What can the magic lantern teach us about today’s ‘right-click culture’

My paper for the panel, The Mobility of Images in the Digital Age, convened by Professor Sue Best and Dr Jess Berry, Art Association of Australia and New Zealand Conference, University of Westrn Australia, December 2017.

I have a very untidy computer desktop. It’s littered with PDFs, word files and jpegs. If I right-click on a jpeg, I can choose to open it with one of fifteen different applications, or I can share it on one of eight different online platforms. If I move from my desktop to the internet and right-click on an image, I can perform twelve different operations on it, one of which is saving it back to my desktop.

We are all familiar with the latest statistics, with their proliferating number of zeroes at the end, telling us how many photographs are taken and shared every minute. Much ink has been spilled, some even by me, on the implications of all of this for photography. Usually the talk is of rupture. Even if it is recognized that photography was always a medium of reproducibility, the contemporary theorist usually puts the word ‘exponential’ in his or her sentence to signify some fundamental rupture.

But, guess when the evocatively exponential number of ‘a billion’ was first deployed in relation to photography? It was way back in 1859, when Oliver Wendell Holmes mused that the Coliseum and the Pantheon had, just by existing, been ‘shedding’ their own images, their visual forms, ever since they had first been built. With the invention of photography this ‘image shedding’ could be conceptualized as billions of lost photographs.

 

There is only one Coliseum or Pantheon; but how many millions of potential negatives have they shed,—representatives of billions of pictures,—since they were erected!

Holmes also realized that these captured image-forms were less substantial than the real thing, but the trade off for this decrease in substantiality was an increase in transportability.

Matter in large masses must always be fixed and dear; form is cheap and transportable. [soon] [m]en will hunt all curious, beautiful, grand objects, as they hunt the cattle in South America, for their skins, and leave the carcasses as of little worth. … The consequence of this will soon be such an enormous collection of forms that they will have to be classified and arranged in vast libraries, as books are now.

153 years later Hito Steyerl was making pretty much the same point in her discussion of ‘the wretched of the screen’, those digital ‘poor images’ that are low-resolution derivatives of the original first-level images which Holmes had originally discussed as derivatives of matter itself:

The poor image is a copy in motion. Its quality is bad, its resolution substandard. As it accelerates it deteriorates. It is the ghost of an image, a preview, a thumbnail, an errant idea, an itinerant image distributed for free, squeezed through slow digital connections, compressed, reproduced, ripped, remixed, as well as copied and pasted into other channels of distribution.

Both Holmes and Steyerl saw a technological trade off of decreased materiality for increased motion: for Holmes from matter to image, for Steyerl from high-res image to low-res image. Both also concluded that this trade off of substance for distribution was, in fact, ultimately constituting a new ‘reality’.

I evoke these historical bookends — Oliver Wendell Holmes, the plump nineteenth century Boston doctor, and Hito Steyerl, the glamorous twenty-first century German video artist — because they both squared up to and embraced the realities of reproduction, and I want to argue about ‘the digital’ not from the point of view of its rupture, but its continuity. I don’t want to perform a teleology, but an archaeology

In an essay from the mid 1990s, Foucault described the period of 1860 to 1880 as a ‘frenzy for images’, when all of the emerging reproduction technologies such as chromolithography and photography began to interact with traditional painting.

… there came a new freedom of transposition, displacement, and transformation, of resemblance and dissimulation, of reproduction, duplication and trickery of effect. It engendered a wholesale theft of images, an appropriation still utterly novel, but already dexterous, amused and unscrupulous. …. There emerged a vast field of play where technicians and amateurs, artists and illusionists, unworried about identity, took pleasure in disporting themselves. Perhaps they were less in love with paintings or photographic plates than with the images themselves, with their migration and perversion, their transvestism, their disguised difference. … To them there was nothing more hateful than to remain captive, self-identical, in one painting, one photograph, one engraving, under the aegis of one author. No medium, no language, no stable syntax could contain them; from birth to last resting place, they could always escape through new techniques of transposition.

Foucault’s description could also apply to the practice of the magic lantern, which was blossoming and becoming culturally pervasive during exactly the same period. The apparatus of the magic lantern began in the Netherlands in the mid 1660s and it ends up there, on the ceiling of this seminar room. Traveling entertainers carried magic lanterns on their backs around Europe for over century before the technology became incorporated into a theatrical illusion designed for metropolitan audiences called The Phantasmagoria. Later in the nineteenth century this technology began to be industrially manufactured and marketed directly to the middle classes and the intelligentsia. Photographic magic lantern slides began to be produced after 1850 and by the end of the century audiences around the world were laughing at ingeniously animated hand painted slides, and at hand coloured photographic slides that told moral stories or illustrated sentimental songs. The ARC project I lead, Heritage in the Limelight, has already assembled a database of five and half thousand of these slides.

At this time, at the height of modernity, the strange couplet ‘magic’ and ‘lantern’ was at its most compelling, the word ‘lantern’ projected the rational illumination of knowledge, whereas the word ‘magic’ harked back to the psychological affects of deception, illusion and diabolical darkness. The strange couplet was still in use well into the twentieth century when, after bequeathing its grammar of narrative syntax and visual effects to film, it stayed on as part of the cinematic apparatus showing theatre advertisements and illustrating songs. It also entered the home, the school-room, the church hall and the university, slowly transforming into the 35mm slide and eventually the Powerpoint slide.

The magic lantern was an apparatus of reproduction, distribution and recombination. There was no such thing as an ‘original’ slide, they were copies of illustrations, paintings, prints or other photographs. There is no such thing as a single slide, each slide was produced as part of a set, and stored, distributed and exhibited as multimedia sequences. There are thousands of amateur slides, but millions of mass-produced ones which were retailed in shops around the world. But the consumers at the end of the production chain were also producers. Lantern slides have to be projected to be realized, and it was up to the lanternist to decide which combination the slides were projected in, and with what musical or spoken accompaniment.

The magic lantern was a ubiquitous visual presence, yet the silos of scholarship have all but ignored it. For art historians there are no genius artists to biography, no rare objects to analyse, no conceptual innovations to name, no radical styles to track. For the art market there is nothing to sell, nothing to buy, nothing to appreciate. For film historians the magic lantern is just ‘pre-cinema’, an imperfect version of ‘the movies’, waiting to be superseded. For the photo historian the glass slide disappears behind the primacy of the paper print with its physical relationship to the traditional work of art.

However, even as the traditional historical disciplines were doing their best to to ignore the magic lantern, the lantern itself was at work, secretly transforming them from within. Because of the lantern, the immediate object of art history became not the art-work itself, but the photograph of the art work. After the lantern, all of art history became merely a subcategory of photography. Disguised, but nonetheless crucial dates in the development of the discipline of art history are: 1854, when the British Museum appointed Roger Fenton as their first Official Photographer; 1884 when John Ruskin borrowed a magic lantern from a London theatre to project his watercolours at a lecture (Fawcett 453); and 1909 when the South Kensington Museum started to catalogue its fast-growing glass slide collection (Fawcett 456).

In Berlin, the Professor of Art History, Hermann Grimm, began to use the magic lantern scientifically, like a microscope in reverse, isolating and enlarging the art work so the viewer could apprehend it in its essential totality. In keeping with other scientific demonstration of the period, the lecture room became a kind of laboratory stage, or an experimental theatre. (Karlholm p208).

Grimm’s successor, Heinrich Wölfflin, elaborated on this theatre. A student recalled that Wölfflin removed himself from the lectern to the side of the audience. When a new image appeared on the screen, he would resist the temptation to speak for a while, building audience expectation within a tangible silence. Then, as if listening to the work itself, be would begin to slowly put words and sentences to the image, to converse with it, creating the impression that the art work, literally, spoke to him. (Karlholm 209-210)

Wölfflin further developed his use of the magic lantern by using two lanterns to project two images side-by-side. One projector showed the ‘key note’ throughout a sequence, while the other showed variations, details or exceptions. Other German art historians in the same period, such as Adolph Goldschmidt, were also using double projections to make it easier for students to compare two different art works, both flattened to a equivalent black and white monochrome, without having to retain one in their memory. These magic lantern lectures were thus a side-by-side comparison as well as a one-after-the-other progression. Thus, the students mesmerized in the dark beheld art history manifested not in the museum, but in their imaginations. (Nelson 430).

In 1912, at the Tenth International Congress of Art History, Aby Warburg performed his famous iconographical analysis of a renaissance fresco in a lantern-slide lecture, which he referred to as a ‘cinematographic spotlight’. (Michaud 38). Warburg’s ‘iconology of intervals’ which paid attention to the montaging of multiple images, and his discovery of what he called a ‘pathos formula’ of poses that travelled across history, geography and cultural difference, was entirely dependent on an archive of photographic reproductions, and an apparatus of both narrative and comparative conjunction, provided by the magic lantern.

Recently Georges Didi-Huberman has revived interest in Warburg, and interdisciplinary scholars like Philippe-Alain Michaud have seen Warburg’s famous Mnemosyne Atlas, produced in the late 1920s, as part of an emerging ‘cinematic mode of thought’ (Michaud 278). But they too have forgotten the power of the magic lantern to structure thought. More than just being a proto-film, Warburg’s panels were really a physical materialization of the two-lantern magic lantern lecture. The ideal space of the darkened auditorium is reproduced in the black cloth with which he covered the sixty-three panels to which he stapled his reproductions, and the transport of the lecture is reproduced in their sequential installation. Like the lectures, the pictures on the panels are both side-by-side and one-after-another, both paradigmatic and syntagmatic.

Contrary to the claims of Michaud, the media form which Warburg’s unfinished masterwork prefigured was not only the movies, but also today’s Google Image Search or Pinterest Board. So I would like to conclude with some other examples, not only from the magic lantern’s impact on the exhausted discipline of art history, but from the vernacular practice of the magic lantern itself, to make the archaeological connection between magic lantern practice and the ‘right-click’ culture of contemporary media.

Enter the words ‘Ned Kelly’ into Google image search and you’ll be met with an array of images: nineteenth century photographs of the bearded man himself, woodcut illustrations from 1880 newspapers of Ned in his armour, images of Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger acting in their respective Kelly films, and kitsch souvenirs. If you visit the National Museum of Australia’s online catalogue and enter the same words you will return a not dissimilar grid of images — 77 Ned Kelly magic lantern slides which were purchased as a set in the early 2000s. You won’t find Mick or Heath, but you will find film stills from Australia’s first Ned Kelly film, The Story of the Kelly Gang, as well as images copied from books about Kelly.

The images in the slides themselves aren’t rare, most of them were frequently reproduced as the Kelly myth grew and grew. But what is of interest is the unknown person who assembled them in the 1940s. Whoever they were, this amateur iconologist was obviously a bushranger buff preparing a show, perhaps for a public lecture at an historical society, or perhaps just for their family of friends. They have made the lantern-slides by copying the huge array of bushranger imagery already circulating through contemporary sources. Each slide has been extensively labelled and relabelled, and each has been placed into its own sleeve improvised out of old bank deposit envelopes. Perhaps our lanternist had a personal interest in Kelly’s crimes, perhaps he was a bank teller by day and a bushranger buff by night? In the spidery handwriting of an aged person captions and prompting words for a live commentary have been added to the envelopes, such as RED BLAZE FLAMES, for a slide of Glenrowan pub on fire. This slide has also been hand coloured, so the burning of the Glenrowan pub, tinted red in Australia’s first feature film, is tinted red again in this lantern slide. Other images come straight from the siege. For instance the set contains the famous image by J W Lindt of the body of Joe Byrne strung up an a door. However, this image was copied out of a book, perhaps Julian Ashton’s autobiography published in the 1941.

This obscure collection is significant because it prefigures today’s casual ‘right click culture’. Magic lantern slides were a way of ‘saving as’ existing images, duplicating them, reformatting them, shifting them and recontextualising them. The Museum has preserved here not just a comprehensive databank of bushranger iconography, but a complete individual practice, a new way that had been emerging for decades for everyday people to use popular images to say new things about their history.

Another example is Nothing To Do, a set in the Heritage in the Limelight collection. We are pretty sure this set was assembled in Australia. The slides illustrate a poem written by the Reverend Walter John Mathams who visited Australia between 1879 and 1882, when he was a minister at the South Yarra Baptist Church. The poem warns that those who turn a blind eye to poverty, drunkenness or violence because ‘there is nothing to do’, will be condemned in the afterlife. Nothing To Do was published in Mathams’ book Bristles for Brooms, as well as various Australian newspapers after 1888. In 1943, sixty years after it was written, the socialist writer Mary Gilmore republished it yet again in her column ‘For Worker Women’ in the union newspaper The Australian Worker. This set of slides would have been assembled around the 1890s, and may have been performed in protestant churches or at union events. (Gordon Bull does an excellent performance of the poem on the Heritage in the Limelight website.) The ‘life model’ slides which make up most of the images in Nothing to Do were manufactured overseas by companies who posed models against painted backdrops, photographed them, hand coloured them, and then distributed them, as a multimedia packages along with a printed reading, throughout the Anglophone world. But this set has been bricolaged from other sets. Images that were originally made for other sentimental songs, pious poems, or melodramatic stories have been repurposed. These have been mixed with conventional travel slides to illustrate some of the poem’s more trenchant points.

How do we know that the bricoleur was Australian? Because another set from the same period, which uses the same printed labels, attempts re-territorialize a set of America ‘song slides’ for the Australian market. The song is called He Carved His Mother’s Name Upon the Tree, and the slides were made to ‘illustrate’ a live performance of the song in theatres, therefore increasing sales of the sheet music which is how musical content was distributed before the mass production of gramophone records.

However in the set shown in Australia, tiny rectangles of black tape has been used to modify the opening slide, which is a photographic reproduction of the cover of the sheet music. The identity of the American song illustrators has been erased, and the original Tin Pan Alley music publisher has been replaced with a Melbourne sheet music retailer. In addition, tape has been used to cover the words “A sympathetic song from life” at the top edge of the slide. We see in this example physical evidence of competition between emerging global territories for technologized content, which is so much part of our contemporary media environment.

These three examples may appear minor, but they are just the tip of a very big iceberg. Once the last art historian has been strangled with the entrails of the last film historian, who has been strangled with the entrails of the last photo historian, media archaeologists can begin to look at the totality of our visual culture, including its technological substrata, and gain a richer understanding of the new reality being constituted by the ‘picture forms’ which the things in our lives are continually shedding.

Martyn Jolly

‘Developing the Picture: Wölfflin’s Performance Art’, Dan Karlholm, Photography and Culture, 2010, 3:2 207-215

‘The Slide Lecture, or the Work of Art ‘History’ in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Robert S. Nelson, Critical Enquiry, vol 26, no 3 Spring 300 414-434

‘The Stereograph and the Stereoscope’, Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Atlantic Monthly 1859, June

‘Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion’, Philippe-Alain Michaud, Zone Books, New York, 2004.

‘Visual Facts and the Nineteenth Century Art Lecture, Trevor Fawcett’, Art History, Vol 6, Issue 4, pp442-460

Hito Steyerl, ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’, The Wretched of the Screen

Michel Foucault, Photogenic Painting, 1994

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