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!

The Gin-Fiend

I’ve just brought these magic lantern slides manufactured by York & Son, UK, just before1888 to a temperance text by Charles Mackay. I’m trying to think why the faces might be obscured in slides two and three, the most beautiful and dramatic slides of the set.

The Gin Fiend slide 1

The Gin Fiend slide 1

The Gin-Fiend cast his eyes abroad

And looked o’er all the land,

And number’d his myriad worshippers

With his bird-like, long right hand

He took his place in the teeming streets,

And watched the people go,

Around and about, with a buzz and a shout,

For ever to and fro; —

 ”And it’s hip!” said the Gin-Fiend, “hip, hurra!

For the multitudes I see,

Who offer themselves in sacrifice

And die for love of me!”

The Gin Fiend Slide 2

The Gin Fiend Slide 2

There stood a woman on a bridge;

She was old but not with years;

Old with excess, and passion, and pain; —

And she wept remorseful tears

As she gave to her babe her milkless breast;

Then, goaded by its cry,

Made a desperate leap in the river deep

In the sight of the passer-by!

 ”And it’s hip!” said the Gin-Fiend, “hip, hurra!

She sinks but let her be —

In life or death, whatever she did

Was all for the love of me.”

The Gin Fiend slide 2

The Gin Fiend slide 3

There watched another by the hearth,

With sullen face and thin:

She uttered words of scorn and hate

To one that staggered in.

Long had she watched, and when he came,

His thoughts were bent on blood.

He could not brook her taunting look,

And he slew her where she stood.

 ”And it’s hip!” said the Gin-Fiend, “hip! hurra!

My right good friend is he;

He hath slain his wife — he hath given his life —

And all for the love of me.”

The Gin Fiend slide 4

The Gin Fiend slide 4

And every day, in the crowded way,

He takes his fearful stand,

And numbers his myriad worshippers

With his bird-like, long right hand;

And every day the weak and strong,

Widows, and maids, and wives,

Blood warm, blood cold, young men and old,

Offer the Fiend their lives

 ”And it’s hip!” he says, “hip! hip! hurra!

For the multitudes I see,

That sell their souls for the burning drink,

And die for the love of me.”



The Lights of London Town

I am continually failing at controlling my addiction to buying magic lantern slides on ebay. I have just received in the post two remaining life-model slides out of what had originally been a set of four made, Richard Crangle’s estimable Lucerna magic lantern web resource tells me, by York & Son in 1892 to illustrate the 1880 poem by the massively famous melodramatist and social reformer George R Sims.


The Lights of London Town


The way was long and weary,

But gallantly they strode,

A country lad and lassie,

Along the weary road.

The night was dark and stormy,

But blithe of heart were they,

For shining in the distance

The Lights of London lay.


O gleaming lamps of London,

That gem the City’s crown,

What fortunes lie within you,

O Lights of London town.


The years passed on and found them

Within the mighty fold,

The years had brought them trouble,

But brought them little gold.

Oft from their garret window,

On long still summer nights,

They’d seek the far-off country,

Beyond the London Lights.


O mocking lamps of London,

What weary eyes look down,

And mourn the day they saw you,

O lights of London town


With faces worn and weary,

That told of sorrow’s load,

One day a man and woman

Crept down a country road.

They sought their native village,

Heart broken from the fray;

Yet shining still behind them,

The Lights of London lay.


O cruel lamps of London,

If tears your light could drown,

Your victims’ eyes would weep them,

O lights of London Town.


George R. Sims 1880


I love the zoom-in from distant St Pauls, framed by trees in the first slide and barely visible except perhaps in projection, to close-up St Pauls (in exactly the same spot on the screen) framed by the garret window in the second slide. I love the way, in the second slide, the poverty-signifier of the bare walls visually constricts London down to the single schematic London logo. Sims used the same theme for his smash hit play The Lights of London, which was filmed twice in the twentieth century, most recently in 1923. Of course subsequently these something more, walk on the wild side thematics permeated popular culture. Although, perhaps nowadays the urban moths of pop songs, films and art are more likely to be single chancers, rather than eloping couples.

The Lights of London, slide 2 of 4.

The Lights of London, slide 2 of 4.

The Lights of London, slide 3 of 4.

The Lights of London, slide 3 of 4.

My Enlighten Canberra Projection

Martyn Jolly NLA projection for Enlighten Canberra

Martyn Jolly NLA projection for Enlighten Canberra

My ANU colleagues Lucien Leon, Kit Devine, Marcia Lochhead, Zoe Tulip, and myself, each designed an Enlighten Canberra projection for the National Library of Australia. Mine was derived from one of the hundreds of beautiful hand tinted magic lantern slides in the Library.

The explanatory text: The Reverend John Flynn was Superintendent of the Australian Inland Mission for almost forty years from 1912. A keen photographer, Flynn used magic lantern slides in the lectures he gave to publicise the work of the mission in providing medical, nursing and pastoral services to the people of the inland. The Library now holds a large collection of these beautifully hand-tinted images. The one used for this projection was taken in 1926 by a ‘Miss Colley’ and documents the Oodnadatta to Alice Springs Mail. Presumably it was used by Flynn to illustrate the vast distances  of the inland.

Will the Angels Let Me Play — complete magic lantern perfomance video

On July 24, 2014, I was able to project a show of five magic lantern song-slide sets and one recitation set from my ‘Iron Duke’ lantern of 1905, with some additional effects added from a smaller 1890s lantern. Professor Peter Tregear and Dr Kate Bowan from the ANU School of Music sang and played the original words and music, and they were fabulous. Trevor Anderson from the National Film and Sound Archive also operated the ‘effects’ lantern for the angel effect in Jane Conquest. The event was part of the History, Cinema Digital Archives organised by Jill Matthews from the Humanities Research Centre and held in the theatrette of the NFSA. Here is our original abstract:

Martyn Jolly, Kate Bowan and Peter Tregear: ‘Will the Angels Let Me Play’, and other songs and recitations: a performance of magic lantern slides with song and piano

Collections such as the National Film and Sound Archive or Museum Victoria hold hundreds of magic lantern ‘song slides’. These sets of hand-coloured glass transparencies were produced in the early twentieth century to promote the sale of the sheet music for popular songs. They were projected by a magic lantern and accompanied by musicians and singers. Their popularity peaked with the First World War. The slides that remain, with their sentimental and melodramatic storylines, surreal photographic montages, and lurid hand-colouring, are still fascinating when we see them on the museum light box, or see the digitized copy in a museum database. But they were made to be performed, and were part of a technical ensemble which included the magic lantern, a musician’s performance and, most importantly, a singer’s voice. For this presentation this complete ensemble will be brought together once more, the slides will be projected by vintage magic lanterns and accompanied by live music and singing from the original sheet music. Will this be a reenactment, like we might see at an historical theme park? Or will it be authentic interpretation, such as an early music ensemble might perform on their antique instruments in a concert hall? Why bother with an original magic lantern when the optics and resolution of a contemporary scanner and data projector can reveal more detail more conveniently? And, no matter how brilliant the performers are, is it even possible to re-enter the affective power of a long ago performance when so much has changed in the meantime? Through this practice-led research experiment, and through subsequent discussion with the audience, these questions and other will be explored.

Bronwyn Coupe has now edited a video of the complete performance, cunningly disguising my mistakes with edited-in digital copies of a few of the slides, but retaining the flavour of my projections, and the brilliance of Kate and Peter. Here it is:

Will the Angels Let Me Play and other songs and recitations, a performance re-enactment for magic lantern, voice and piano

I learnt a lot from the experience. Fortunately I had Ian Christie turning the pages of my cue sheets for me, otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to keep up with the changes for any of the songs! As it was I muddled two. Despite my rehearsals I need to have a better system for quickly accessing the slides in the dark, I was scrabbling around. I also think I should have realised that there was a certain amount of redundancy built into the slide sets by the manufacturers, and I could have left some out which would have given me more time to load the slide changer. The authority and smoothness (or lack of it) with which I changed and focussed the slides also became very important for the audience’s experience. The light levels in the auditorium— to satisfy both projection from the lanterns with their relatively low-lumen output from the LED floodlights I had in them, as well as the necessity for Kate and Peter to be able to read the music — was also crucial. I have been reading nineteenth and early twentieth century newspaper review of lantern shows in Australia and exactly these same issues are frequently reported on — both negatively and positively — by the writers. The audience discussion afterwards didn’t decisively answer any of the questions raised in the abstract. However it covered the historical accuracy, or inaccuracy, of our ‘re-enactment’ — a big issue with some of the experts in the audience — and the general visual culture of the period — in both America and the UK where the slides were made, and in Australia where they were shown. Also discussed were small but crucial details such as the lack of gain in the painted wall on which I was projecting, compared to the modern cinema screen on which the digital versions were projected. But there was enough there to go on with.

See magic lantern show simulation videos here

Below are simulations I reconstructed using digital copies of the slides we projected at the National Film and Sound Archive performance, and an NFSA recording of Peter Tregear and Kate Bowan’s wonderful performance. Unfortunately, in this recording Kate’s perfect piano is somewhat soft, except in Blue Bell and Holy City.  I’ve selected two transitions from the video editing menu: a dissolve, which I wasn’t able to do on the night, but which was a very popular effect in the nineteenth century; and left-to-right/right-to-left slide transitions, which at least give a hint of the mechanical slide changer I used, but which are a lot smoother than mine! Unsimulated is the flame effect I produced in the window during Jane Conquest by flashing some red gel in front of the lens.