramas is that it allows, for the common public, "new worlds [to be opened up for them]...[the ability to] widen their range of reflection, information..." It reads, "The more man knows of man, the better." Such remarks suggest that the popularity of the new medium is due to its capacity for the enlightenment of its viewers in times marked by 1) a belief in the intrinsic value of (scientific) knowledge (although we often oppose 19th century Romantic art to science) and 2) the breakdown of a social barrier excluding the less erudite citizen from the privileges of science and knowledge (something that Oetterman notes in discussions of the liberated middle class). A reflection of this modern society's attachment to science is found, for example, in Dickens' wry reference to "the eternal current of progress setting across this globe in one unchangeable direction" (which marks the true "civilizations" Booley sees but not the "savage beasts") as well as, for another example, the remarkable (to me at least) symbolization, in Pilgrim's Progress, of the wisdom & experience of the shepherds by their ability to use their telescope technology (not to mention the application of the term, "progress," to denote a religious journey).

    The combination of the moving panorama's ability to educate with its employment for a religious story perhaps speaks further to the reasons for its popularity in the still devoutly Christian world surrounding the medium. Pilgrim's Progress is full of depictions of both evil and divine mythological creatures, such as the ghoul-looking things in the Valley of the Shadow of Death, or the angels at the gate to the celestial city. Those who may have viewed the panorama had, through their churches and Bibles, the ability to conjure up representations of such mythological entities only in their imaginations. On the other hand, the panorama gives form to the objects of its viewers' faith. While it would probably be believed on the part of the viewers that, generally, no mortal human has ever seen such creatures depicted in Pilgrim's Progress, there is going to be, on some level, an assumption that the depictions of the mythological creatures in such an artwork reflect the "actual reality" of these entities. In this way, the panorama functions as a method for the viewers to develop a fuller, more-fleshed out perspective of the systems of belief to which they adhere. Now, this same function could be applied to the more primitive paintings of the Medieval era and to other more ancient forms of visual art, so I suppose the instance of this function in the moving panorama should be seen as an extension of an older function in the context of a more inherently realistic genre, with this realism providing for the greater effectiveness of such a function.

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    1. Given that an essential feature of the moving panorama as a medium is its combination of visual representation with the narration of events, I'm inclined to say the medium itself is paralleled by contemporary film and television as a whole. Considering simply the medium, the Mr. Booley's of today could be film and TV viewers in general. A major difference, though, with regard to the medium is that television and film comprise actors playing roles, while there are no actors in the moving panorama. In this way, "the screen" is a medium that borrows something from the ancient art of drama that it does not from the younger moving panorama, which is closer to written literature than to drama in its lack of actors.

      A significant distance between film/TV and the moving panorama becomes imaginable when one considers the cultural aspect of the moving panorama as an educational or enlightening experience. This is because the vast majority of contemporary and television is not made for the purposes of enlightenment but instead reflects our contemporary culture of "pure entertainment." Still, it is definitely true that contemporary television and film develops its viewers' perspectives on the world in which they live and disposes them to particular systems of beliefs, but, within the context of today's entertainment on the screen, this happens in a purely indirect, discreet sort of way. Admittedly, I am pretty much just going off the readings/my familiarity with the topics of Pilgrim's Progress and the other moving panorama we had the option to watch, so perhaps there are other 19th century moving panoramas made for pure entertainment that I just don't know about. But, assuming that the capacity for enlightenment is quite important to the value of the moving panorama, then parallels in contemporary entertainment may be difficult to the find. The best I can think of is the contemporary made-for-TV documentary, which often consists of a narrator relating knowledge over a series of visual representations–I do find the moving panoramas to be quite similar to documentaries (and specifically TV documentaries, because I think filmic ones are more diverse and often different in nature than ones on TV). And documentaries are often narrated in a serious-though-invested, old-timey-white-male sort of voice that you hear behind the moving panorama and that contrasts the diction that characterizes much of the rest of television. Considering this, I guess a Mr. Booley of today would be some documentary-junkie, who, every night when he comes home from work, spends all of his time watching documentary after documentary, and I suppose such a person exists, although I have never heard of one. Then again, the contemporary documentary thing might not really get at the aspect of virtual reality in Mr. Booley's adventures.

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  6. In reading the responses posted thus far, and considering the readings for last week, viewing the panorama and reading the Dicken's PDF, I can appreciate the feeling of the panorama being "passive" viewership. Yet I can't help but to realize that I will always struggle to put myself into a position to consider it from the perspective of the 1800s. As I watch the panorama on my tablet, and answer texts and emails on my iPhone, I recognize have been spoiled by technology. Yet, 150 or so years from now, they will look back and wonder what fascinated us so much about cell phones, tablets, GPS, and gaming systems.

    I think the panorama gave people an experience that they couldn't get otherwise. So what can I make of the fascination with panoramas? It brought travel to a whole group of people who didn't have the means. Once they made the panorama move, and narrate the scene, it made it all the more realistic. It gave people something in common to talk about, and probably was a status symbol for those who could comment on the realism of the scene (from experience) or from being fortunate enough to see a competitor's version.

    People love to be entertained. From what we can tell, storytelling has been around since before written records existed, and probably as long as humans have been on the earth. It makes sense that people will look for new ways to experience stories, and embrace them when they come about. It seems ridiculous that I make time every Sunday night to watch shows like The Walking Dead or Revenge, but I don't want to be left out of the discussion the next day when my team walks down for coffee. I feel the moving panorama is the same idea, people didn't want to miss out, and be left out of the conversation.

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  7. I think that panoramas were a popular medium in their day, first and foremost, for the experience. This was something that was completely new to people. This was not just art on a canvas that showed one particular moment in time and space, but this was art that told a story over time. It recounted an experience for people to actually watch move and tell a story. The panorama was to static art what television must have been to radio. There was always a story being told, but now there can be more of an interaction between viewer and the story. The viewer can feel as if they are part of the story by watching it unfold. As other responses have mentioned, the panorama was also a way for people to "travel" like Mr. Booley had. Assuming travel was difficult and expensive, this was a way for people to experience people, places, and/or things without the expenses and difficulties of physically traveling.

    My first thought about a modern day Mr. Booley brought me to children in school. Often, students who are learning about a particular place, group of people, etc. will watch documentaries, or see a film at the IMAX pertaining to that subject. This also brings me to believe that documentaries are modern day panoramas. Like Mr. Booley and his panoramas, people who watch documentaries can recount their experience, detailing what they have seen, simulating travel and actual, physical experiences.

    Another example of a Mr. Booley, although not modern day, could have been Shakespeare. Although he never left England, he included foreign countries and cultures in his plays. He would have had to get his information from somewhere, whether it had been written or oral accounts of a person's actual travels. Like Mr. Booley, he was able to learn about different places and people without ever having to leave England.

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  8. I apologize for being late to the game, for I am still trying to wrap my head around all of this…

    It is clear to see why panoramas were popular. Their experiences were pseudo-intellectual, and they were entertaining. They allowed people, as many have said, experiences beyond that which they would get at home and via reading. As I watched The Pilgrims Progress I was intrigued with the narration for its information and with the visuals for their beauty. And yet, I was frustrated with the time I spent in the endeavor, for I knew I had more to do. In this way the panoramas remind me of social media. It is intriguing and frustrating. I understand that moving panoramas’ contemporary audience would not have felt this way, yet the comparison moves beyond the time these activities take. In social media we seem to be a part of the experiences, both good and bad, of our family and friends, and yet we are slightly removed from the reality. It is reminiscent of Mr. Booley’s experience with the moon. Once Mr. Booley “(returned) to his native country,” just as we shut off social media, we “(have the satisfaction of finding all (our) things as usual” (74).

    While panoramas were popular at the time, Dickens’ account seems smugly critical of the common man’s experiences through them. In many ways Dickens’ piece reminded me of “The Nacirema.” Both works seems academic and laudatory, when in reality they mock their subject. Mr. Booley’s failure to truly absorb his journeys, and perhaps make them a part of his cognitive conscious, reminds me of the twenty-four hour news stations which constantly throw information at us. While Mr. Booley chooses to not “(settle) down, to muse” (74), we are never given the time to do so.

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