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.

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