Monday, March 30, 2015

The Origins of Cinema

Although its basic technical details are clear enough, the origins of cinema are shrouded in doubt, dispute, and even death. As with other media technologies, among the earliest uses of sequential images were in scientific projects, such as those of Marey and Muybridge. The technical problem confronting them both was how to get a series of images in quick, measured sequence. Muybridge used timers and tripwires to obtain sequential images; Marey, more direct, invented a cinematic gun which "fired" a cylinder of small photonegatives; it looked somewhat like a Thompson submachine gun but was limited to 12 exposures. What was really needed was some kind of double movement -- a shutter which would open and close quickly and repeatedly, and a mechanism which would advance the photosensitive material. When the material in question was glass plates, the problem was overwhelming -- but with the invention of celluloid photo "film" by George Eastman, a solution was in sight, and the prize belonged to the inventor who could best employ it.

Louis Augustin Le Prince (above) is my personal favorite among the many candidates for first filmmaker. He had gotten his start working on great-circle panoramas, where his job was projecting glass plate photos onto the canvas for artists to trace. Arriving in Leeds, England, in the late 1880's, he married into a well-off family, and his father-in-law financed further experiments. Le Prince's first design was a 16-lens camera, using a series of "mutilated gears" to fire off 16 frames in short order on two strips of film. He later designed a single-lens camera, with a mechanical movement using smooth rollers (sprockets not yet having been tried) to advance the film. He planned to stage a grand d├ębut in New York City, and had rented a private mansion for his demonstration; his equipment was packed into custom-made crates, and his tickets were purchased for crossing on a luxurious Cunard liner. And yet just then, as he was returning from visiting his brother in Dijon, France, he vanished from the Dijon-Paris express and was never seen again, alive or dead.

As with many early cinematographers, Le Prince's films do not survive. Eastman's celluloid turned out to be volatile; it could disintegrate into a brown powder, burst into flame, or even explode without warning. However, at some point, paper prints were made of three of his films, and these have been reconstructed into short, viewable sequences. The films were made in 1888, earlier than any others. His first film, "Roundhay Garden Scene," shows his family dancing about in his father-in-law's back garden; his second, "Leeds Bridge," shows traffic and pedestrians crossing a bridge in the city where he worked; the third, untitled, shows his young son playing an accordion as he dances upon a set of stairs. The only question is: with what camera were these shot? Distortions and perspective problems with the frames, as well as the fact that there are rarely more than 16 of them, suggest that the 16-lens camera is the most likely source, but some believe he used his single-lens camera for some or all of the films. If so, he was certainly the first person in the world to make what we have come to regard as cinema film.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Rise, and Fall, and Rise of Panoramas and Lanterns

Old mass media never dies, it seems -- it just shrinks away 'till we can't quite see it, disguising itself as a nursery-room toy, only to rise again when you least expect it.

Public panoramas faded away in the 1880's and '90's, even before the invention and exhibition of film. But as they vanished from the eyes of the paying public, they re-emerged in the form of miniature scrolling views, designed for home exhibit, or sold as toys for children. An enterprising draughtsman by the name of Milton Bradley offered toy-size box panoramas for sale, and these became the foundation of the later Milton Bradley Company (now part of Hasbro), which brought baby boomers such classic games as Battleship, Twister, Operation, and even Hungry Hungry Hippos. Panoramic toys, alas faded from view over time, although the same idea was used in some later toys, such as Mattel/Disney's "Mickey Mouse Scrolling Television." It was left to the early twenty-first century for panoramas to be revived in modest scale by "crankies," a new form that has taken the world by storm in the past few years, thanks in part to notable artists such as Katherine Fahey, Anna and Elizabeth, Sue Truman, and Dejah Leger (please click on all of these links -- you will not be diappointed!).

The Magic Lantern, in contrast, never really went away at all, but simply changed form. The magic lantern evolved into the Stereopticon, the last big public-lecture system, which was used extensively well into the early decades of the twentieth century. Lanternist Terry Borton recently compiled a study of the Chautauqua Lecture Circuit, compiling a table of all those lecturers who used the Stereopticon. To give some idea of how many lectures on this circuit were given, Borton notes that one man -- "Sunshine" Dietrich -- who over the course of 14 years delivered 3,333 lectures in 35 different states! At the same time, lantern lectures were re-packaged for home use, bringing them back into the domestic sphere, with the domestic version bringing what had been a public entertainment into the private sphere (a move that has later been repeated with audio, film, and video entertainments).

Eventually rechristened the "slide projector," it reached its zenith in the Kodak Carousel. The Carousel stopped production years ago, but today's PowerPoint and Prezi systems, among others, are still based on the exact same idea of sequential images. In recent years, the original Magic Lantern, with its brass-mounted lenses, dissolving views, and period slides, has been making a comeback as well.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Camera Lucida

In French, it's "La Chambre Claire" -- the clear (or empty) chamber. The term was originally coined to describe an optical device invented in 1807, which reflected and refracted the image of a solid object onto paper. But for Barthes, it's a metaphor for the larger re-arrangement of our ways of seeing ushered in by the invention and popularization of photography.

When first announced by Daguerre, photography was claimed as the "pencil of nature," with photographs the work of the Sun itself. And yet, were that true, where could art possibly enter in -- one is reminded of Joshua Reynold's reassurance to Robert Barker that his newfangled "Panorama," though very realistic in its effect, was still "within the purview of Art." There must, then, be some human agency in how a photograph is "taken" (what a curious verb we use!), how it is developed, edited, printed, and reproduced, and how then received by its viewers.

This is what Barthes sets out to investigate, beginning with his own, seemingly subjective, responses to a series of photographs. He uses, at first, the classical French structuralist terms: the photograph is the "signifier," its seeming subject the "signified," the actual source in reality the "referent." And yet, in order to account for the experience of seeing a photograph, he finds he must introduce two new terms, the punctum and the studium. The studium simpy put, is what the photograph "says" it is about -- which might be "I am a photograph of some poor people," or "This is the Sphinx at Gizeh." There are, doubtless, illustrations in textbooks and works of reference that are, in essence, nothing more. But then there is something else, something which Barthes sees as "piercing" the viewer, the punctum. It might be a crooked tooth in a boy's mouth, or the glint in one eye of a man about to be hanged. Once seen, it shatters the distance that the studium can only gesture towards, and hurls us into the immediacy of the scene: we cannot look away.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Fiendish Mirror of Daguerre

The arrival of photography was not, as we conceive of it now, the arrival of the possibility of accurate representations of reality. The eyes of the times were as yet untrained to decipher the "real" within photographical realism. The Duke of Wellington complained that his nose looked too big (never mind that his nickname in the Army had been "Old Nosey"), and many public figures avoided photography as though it were the plague. In the cartoon shown here, Punch magazine satirized the "Interesting and Valuable Result" of a family photograph; to many at the time, the camera's eye seemed a lie, almost an instant caricature of the sitter's worst qualities.

The Daguerreotype, the very first commercial process, was expensive and time-consuming; early sitters had to remain still for at least three minutes, assisted in this task by a metal neck-brace. The cost of the photo was based on the size of the copper plate from which it was made; a "sixteenth plate" was the smallest, and cost the modern equivalent of more than $100; a quarter- or half-plate such as was ideal for a family portrait could cost well over $500. Daguerreotypes were also "one offs," in that the plate was the positive and (because opaque) could not be printed off. Yet at around the same time, William Henry Fox Talbot developed his "Talbotype" process (also known as a Calotype), using sensitized paper to produce a negative image. From this paper negative, any number of positives could be made, although since their medium was paper, the outlines were far less sharp than with Daguerreotypes. Finally, the invention of glass-plate negative processes such as the Ambrotype (also known as a Collodion Positive) created a medium in which many excellent copies could easily be made from a single negative. By the era of the American Civil War, inexpensive photographic processes such as the Tintype meant that very few soldiers went off to battle without leaving a photo behind, and quite often took a family photo with them. The final step in cheapness and availability was George Eastman's invention of flexible celluloid film, which was used both in still and in moving picture cameras; with its inexpensive "Brownie" box cameras and rolled film that could be processed anywhere, Eastman and Kodak (who later merged) made the "snapshot" a part of the American, and the world, landscape.