Magic Lantern Slides

I recently came across these really cool hand painted slides in our back room of treasures.


Called magic lantern slides, they were illuminated by a lamp and magnified, and the glass slides created a world of glowing colour. By dissolving and superimposing images from up to six lanterns, simple animation could be achieved and exciting multimedia productions could be experienced. To give you an idea of just how cool this was before cinema as we know it I direct you to a re-telling of Phantasmagoria - the first show ever performed in public, in Paris, in 1799.

From Victorian Station:
The Phantasmagoria was held in an old convent that was converted into a magic-lantern theater. Dark passages decorated with mysterious pictures and the bones of dead monks led the audience to a catacomb hung with black velvet and lighted by a single lamp. The audience sat facing a screen behind which Robertson's magic-lanterns and assistants were hidden. He began by discussing "in scientific terms" the sensations created by thoughts of phantoms and witches. Suddenly the lamp went out. Thunder roared and lightning flashed. Church bells tolled, the lightning and thunder increased, and a tiny figure -- half-human, half-demon -- appeared in the air, shimmering and ghostly. Gradually the figure seemed to approach, growing larger and larger, until suddenly it disappeared with a wail. Bats fluttered on the walls, ghosts and goblins groaned, skeletons came hurtling toward the audience. The show was a smash success -- the toast of Paris!

Robertson's performance was staged with the help of several magic lanterns and six assistants, all hidden behind the screen, on which the images were rear-projected. To make the images change size, Robertson used lanterns fitted with special self-focusing lenses, and mounted on large wheeled platforms. The lanterns could move backwards from the translucent screen, making the goblins and skeletons appear suddenly larger, as though they were moving toward the audience. Other images were projected on smoke, which make them swirl magically. Others were projected on the walls with hand-held lanterns, so that bats could flicker in the corners and dive-bomb the women's hair.

Half a century later the Phantasmagoria was still going strong. Joseph Boggs Beale, the man who would later become America's leading magic-lantern artist, saw a Phantasmagoria show as a young man in Philadelphia during the 1850s. The Phantasmagoria intensified the tradition of ghost and goblin shows from the lantern's early days of the wandering showmen, and led to a whole genre of macabre magic-lantern slides. By the nineteenth century this genre was a standard part of the repertoire of the magic-lantern showman who traveled the country, playing in theaters great and small.
We don't have anything ghoulish, but we do have some cute little stories and nice pictoral scenes on our slides. Judging by the style they are probably of Beale's generation and can be dated anywhere from the late 1880's to the early 1900's.
It's interesting how projection is such an old technology yet still ubiquitously used today. I remember turning the slide projector at the beep in music class in 1986, gazing at the projections of picasso's painting in art history class in the early 2000's and of course suffering through the Powerpoint presentations of today. Not to mention going to the movies. I do appreciate though, that projection was first used to delight, and it's still the most popular aim today. Projection is a means of storytelling that never seems to go out of fasion.   
The American Magic-Lantern Theater is still recreating the magic lantern shows of the 1890's. You can check them out here: http://www.magiclanternshows.com/

No comments: