Thanks to all who came to our show on Thursday! Here’s some snapshots from a wonderful night.
This week, the world’s first known color films were discovered in the archive of the National Media Museum in Bradford, UK. In celebration of this discovery, we share with you another one of the color slides which will be projected at our upcoming show. We suspect that these slides might have been colored by Ashael Curtis’ sister Eva, who also worked in his studio along with other members. So far, we have not been able to find a robust literature on the craftsmanship of the colorist, and are looking to know more about what may have been generally considered women’s work.
We’ve also been experimenting with creating our own color slides using some ink and squares of cut glass. For guidance, we have the 1903 edition of The Photographic Colorist: A Manual for Amateurs by one Mr. J. W. Neville.
Happy September! We are still in production mode for our show coming up later this month. We’ve been digging into histories of travel and exploration, the development of the Northwest, and the various meanings of the word “projection.” Below is a brief dispatch from the archival salt mines from Asahel Curtis’ lantern lecture on Mount Rainer. Curtis, who served on the park’s advisory board, wanted his love of the park to be shared with the larger population, advocating for the development of trails and automobile routes to promote tourism in the region. He rhapsodizes:
“One comes more intimately in touch with the mountains when he travels the trails. In the valleys the forests seem lower, the giant trees rise from one’s side to tremendous heights and the lower growth reaches out a friendly hand to bid you welcome ; but it is on the untrodden mountain heights that the traveler receives a true reward for his toil. Here where vegetation makes its last stand amid a world of ice and snow, with the lower world stretching away to the horizon, nature unfolds in all her beauty.”
And check out this 1930 silent film of Mountain Rainer from the Mountaineer’s archive.
As I mentioned in the last post, we are now working on a program to accompany the exhibit “America in View: Landscape Photography 1865 to Now” at the RISD Museum of Art. The exhibit’s subject matter is fitting for a magic lantern show because many of these performances took the form of travelogues. Travel lecturers were like Victorian rock stars, offering tales of their expeditions for those audiences who would not otherwise be able to partake in such faraway (and so-called “exotic”) adventures. As for us, we have the wonderful Laura Brown-Lavoie to narrate our show, her prose reflecting on, as the exhibit’s statement says, “a nation’s ambitions and failings, beauty and loss, politics and personal stories.”
For the program, we were able to obtain a collection of slides by the Pacific Northwest photographer Asahel Curtis, brother of the famous documentarian Edward Curtis. Curtis was a huge booster of Western development, photographing Washington state, Alaska, and the Klondike. He was also a member of the erstwhile hiking group The Mountaineers who would explore the northern slopes of Mount Rainier. The words scrawled on the slides, we discovered, are actually lyrics to the songs sung by The Mountaineers around the campfire.
This past weekend, Carolyn and I made the trek to visit some members of the American Magic Lantern Society. Their house sits on a cliff overlooking a river, and together we ate dinner on the porch as the evening train rumbled by below. Bordering their house was a Christan campground established in 1887 where the pert triangles of tents (“white and embellished with red braid trim,” according the local historical society) were eventually replaced by sun-battered Victorian cottages. The afternoon’s heat had worn off, and on the porch we were able to talk all things magic lantern.
We learned valuable practical advice on the lanternist’s art, the technical wisdom that can only be uncovered through trial and error and the scouring of period publications. We sought advice on how best to position the light bulb in the magic lantern so the slides don’t overheat, and how to retouch the color on hand-tinted slides. We learned how the lanternist maneuvers slides in and out of the projector to facilitate seamless transitions, and noted the type of red light he uses to illuminate his showman’s script. These are all elements of the craft we hope to perfect. I could have spent hours learning more, but it was getting late and we still had to drive home to Providence — but not before we were treated to a small show.
With a majestic mahogany biunial projector (it has two lenses to allow for elegant fades and dissolves), we saw a sampling of a Halloween-themed performance. With the dual lenses, the lantern could perform different tricks of the eye, early forms of animation like a skeleton knocking out a jig. I tried to imagine how Victorian audiences might have felt watching these images appear on the wall, summoned to life by the resounding voice of the showman. Even with only an audience of two, the lantern was able to cast his magic, and the strike of the gong (yes, there was a gong!) signaled our entry into another world of enchantment beyond the small cottage in the woods.
Since we are now preparing an illustrated travel lecture for the RISD Museum, I thought it would be best to first seek out some antiquarian advice. Published exactly 100 years ago, “The Misuse of Magic Lanterns in Museum Lectures” appeared in a 1912 issue of Science magazine.  The author Charles Haskins Townsend, Director of the New York Aquarium from 1902 to 1937, laments the dissolving ambit of the intellectual in these popular demonstrations, mounting a polemic against those lectures that relied too heavily on the enchantments of colorful photographs. Disquieted by a series of ornithological presentations he witnessed, Townsend actually anticipates much of our current cultural anxieties surrounding issues of authority and expertise, and the use and meaning of images in mass culture. “Good pictures are dangerous in the wrong hands,” he writes, forewarning against the seductive — yet intellectually bereft — temptations of spectatorship.
At the time Townsend was writing, cinema had already superseded the magic lantern as the embodiment of the popular imagination. The magic lantern could not compete with the convincing illusions of the new moving pictures, and yet it remained popular on the lecture circuit, in the travelogues that projected slides of the exotic unknown. Illustrated travelogues by the likes Burton Holmes, who also incorporated film clips in his lectures, provided the frisson of anthropological excitement to the audiences of Townsend’s time, effectively blurring the boundaries between education and entertainment, fact and fantasy, in this simulated form of travel.
Townsend worried that the distinguished lecturer might abase himself to the level of the showman, and that the seduction of pictures would steer audiences away from the intellectual meat of the topics at hand. Without the proper scholarly contextualization, he argued, these projections amounted to a cheap form of tourism — which was also true. In some cases, traveling lecturers had never even visited to the places of which they spoke (it was possible to purchase box sets of slides, and even scripts, for a ready-made performance). And no lecture was without its seamy embellishments and amusing asides to hold the attention of the armchair traveler. 
But what seemed to bother Townsend the most was not these embroidered tales, but the ascendency of the image, presented without its erudite gift wrapping, as the primary attraction of the lecture. This historical phenomenon accompanies the late 19th century rise of amateur photography, at which time, as Douglas Nickel writes, “…the way lives were lived became entangled in the way lives were now represented. A modern society of the spectacle was taking shape.”  Twelve years before Townsend lodged his critique against amateur lecturers, Kodak’s Brownie camera was unveiled to bring photography to the masses.
Townsend writes: “What shall we say of that misguided person, who, having at least eighty pictures to illustrate his lecture on Alaska, or some other far-away place, throws in about forty more, to show how he got there? Half a dozen to get the ship away from the dock at Seattle, half a dozen shots at the city as he steams away, a few more at passing vessels, another half dozen at the members of his party (in which he is careful to show up in most of the groups himself), a few pictures of the captain, and about a dozen showing the Indian villages of the British Columbia islands, as he steams kodaking along, and all of which have been kodaked by a dozen tourists on every steamer, every week for the past twenty years.”  His jeremiad on the society of the spectacle could just as easily been about the photographic excesses of the instagrammed Facebook era.
Today, technological and social shifts are also presenting opportunities for novel forms of amateur participation in public culture (and I use the word “amateur” without any negative connotations, simply to describe non-professionals). Along with new forms of social organization, Clay Shirky writes, digital culture has brought “mass amateurization.”  People without any ratified credentials can edit Wikipedia entries, become famous on YouTube, and post restaurant reviews on Yelp; publishing, like photographic production in the late 19th century, has become democratized. For museums whose traditional raison d’être was to be the ultimate authority, the source of unassailable knowledge, these changes are fraught with questions. How best to incorporate these voices of others into official knowledge? How to meaningfully engage different perspectives without losing the public trust?
But what Townsend shows us is that these questions and anxieties are not new. The rise of amateurism caused equal unease in 1912: “But shall the museums, holding as they do, authoritative positions respecting art and science, disregard the fact the amateur is among us with lantern pictures that may be better than ours? Is it not time to consider whether by continuing as we are doing, we may be cheapening the labors of the distinguished specialists who cheerfully do their own part in our own lectures courses?” Townsend’s remarks are worth considering as we put contemporary questions around authority and expertise, mass culture, and knowledge production in a historical context. He goes on at great length against this “sugar-coated science” (which, again, sounds like the familiar critique against “edutainment”) before finally asking,”Should we not illustrate our lectures, and cease to lecture about our illustrations?”
The question is an apt one, but I’m not sure I agree with the dichotomy he creates. Beyond reacting against the vernacular forms of visuality emerging at the turn of the century, Townsend also cleaves a Cartesian binary between looking and doing, the eye and mind, and beauty and intellect, which conforms to deep-seated cultural biases and assumptions about images in the West.  In such a view, the picture, especially in the hands of the masses, is not construed as a way of knowing unto itself, but is a poor imitation of the world of real knowledge. The picture becomes a dangerous thing, like Plato’s shadows undulating across the wall of a cave, luring viewers away from sense.
1. Townsend, C.H.,”The Misuse of Lantern Illustrations by Museum Lecturers.” Science 35 (1912): 529-533.
2. Barber , X. Theodore. “The Roots of Travel Cinema: John L. Stoddard, E. Burton Holmes, and the nineteenth century illustrated travel lecture.” Film History 5 (1993): 68-84.
3. Nickel, Douglas R.. Snapshots: The Photography of Everyday Life, 1888 to the present. San Francisco, Calif.: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 1998.
4. As Nickel writes, “Kodak” became a part of speech in the common vernacular as amateur photography became a cultural phenomenon.
5. Shirky, Clay. Here comes everybody: the power of organizing without organizations. New York: Penguin Press, 2008.
6. Rancière, Jacques, and Gregory Elliott. The Emancipated Spectator. London: Verso, 2009.
We got this sweet card in the mail recently from Selma Fischman, a resident of Tockwotton Home who participated in our writing workshops. Inspired by a photograph of a trophy, Selma wrote about her father’s trophies in Montreal, a collection of sports memorabilia from a time when Jews weren’t often allowed on teams. Selma read her story at our 95 Empire event last month, where she was even able to bring the trophy to share with the audience!
Wanda Rickerby, another Tockwotton Home resident, has also shared her story “The Glass Window,” on her blog.