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.


  1. As Huhtamo is describing late nineteenth century revivals of older forms of moving panoramas, I believe he suggests at a couple of points that these revivals, though entailing the usage of obsolete forms, were nevertheless presented to audiences as realistic. And this reminds me of Barthes' suggestion that the photograph is not a realistic medium, in that it is not a representational medium. I wonder if it's right to look at the photograph not in any way as a successor to the moving panorama, to instead look at the moving panorama as leading directly into film, with the photograph occupying a wholly different space within the context of visual culture.

    With regard to the crankies, I have to see them as a purely contemporary phenomenon. I think the furthest extent to which they are a revival is in their employment of technology/mediums that are (not entirely) a product of the past. Other than that, I have to suggest that the crankies serve an essentially different cultural role from that of the moving panorama and other similar nineteenth century visual mediums. And if its cultural role being contemporary (even though the medium is old) therefore means that the phenomenon itself is contemporary, then maybe this reflects something about how the cultural context of art is at least as essential to its significance as are the technicalities of the art itself. Though, like I just suggested, I have to think that the crankie is, even at the level of medium, partially new: I don't really know anything about the history of style in visual art, but the visual art displayed on the canvases used for the crankies seems much more contemporary in style than what you would see in a nineteenth century painting.

  2. I was thinking some more about the "relentless" urge for "the new":

    In our earlier readings, we saw Oetterman suggest that the advent of the panorama/"horizon" had something to do with the increased liberty of the modern individual, and we certainly saw plentiful liberties in the life of Mr. Booley. I have a feeling that the relentless urge for the new is somehow tied to the modern liberation and empowerment of the individual.

    The other side of the coin of the relentless desire for the new media is the ceaseless aging of old media; while we are constantly desiring the new, we are constantly getting bored with what has become over-used and old. And what is it about old media that makes it feel "old"? Well, I guess maybe you could say that part of what makes it old is, for one thing, the powers of the medium no longer empower because they become unexceptional with repetition, and, for another, a substantial portion of the population has experienced the empowerment. So new mediums are invented and appreciated until their powers become normalized–that is, no longer empowering and no longer unique to a select group of individuals.

    Maybe this could be related to the current-day usage of new media to individualize the movie experience, to create the "micro-cultures" rather than mass mediums: through the personalized media of such micro cultures, the viewer is empowered to see film in a new way and the liberty of a customized set-up in which one views whatever they want/however & whenever they want preserves the individuality of the consumer. This statement is likely supported by the appeals advertisements for new media make about their products, and it's interesting to consider how rooted existing marketing schemes may be in modern ideologies.