The exhibition ‘Martyn Jolly’s Phantasmagoria of Magic Lanterns’ at the Canberra Museum and Gallery


The exhibition was curated by Virginia Rigney, designed by Greer Versteeg, and installed by Gary Smith.

We displayed 560 slides in a large light box.  Grids of 85x85mm square holes, each and 13mm apart, were laser cut into sheets of 4.5mm black acrylic. These were laid on 3mm clear backing acrylic, loaded with slides arranged in groups and sequences, and topped with a cover sheet of clear 2mm acrylic. The sandwiches were then taped around the edges and vertically held by a wooden frame against the inside doors of four bays a large display case. The front of the doors were covered with self-adhesive black vinyl except for the blocks of slides. The slides were lit from the front by ambient LED light, which allowed visitors to see the labels, and they were backlit through UV filtering film by fluorescent light bounced off the back wall of the case.

Interpretative handouts nearby were keyed with thumbnail images to allow visitors to find information and commentary about individual slides and slide sets within the overall grid.

As well as square glass slides, wooden mechanical slides were also displayed on glass shelves. These were lit from the front with LED lights, while the transparent painted glass images were lit from behind with electroluminescent panels trimmed down to size from 100mm x 100m sheets. The colour of each EL panel was corrected with an 81a photographic filter, and UV filtered with film. Each sandwich of EL panel, filter and UV  film was lightly attached to the rear of the slide with conservation tape and individually wired into a low voltage circuit.

These displays were augmented with:

  • Conventional displays of magic lanterns.
  • A circular digital projection on a facing wall introduced visitors to the exhibition, transitioning between text and images.
  • Four video screens showed performance documentation and demonstrating the mechanical slides, chromatropes and panoramic slides.
  • Enlargements of an Australian lantern slide and a Primus slide box.

Interpretive text was included in the digital projection:


As an artist and a writer I have always been interested in the way the pictures, especially photographs, affect the way people think and feel. Although I love looking at individual ‘great’ pictures, I have also been interested in the day to day work of unexceptional, sometimes overlooked, perhaps anonymous, now forgotten images — the kind that come to us en masse. I have always been interested in modest images assembled into large archives. I think about them as grids, arrays, deployments, matrices, configurations, layouts and databases. Often I delight in discovering small telling details in them, then I think about them as ancient middens, archaeological layers, geological substrata or loamy deposits.

Although I have spent my entire career involved one way for another with large collections, initially I was somewhat disdainful of collectors themselves. I held myself aloof from the covetous passions to which they allowed themselves to be myopically subjected. Then I got interested in magic lantern slides. The magic lantern is the great-great-grandmother of today’s data projector, and the glass slides they once projected onto screens in darkened rooms are the great-great-grandmothers of today’s jpegs or gifs. But the magic lantern show was much more than just the antecedent of the Powerpoint presentation. They were just as ubiquitous, but for their nineteenth and early twentieth-century audiences they could be uncanny experiences of phantasmagoric apparitions, or powerful moments of collective witnessing, or virtual journeys to exotic places, or intellectual revelations of new knowledge, or even prompts for communal praying and singing.

Magic lantern slides are not self evident objects like paintings, they are a media like a computer file, they need to played on a device — projected through a lantern with voice and music — in order for their ‘magic’ to be fully understood. To understand the historical importance of the magic lantern I needed to be able to recreate a magic lantern show, and for that I needed a lantern and slides. Although some lanterns and lots of slides have been preserved in our museums, those can no longer be used, so I was forced to become a collector.

I told myself it was only for my research, but soon the unruly passions of the collector took over and enslaved me. To get enough material to work with to produce creative reenactments I need quantity, so my collecting is more Costco the Cartier, but it is still deadly serious. I am racked with jealousy when I miss out on something at an auction, and subject to bitter self-recrimination as I succumb to the impulse to bid on just one more lot. I am now a member of an international fraternity of like-minded enthusiasts and, although we are friendly enough, we watch each other warily. As I hold them up to the light one by one up, or rearrange them on a light box, I feel that it is I, and I alone, who can properly give the slides I possess the love they deserve.



Working with actual magic lanterns has raised a whole new set of issues which I find fascinating. The lanterns I use were originally lit with oil lamps and, theoretically at least, I could clean the glass and reflectors, clean the rust off the reservoir and wick housings, source new wicks and fresh paraffin oil, and light them up. Alternatively, I could follow the paths of some researchers in Europe and recreate limelight itself, which was generated by superheating a block of calcium oxide with the flame from a mixture of oxygen and hydrogen gas. But, so far I have chosen to follow the more expedient route of using standard LED floodlights. This may be sensible because it reduces the effect of radiant heat on my old slides, and answers some of the inevitable health and safety issues in a modern performance environment, while also removing a level of complexity from the performance. I am aware that it takes the performance further away from an ‘original’. However, while on the one hand LED light is much cooler and more constant that what would have been the warm flickering light of an oil lamp, on the other hand it may have been close to the colour temperature of limelight, which I have not yet had the opportunity to see it myself, but which I understand from reading newspaper reports is very cold in colour temperature.

Despite these inevitable compromises, working directly with lanterns and slides has allowed me to physically ‘connect’ with an interesting series of people — some living, and some dead. I have enjoyed enlisting the expertise of contemporary crafts people from the ANU School of Art and Design. University schools of art and design are potentially very good places to do the kind of historical research I do because colleagues can come together with a diverse range of historical knowledges. In the cases of the artists and craftspeople I have worked with from the Painting, Jewellery and Furniture Workshops some of that historical knowledge is not only conceptual, it is also inscribed into their very muscle memory as they use skills and techniques which have lineages at least as old as the lanterns themselves.  As they have repaired my lanterns and slides before performances, I have been afforded the opportunity to think about the semi-industrial manufacturing process which were the very lineaments of the emerging media industry. When we, literally, break the apparatuses down into their component parts, I am particularly struck by the high level of ‘approximation’, compared to today’s industrial devices. As we separate the brass mechanisms from their wooden armatures, or gently lever the delicate painted glass from its housing, we reveal manual variation continually playing off mechanical repetition. You really get the sense of an industry in an urgent, quite laissez faire competition as designs were copied, corners were cut, and different markets were targeted. The standard three and a quarter inch by three and a quarter inch lantern slide was accepted as a universally interchangeable component from about the 1860s (although it was three and quarter by four and a quarter in the US), but meanwhile the wood framed hand painted and mechanical slides continued to vary widely in size and thickness until the twentieth century. In another example, four inches seems to have become the standard diameter for condenser lenses (which sometimes cracked under the heat of the flame) by the 1890s, but some manufacturers designed in brand loyalty by making their condensers slightly bigger or smaller.

I have also benefitted enormously from collaborating with a series of performers, composers, musicians, actors and singers. Only through performing have I been able to understand the true, integrated multi-dimensionality of all contemporary and historical media forms such as the magic lantern experience. Because they have generously adapted and added their own deep disciplinary knowledges and skills to support my tentative steps into projection performance, I have been able to travel quicker and further towards both rediscovering an historical affective experience and creating a new contemporary re-enactive practice. They have introduced me directly to dimensions of media which I, trained as a photographer, haven’t had to think much about. For instance, throughout my career I have talked about ‘duration’ as an abstract concept, but having to actually deal with images unfolding in a shared collaborative time has been enormously educational.

However, I have found the necessity to encounter the actual apparatus at a very intricate level, which is necessary to stage a performance with it, to be the most challenging, the most fascinating and the most rewarding. I am very glad I have had the opportunity to partner with Elisa deCourcy as a co-lanternist, who has contributed many new ideas as we have to, often quite forcefully, shove our cranky wooden slides into our ancient magic lanterns. Looking at a magic lantern for the first time is a lot like looking at any new device for the first time. There is an impressive array of knobs, levers and slides, ranged around its body, all of which evidently have some function. At first, we admire the designers and manufacturers of the nineteenth century who appear to have thought of everything, and forged a component, or cut a joint to deal with it. Brass flaps can be swung with a fingertip so the interior of the lantern can be discreetly checked though a coloured-glass porthole, wooden flaps can be raised or lowered to regulate airflow, and so on. We feel the kind of workmanlike satisfaction that BBC documentaries on Victorian railways are meant to give you.

But it is only when the contemporary lanternist begins to actually use the apparatus to give entertainments, that they realize that so much just doesn’t work properly, and never worked properly in the first place. Victorian engineering was compromised by retail expediency, the lanterns and slides worked just enough to be saleable. Slides, even the mass-produced ones, never sit in the same focal plane within the carrier and need to be adjusted for each and every slide, but some manufactures saved a few pence by only having the knurled focussing knob on one side of the lantern. There was not much integration between different manufacturers, and retailers would often assemble kits for their customers from different factories which in fact integrated poorly. For instance, because each mechanical wooden-slide or glass-slide carrier was of different size and thickness, the ‘stages’ into which they were inserted in front of the condenser lens and behind the objective lens were designed to have a very large tolerance. Even so, some elaborate slides we have, which are masterpieces of ‘Victorian ingenuity’, are in fact too thick to fit into a lantern. If we can just squeeze them in between the springs of the stage, in practice it is impossible to keep all the different layers of glass in focus at the same time. I found that many of the old slides I was purchasing have extra pieces of wood attached them, probably by a lanternist over a century ago. Now I know why, since I now have to attach my own small pieces of wood to the edges of my slides so their images fall in approximately the same spot on the screen during a show. Even with mass produced glass slides it is impossible to keep all of the image in focus because of the extreme spherical aberration of the magic lantern’s Petzval lenses, which were optically designed originally not for magic lanterns but for early portrait cameras. The fact that they optically traded off edge-to-edge focus for a larger quantity of light wasn’t such a big problem for portrait photography, where the main object of interest was a fidgeting face towards the centre of the image, but it meant that when they were used as projection lenses the images, although brighter, lost definition at the edges. Nonetheless many lantern slide artists, working for companies far removed from the lantern manufacturers, continued for decades to produce slides with important details right at the edges, which were guaranteed to be out of focus on the screen.

Nonetheless, myself and Elisa deCourcy have found this wide ‘tolerance’ in the projected image to not only be evidence of an industrial formation at a particularly undeveloped stage of its historical transformation, but also to be enormously stimulating creatively. Many magic lantern lenses had slots for ‘tinters’ and flaps for ‘faders’, but we have invented several, as far as we know, entirely novel techniques to add even more indeterminacy into our projections, for the pleasure of our audience. The ‘Cardboard Ken Burns’ is a large piece of black cardboard with a hole cut in the middle about the same diameter as the outer lens of our magic lanterns. We move this back and forth in front of our lanterns to ‘iris in to’ and ‘iris out of’ different significant details across the image surface, in a similar way to the rostrum camera technique famously developed by Ken Burns for the seminal TV series The Civil War (1990). ‘Flicker Fingers’ is an instruction on our cue sheets to flick our fingers quickly in front of our lenses which gives the sense of ‘interference’ to a visual ‘signal’ (anachronistically associated with the electromagnetics of the twentieth century not the Newtonian optics of the nineteenth century). These techniques interact wonderfully with our performance collaborators who use loops, electronic distortion and other vocal and instrumental techniques to create an affective response in the audience.



Magic lanterns were pervasively important in Australia for a century. Magic lanterns were machines that were used by various operators, from sophisticated professional showmen to Sunday School teachers. In a range of venues, from theatres to home parlours, they projected multiple types of slides, from ingenious hand painted mechanical slides to high quality hand tinted photographic slides. These were combined with different forms of musical and theatrical accompaniment to entertain and inform a wide variety of audiences, from opening night crowds to gaggles of local kids.

Therefore, any magic lantern slide found in an archive, no matter how humble, is tangible evidence that at some particular time, in some particular place, some Australians had collectively witnessed images, heard music and listened to texts. These had been orchestrated together by some individual or some organisation to give them an experience, persuade them of an opinion, or connect them to others.

Magic lanterns, magic lantern slides and magic lantern scripts were media — ‘apparatus’ and ‘image’, ‘hardware’ and ‘software’, ‘device’ and ‘content’ — simultaneously closely connected to, and very distant from, today’s digital media. The magic lantern apparatus is recognisable within today’s modern data projector, and the different types of magic lantern slide are recognisable within today’s cinema, television, animations, internet memes and public projection events. We have therefore found the overall approach of media archaeology very useful. Rather than seeing media history as a succession of technological improvements and innovations progressing inevitably towards the present, a deep time archaeological approach sees past media formations as heterogeneous layers containing multiple potential futures, and therefore able to connect with the present in new ways.

We undertake traditional historical research into Australian magic lantern culture, but simultaneously we also take a complementary practice-led research approach to investigating the magic lantern experience. Through re-enactment we seek to understand the particular characteristics of a historical audience’s ephemeral experience of the magic lantern, and the particular material conditions and constraints of the technologies that produced that experience. For this reason we have assembled a working collection of over five thousand slides and several different magic lanterns.

We want to give audiences in the present something of the same affective experience audiences had in the past — their emotional responses to witnessing distant events, their collective joy in experiencing music or laughter, their involuntary ‘aaahhh’ at an uncanny special effect — in short, the magic of the magic lantern. We are historians, and our intention is to understand the past. While a straight reenactment, where everything is done as closely as possible to how we think it was done in the past, can replicate the basic historical form of a magic lantern show, it cannot generate a similar frisson in a contemporary audience, one inured to a century and a half of subsequent media thrills. However we are dealing with a media archaeology, where the technologies which produced the laughter, tears and gasps of two hundred years ago still form the technical substrata of the technologies which produce laughter, tears and gasps today.  They are not identical, and they cannot substitute one for the other, but because they share a structural kinship one can touch the other in surprisingly close ways. For this reason the participation of a contemporary audience is very important to our reenactments. We do not want to create ‘historical dioramas’, where the performance is seen as a self-contained curiosity separate from the audience, as though they were looking at a frozen taxidermied tableau through a sheet of glass. Likewise, we are not interested in bringing our magic lantern shows ‘into the present’, turning them into some ‘steam-punk’ event where they simply exist to give a retro flavor to an essentially contemporary mise en scene. Rather, we want our re-enactments to exist for the audience as an ‘experiential object’, an experience in the present which can be reflected upon from an historical point of view.

We could (in fact we do) digitise our slides and make enhanced videos or gifs for easy distribution, the way an old movie might be restored. But seeing a crisply digitised image on a computer display is a very different ‘experiential object’ to that experienced by a historical audience seeing an actual glass slide manually projected through a nineteenth century apparatus by an individual. We could attempt to precisely replicate a magic lantern show down to the last ‘authentic’ detail the way a medieval re-enactor might hand forge his chain mail. But a magic lantern performance is not a single object, it is a multimedia performance where a human operates a machine. We could attempt to perform complete slide sets the way an orchestra might perform a baroque concerto score on period instruments.  But magic lantern performances had no authoritative texts like a music score, rather, each performance was the extemporised product of many different elements  — slides, music, texts, lanterns, instruments, audiences, performers, special occasions and particular architectures — all bricolaged together into unique combinations. Therefore we have found creative re-use an essential ingredient in our re-enactments.

In order to recover the magic lantern as a more historically accurate ‘experiential object’ we have introduced contemporary elements such as music, voice and electronics. Although these elements in themselves come from the present, and would be unrecognizable from the perspective of the past, the way we have incorporated them comes just as assuredly from historic practices when all magic lantern shows were occasions for improvisation and bricolage. We hope our creative re-enactments invite the fleeting manifestation of something like an uncanny delight that our audience can feel they are perhaps sharing with an audience of a hundred and fifty years ago.

We have used creative re-enactment to explore specific historical sites in Australia or particular Australia historical experiences:

  • In a performance at the Bundanon Homestead in 2016 we explored a locally significant drowning tragedy that had had occurred at the site in the 1920s by using techniques derived from ‘verbatim theatre’, young participants from the local area, and a set of roughly contemporaneous magic lantern slides.
  • In a performance in a burnt-out telescope dome at the Mount Stromlo Observatory in 2018 we presented verbatim part of an authentic astronomical lecture from the mid nineteenth century, with some of the mechanical scientific slides which were actually used in popular science lectures of the period.
  • In a performance at the Cell Block Theatre in Sydney we presented some of the imagery from, and recreated some of the experiences of, the pastoral property of Rouse Hill House and Farm, which had used a magic lantern and associated slides within the family from the 1860s.

We have also produced more open-ended performances, experimenting with musicians, actors and students in exploring new possibilities in the form of the projection, music, electronics, voice and interaction:

  • A magic lantern ‘Horror Show’ at the National Portrait Gallery, in association with the exhibition Sideshow Alley, 2016.
  • A magic lantern show ‘Five Scenes for a Modern Prometheus’ at the Australian National University in association with a conference on Frankenstein, 2018.
  • A magic lantern show ‘Raeburn’ at the Australian National University in association with students from the Schools of Art and Design and Music, 2017.

As well, we have directly connected the magic lantern to contemporary technologies and practices.

  • The computer artist Kieran Browne algorithmically coded animations that replicated the formal logic of the clockwork colour kaleidoscopic slides known as a chromatropes. These were then laser cut and reversed engineered directly back in the nineteenth century apparatus.
  • The contemporary painter Waratah Lahy is using the powerful idea of the ‘dissolving view’, where one projected scene is dissolved into another, in her practice. She has painted two images of dusk falling on her childhood home. The transition from day to night is particularly magical when viewers have the opportunity to operate the ‘dissolver’ between the two lanterns themselves.

These experiments — in performance, projection, voice, music, electronics, painting, computer coding and digital fabrication — open up many new avenues through which real, tangible and meaningful links can be forged between the present and the past. Through physically manipulating the same fundamental materials — light, pigment and mechanics — as the media makers of the nineteenth century, a significant new dimension is immediately added to our understanding of the ways the past has constructed the present. The obdurate materiality of all media is revealed. For instance, through actually encountering the fact that it is impossible to keep all part of a mechanical slide in focus at the same time, we have revealed the technological disconnections between different manufacturers who made up the ‘magic lantern industry’, a discovery that could only have been made through practice. Most importantly, this dimension of material and experiential research is only fully activated when a vital third element is added to the experiment — an audience, an audience whose reaction can feed back into the experimental iteration.

However, our creative re-use and creative re-enactment are not ends in themselves. We believe that these performances are as an effective a way of understanding the past, through experience, as an academic paper, through description. We also believe that, if documented by video, our performances can be looped back into the archive from which they were derived to act as a ‘generous interface’ to that archive, through which new users can discover their component archival parts such as images, music, or texts.


Martyn Jolly, Canberra 2020

For more information search Heritage in the Limelight

Five Scenes for a Modern Prometheus

A video of the magic lantern performance I devised in collaboration with Elisa deCourcy, Alexander Hunter and Karen Vickery is now available for viewing online. We performed it at the ANU twice during September 2018, once in the Sir Roland Wilson Building at the Magic Lantern in Australia and the World conference, and once a week later in the NFSA ARC Theatre at the Frankenstein: Two Hundred Years off Monsters conference. It goes for about half an hour, and uses about sixty slides. I decided to hang it off Mary Shelly’s book because I knew we would be performing it for the Frankenstein conference. It was wonderful reading the book again after so long, and I picked out some choice quotes for Karen to intone at intervals through the five ‘scenes’, which begin in a scientific laboratory, and end lost in snow and ice, but otherwise have little to do with the story! I was initially going to commence with a moiré pattern chromatrope to set the dark mood, but I eventually decided to use the new chromatrope that Miheng Dong had cut from acrylic in the ANU Makerspace, working from a pattern coded by Kieran Browne. After that it wasn’t much of a leap to some microscopic slides of bacteria and bacillus from the Atlas of Bacteriology by Slater & Spitta, then after a ‘Flash of Lightning’ slide (Copyright T T Wing), with some great music effects from Alex, Elisa flickered up an anonymous slide of a monstrous skeleton using her fingers. We then dissolved to microscopic cross-sections of rectal cancer growths (!) originally used at the Westminster Medical School, which were also meant to look like aerial views of icy wastes. After Alex’s great music, Karen came into her own as we showed panoramic caricature slides dissolving into comic mechanical slides in the next scene. Her wetly mouthed responses to the slides as they came on the screen were fantastic. it was Elisa’s idea to project both of the Steward lantern simultaneously for a ‘tongue in ear’ sequence, and for a dancing skeleton sequence (with some skeletal EDM from Alex) during the next section of ‘monstrous’ mechanical slides. We used some temperance motto slides, a J W Beattie Port Arthur Slide, two slides from Jane Conquest, some hand painted slides, and an amateur double-exposed ghost slide for the next sequence, which required a lot of changing between carriers. For the final sequence we began ‘finger flickering’ between a group of slides which I originally thought were slides illustrating the Franklin North West Passage expedition of the Erebus, but which I now realise are simply illustrating ‘Arctic Phenomena’. We ended with my favourite slide from my collection, a hand painted slide of some Byronic figure roiling around in the snow, overlooked by a distant church perched high on an icy cliff. Elisa once again had the inspired idea of holding what I call our ‘Cardboard Ken Burns’, a piece of cardboard with a hole in it, in front of the lens, to ‘spotlight’ key elements of the scene. I couldn’t have done it with out Elisa, Alex and Karen, all of whom contributed inspired original ideas. The video was made by Amr Tawfik, who was able to handle the low light OK, and was able to give a good impression of the labours of Elisa, Karen, Alec and myself. The audience reaction to the first performance was good, we filled the room up with fog from a  fog machine before they entered, and they filled the basement room to capacity, and were well primed for the show. The audience reaction to the second show was more muted, for several reasons, the necessary intimacy of the performance was somewhat swallowed up by the larger space of ARC, and the audience was less primed as to what to expect.

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

Photos of my magic lantern show at Canberra Obscura

The estimable Andrew Sikorski has posted some shots of my magic lantern performance (along with Andromeda is Coming) amongst his documentation of the Canberra Obscura Art Party on his site Life in Canberra.

You can see me using my own latest technological innovation in projection which I call ‘a bit of cardboard with a hole in it’. Derived from the ‘burning in tool’ of the traditional darkroom printer, the ‘bit of cardboard with a hole in it’ held over the lantern lens spotlights details and narrativises the slides like Ken Burns did with his (now infamous) ‘Ken Burns effect’ in such landmark ‘archivally based’ documentary series  as  his The Civil War of 1990. I was also inspired to use the ‘bit of cardboard with a hole in it’ by the author of Sherlock Holmes, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He came to Australia in 1920 on a magic lantern tour to show people photographic evidence that the dead returned from beyond the veil. In Adelaide, according to Doyle’s account on page 76 of his book Wanderings of a Spiritualist, ghosts literally inhabited the machine and took over the magic lantern to demonstrate the proof of their survival:

I had shown a slide the effect of which depended upon a single spirit face appearing amid a crowd of others. This slide was damp, and as photos under these circumstances always clear from the edges when placed in the lantern, the whole centre was so thickly fogged that I was compelled to admit that I could not myself see the spirit face. Suddenly, as I turned away, rather abashed by my failure, I heard cries of “There it is”, and looking up again I saw this single face shining out from the general darkness with so bright and vivid an effect that I never doubted for a moment that the operator was throwing  a spotlight upon it. … [N]ext morning Mr Thomas, the operator, who is not a Spiritualist, came in in great excitement to say that a palpable miracle had been wrought, and that in his great experience of thirty years he had never known a photo dry from the centre, nor, as I understood him, become illuminated in such a fashion.


Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with 'Andromeda is Coming'

Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’


Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’




Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’


Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’


Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’


Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’


Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’


Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’


Andrew Sikorski, Canberra Obscura, Martyn Jolly with ‘Andromeda is Coming’

Won’t You Buy My Pretty Flowers?

Here is a new set of life model magic lantern slides I have just acquired. I love the twin perspectival vanishing points of the first painted backdrop, the photogrammed snow flurries in slide two, and the weirdly frozen Beckettian choreography of the passers-by in the final slide. They were made by Bamforth and Co after 1897 in the UK. The song originates from the US in 1877 and is by George W Persley, Arthur W French, George Clare. (Although interestingly it was re-published in 1887 under the names of the American stage actress Miss Jennie Calef and producer H. P. Danks, after they had used it in their play “Little Muffets” — a clear case of IP theft and copyright infringement.) Later Bamforth and Co. recycled the original shots as postcards with the choruses as printed captions. I’m looking forward to one day projecting these slides, perhaps life size and outside in an urban setting, accompanied by a singer, as part of our project Heritage in the Limelight: The Magic Lantern in Australia and the World.WYBMPF small 1

Underneath the gas light’s glitter,

Stands a fragile little girl;

Heedless of the night winds bitter,

As they round about her whirl.

While the thousands pass unheeding

In the evening’s waning hours;

Still she cries with tearful pleading,

Won’t you buy my pretty flowers?


There are many sad and weary

In this pleasant world of ours,

Crying in the night winds bitter.

Won’t you buy my pretty flowers?

WYBMPF small 2

Ever coming, ever going,

Men and women hurry by.

Heedless of the tear drops gleaming.

In her sad and wistful eyes.

While she stands there sadly sighing,

In the cold and dreary hours,

Listen to her sweet voice crying,

Won’t you buy my pretty flowers?


There are many sad and weary

In this pleasant world of ours,

Crying in the night winds bitter.

Won’t you buy my pretty flowers?

WYBMPF small 3

Not a loving word to cheer her.

From the passers by is heard;

Not a friend to linger near her,

With a heart by pity stirred.

On they rush the selfish thousands,

Seeking pleasure’s pleasant bowers;

None to hear with sad compassion,

Won’t you buy my pretty flowers?


There are many sad and weary

In this pleasant world of ours,

Crying in the night winds bitter.

Won’t you buy my pretty flowers?

Man to Eat Rats once more

By far the most popular magic lantern slide of the nineteenth century was ‘Man Eating Rats’. Lanternists would even specifically promise it in their newspaper advertisements, so audiences knew they could go along and enjoy themselves making the requisite snoring and chomping and lip-smacking noises. I’ve had a copy of the slide for a while. But while the circulating rackwork rats worked perfectly, the sleeping man’s gluttonously bearded jaw was missing. Fortunately the ANU School of Art has a wealth of skill and knowledge and Waratah Lahy was able to paint me a  beautiful new jaw and beard (on a replacement piece of polycarbonate) which works perfectly. I’ll be showing it this Friday evening at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra. I’ve also just brought a slipping slide of a phrenologist alternately examining a head of a ‘low’ type and a head of a ‘high’ type. Once again Australian National University historical expertise, through my colleague Alexandra Roginski, was able to provide me with actual phrenological readings from the period. So we’ll be performing this slide as well. There’ll be heaps of other slides, including The Gin Fiend.

'Man Eating Rats', hand painted and copperplate printed rackwork and slipping slide, c1890s.

‘Man Eating Rats’, hand painted and copperplate printed rackwork and slipping slide, c1890s.

'Phrenologist', hand painted and copperplate printed slipping slide, c1890s

‘Phrenologist’, hand painted and copperplate printed slipping slide, c1890s

'Phrenologist', hand painted and copperplate printed slipping slide, c1890s

‘Phrenologist’, hand painted and copperplate printed slipping slide, c1890s

Australian Research Council funding for Heritage in the limelight: the magic lantern in Australia and the world

The ARC has funded a three year Discovery Project I will lead. The project aims to discover and analyse the large number of glass magic lantern slides that remain under-used in our public collections. International scholarship has recently begun to show that lantern slide shows were a ubiquitous, globalised and formative cultural experience. The project aims to explore the international reach and diversity of this globalised modernist apparatus from the Australian perspective. It plans to understand how diverse audiences affectively experienced these powerful forms of early media, and to develop ways for today’s Australians to re-experience their magic, invigorating and expanding our cultural heritage.

The team is Dr Martyn Jolly and Associate Professor Martin Thomas Australian National University; Professor Jane Lydon, University of Western Australia; Professor Nicolas Peterson and Professor Paul Pickering, Australian National University; Associate Professor Joe Kember, University of Exeter, UK.

With scholars like that we are guaranteed to find amazing material around Australia, and do wonderful things with it, in terms of identification, critical analysis and re-presentation. It’s also great that we will be working  with the European project A Million Pictures: Magic Lantern Slide Heritage as Artefacts in the Common European History of Learning. And I’m also looking forward to working even more with my friends from the lantern slide fraternity around Australia and the world. I can’t wait. I’m also really looking forward to picking up steam in my other ARC Discovery Project led by Dr Daniel Palmer, Monash University,’ Photography Curating in the Age of Photosharing’.

'In the Hurly Burly', detail from Salvation Army Melbourne War Cry, 1894

‘In the Hurly Burly’, detail from Salvation Army Melbourne War Cry, 1894



Holy City and Jack the Ripper

Holy City was the million-seller song of 1892. A little while ago, accompanied by a singer and pianist, I projected  my set of magic lantern slides, complete with double exposures and hand colouring, which were made to illustrate the song. Imagine my surprise this weekend when I read that its composer, the singer Michael Maybrick, has just been fingered as Jack the Ripper by the latest contribution to Ripperology, the 800 page They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper (it’s all the fault of the Masons, apparently). If the book’s author, Bruce Robinson, is right, Maybrick had given up ripping a few years before he penned Holy City. I had always been fascinated by the song because of the way it took the trope of sublime religious vision, and reduced it to a nineteenth century opiated dream of travel. I had always been fascinated by my slides because they transcode the idea of the hallucinatory travelogue, as the dreamer takes a metaphysical Cook’s Tour to Heaven,  to the visual technology of the double exposure and the dissolve — presaging the transitive media of the twentieth century. But now it may also be an act of expiation by its author!