Back in July last year I had an idea. I had been interested for many years in eyewitness accounts of people’s experiences of cinema-going. I’d collected a lot of these while researching the early years of cinema in London, treasuring the special quality they had for making history come to life in all its untidy, untheorized, individual complexity. The idea was simply to start publishing these online as a collection, classified in some useful way to aid anyone interested in researching in this field in the future.
I had the idea in the morning, and by the end of the day I had secured a web address, picturegoing.com, selected a template, and had started entering the first texts. In September it went live, and has built up to some 240 entries so far. However, I knew right from the start that what I wanted to cover was not just the experience of going to the cinema, but the broader visual experience. What did I mean by that? The inspiration was to do for the visual what the Open University’s Reading Experience Database has done for records of people reading (the RED collects written testimony of people reading, and classifies these in precise detail). But what is the visual experience?
In early cinema studies it has long been understood that the supposed ‘invention’ of cinema did not occur at some magic moment around 1895 but was in fact part of a continuum of visual experiences and entertainments that was preceded by (and led out of) optical toys, panoramas, phantasmagoria, magic lanterns and other such optical inventions of the nineteenth century and before, and which in turn led to television and other forms of motion picture projection. Images on film projected intermittently in rapid succession onto a screen to create the illusion of motion were not a self-contained historical phenomenon, even if cinema differently greatly from that which came before it through his huge social and economic impact.
So the broader visual experience could be defined as though optical toys and other visual entertainments that preceded, and in some cases then co-existed with cinema, with television as the natural successor technology, which now we see being followed, or absorbed by the new media of multi-platform visual devices. It some academic circles it has been called screen studies, though it is not a term that has caught on greatly. But what about theatregoing as a form of visual experience? What about art galleries, photography exhibitions, fairground entertainments, posters, cartoons, cave paintings, hieroglyphics, stained glass? What are the boundaries?
Maybe the answer lies back in 1666. On August 19th that year – just a couple of weeks before the Great Fire of London – Samuel Pepys visited a manufacturer of optical instruments and recorded this in his diary:
He did also bring a lanthorne with pictures in glasse, to make strange things appear on a wall, very pretty.
I think that is as good a definition of the visual experience as I have been looking for – something that makes strange things appear on the wall, which are on the whole very pretty. It’s not just the projection – it’s the strangeness; that something which is of this world yet out of it at the same time, and which delights the eye. Theatre shows and art exhibitions and their kind belong to other histories, even if there are overlaps. One could argue that television lies outside the history of projection on a wall, but here the screen is more important than the box, and TV’s familiar strangeness links its profoundly to the cinema, to the magic lantern, and through to the tablets, PCs and smartphones of today. Here though the history gets confused, perhaps because it is not yet properly history and we compare it with what went before, when the perspective that we lack is that which can only be provided by the future.
Samuel Pepys’ account of a lanthorn is the first record in English of a magic lantern, the projecting lantern with lens that threw pictures (from slides) on a wall that is generally understood to have been invented by the Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens in 1659 (various earlier, speculative claims for the invention exist, but have been largely discredited). It is a good starting point for the history of a particular history of the visual experience, and I will start building on it.
I have to say, though, that I have never been that much of an enthusiast for the magic lantern. There are people who are deeply engrossed in the lantern and its history, people for whom the history of projection more or less comes to an end in 1895. They thrills to the technology, and put particular value on recreating magic lantern shows, with their brightly coloured slides, the dissolves, the lighting effects, the accompanying patter and the tearful sentiment (or broad comedy) of another age. The images, and their performance, seldom move me, alas. The images, for all their eye-catching colour, are poor art, of a kind one would scarcely consider were they in a picture frame rather than on a slide. But the art of the image is not the point. What these modern magic lanternists want to recreate is the emotion – the feel of wonder audiences had at the time, who could be transported by a few pictures and a story. They want to find the secret of the magic lantern’s enchantment.
And that is what Picturegoing is about: finding that audience, where they speak as individuals about what moved them so, when strange things appeared on the wall, very pretty. So I shall start adding magic lantern testimony alongside cinema testimony, and the bigger picture will begin to emerge.
- LUCERNA is an extensive and scholarly database of magic lantern history (though searches take ages…)
- The Magic Lantern Society offers a good general guide to lantern history, with plenty of links to other resources
- The full Samuel Pepys diary is available online, with a post per diary entry, and extensive hyperlinks and background information