Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 7 No. 39, November 2003

 

 

Richard Schellhammer

 

Moving Pictures before Cinema:

Mannoni's _The Great Art of Light and Shadow_

 

 

Laurent Mannoni

_The Great Art of Light and Shadow: Archaeology of the Cinema_

Exeter, England: University of Exeter Press, 2000

ISBN 085989665X

546 pp.

 

Once again, in Laurent Mannoni's _The Great Art of Light and Shadow: Archaeology of the Cinema_, the Exeter Studies in Film History from the University of Exeter Press has provided us with an invaluable work for the study of the early history of cinema. Clearly influenced by the Annales School of French history, Mannoni's study of the technological foundations of cinematography is based on the *longue duree*. Thus, instead of simply starting with Edison's Kinetoscope peepshow, Mannoni begins the story of the technological development of moving pictures in the 13th century with Roger Bacon's description of the *camera obscura* (3-5).

 

_The Great Art of Light and Shadow_ is divided into four lyrically titled sections, 'The Dreams of the Eye', 'Triumphant Illusions', ''The Pencil of Nature'', and 'Inscribing Movement'. Throughout these four sections, Mannoni has two major themes. The first theme is the idea of 'motion' and 'movement'. This theme is evident in the first section as Mannoni discusses how the *camera obscura* evolved from a device for observing the sun and solar eclipses in the 13th century to a device for projecting the images of everyday life (such as persons walking along the street outside the camera) onto a screen by the early 16th century (6-12).

 

In the first section of the book, we are introduced to Mannoni's first great rascal. If a book on the technical development of moving pictures can have a plot, then the plot of this book is how often persons, some for nefarious reasons and others out of genuine ignorance, have taken credit for other's work. In the first section, the reader is introduced to Athanasius Kircher, who, in 1646, wrote a book with several improvements on the *camera obscura* entitled, _The Great Art of Light and Shadow_. According to Mannoni, Kircher claimed to have invented the magic lantern around 1671, and most historians have accepted this claim (56-8). While Mannoni claims not to be interested in 'firsts', he cannot allow Kircher, even posthumously, to get away with this claim. Instead, Mannoni presents a detailed discussion of the invention of the magic lantern by the Dutch mathematician and astronomer Christiaan Huygens (34-45). Mannoni also credits Huygens as the 'inventor of the moving slide (that is, the projection of a moving illuminated image on a screen)' (70-71). He notes, with palpable sadness, that the tricentenary of his death was not recognized during the celebrations of cinema's centennial. (70-1) The invention of the magic lantern is absolutely critical to a discussion of pre-cinematographic projection:

 

'The 'magic' lantern (it was not christened as such until 1668) represents the longest-lasting, most innovative, and most artistic of the 'ancestors' which were eventually snuffed out by the birth of cinema. For the whole length of its reign, which extended over three centuries, it presented artificial fixed and moving images to a public ever more filled with wonder, ever more demanding.' (33)

 

Thus, the story of the various developments of the magic lantern forms the greatest part of his study.

 

The second section of the book continues Mannoni's theme of motion and movement by beginning with a discussion of traveling lanternists. Throughout the 18th century, traveling showman wandered from village to village and fair to fair putting on magic lantern shows or peepshows. These traveling lanternists were surprisingly significant in the political history of eighteenth-century France. For example, Mannoni tells a wonderful story of plans to use the magic lantern to teach the young Dauphin, who bored easily, his lessons. Unfortunately, he and his parents were imprisoned before this plan could be implemented (84-5). Ironically, the magic lantern (and the peepshows) had something to do with this because, at least since 1789, many of these shows contained political drawings that were highly critical of the aristocracy (98-100). [1]

 

In one of the more technical parts of his book, Mannoni provides a lengthy discussion of the creation of slides and lenses for magic lanterns. One of the truly ingenious inventions was the development of the moving slide: 'These illuminated images, like little moving playlets, were a naive but vital forerunner of the cinematograph show.' (115) In an interesting technical detail, Mannoni points out that, while some inventors experimented with a square image, until the advent of the photographic slide at the end of the 19th century, lanternists continued to use circular slides (124). [2]

 

One of the most significant advances in the development of the magic lantern was the creation of the 'Phantasmagoria'. The Phantasmagoria was an experience that combined the magic lantern with music and other sound effects in a suitably decorated room. It was, in its own way, an early attempt at what Wagner would call 'Gesamptkunstwerk'. Spectators were lead into a dark room, usually decorated with gothic or diabolical images. The lights were lowered so they could not see the picture screen being unveiled. A magic lantern would project its image on the back of the thin screen in a process called 'back projection'. Both the lantern itself as well as the slide would move, and thus the Phantasmagoria created the illusion of ghosts, demons, and other such figures moving about the room. 'The combination of the moveable lantern and the moving slide were an essential first step forward in the history of 'moving' projection.' (141)

 

Once again, in this discussion of the Phantasmagoria, we meet another of Mannoni's rascals. Etienne-Gaspard Robertson claimed to have invented the Phantasmagoria (or, as he called it, the 'Fantasmagoria') in 1798. However, Mannoni proves that the first Phantasmagoria shows were in Paris between December 1792 and April 1793 by someone using the pseudonym Paul Philidor. Mannoni, like most historians a detective, attempts to tease out of the limited evidence who this person was (148-73).

 

Mannoni ends the second section of his book with a discussion of the Panorama and the Daguerreotype. While the Panorama did not provide the illusion of movement, it provided Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre with the necessary experience and capital to take over the development of a process for fixing images on glass slides, which he named, in all modesty, the Daguerreotype. Thus Daguerre is yet another rascal. The process of transferring a photographic (a term not used until 1839) image of an engraving to a piece of glass was developed by Nicephore Niepce by 1822. Mannoni points out that just like the cinemagraph, photography was invented by someone who worked long and hard but, because of money, connections, or scientific problems, could not make the jump to popularizing the invention. Popularization waited for a 'newcomer' who took credit for the invention. In the case of photography, it was Daguerre and, in the case of cinematography, it was the Lumiere brothers (191-93).

 

Part three of Mannoni's work takes up the development of different devices that led to the development of 'Faraday's Wheel'. Mannoni provides a detailed, technical description of these devices, but suffice it to say that they created static images through a stroboscopic effect (201-14). However, in 1832, Joseph Plateau invented the 'Phenakistiscope', which created the illusion of moving images (215-17). In an 1843 article in _The Mechanic's Magazine_, T. W. Naylor described a device combining the Phenakistiscope with the Phantasmagoria to project an image. Mannoni then traces further developments and improvements on Naylor's device to project moving images (223-231). One of the most significant inventions (although not known at the time) was developed simultaneously by a British engineer, J. Beale, and an American, A. Brown, and was called the Maltese Cross interrupter. This device interrupts the motion phase of the image in a projected stroboscopic image so that only the stopped frame is viewed, thus improving the illusion of movement -- and it is still an essential part of cinematographic projection (232-35). As Mannoni demonstrates later in his book, the developments in stroboscopic imaging laid the essential foundations for chronophotography which evolved into cinematography.

 

By the mid-1800s, Jules Duboscq, building on others' inventions, developed a device for viewing daguerreotype images called the Bioscope, a device that provided the illusion of both motion and three-dimensionality. Mannoni reveals the second theme of the book when he notes that the ambition of the various inventors whose work led to the Bioscope 'was a response to an expectation of the public and a dream of some Utopians: to see the photographic image of a human being, animated in three dimensions on a screen or a stroboscopic disc' (239). This is Mannoni's greatest achievement -- he consciously argues against the *inevitability* of cinematography. Too often, histories of the development of cinema see this invention as the inevitable result of about fifty or sixty years of research that obviously ended with the cinema. Too many historians have forgotten that nothing is inevitable; only historical hindsight imposes order where there was none. Mannoni, through his discussion of the many predecessors to cinema, including the important failures, clearly reveals that the development of cinematography was not inevitable. Rather, cinema is just one step in 'one overriding godlike desire: to recreate life, to see a human alter ego, either hand-painted or chronophotographed, living and breathing on the screen' (xvii). Further, cinema is not the end, rather, it is only one step in the continuum of a dream that has yet to be realized -- the dream of projecting truly life-like, three-dimensional images. New media, like computer generated animation and virtual reality video games, are the next, but not final step in this progression. [3]

 

Part three also contains an in-depth discussion of the impact on cinema made by the Belgian Henry Desire du Mont and the Frenchman Louis-Arthur Ducos du Hauron. In the 1860s both men invented a system of photographing a moving object in quick succession, transferring these images to glass slides, and then projecting these images one at a time to create the illusion of movement. Initially, their projectors required 290 lenses (and one projector required 580 lenses), however Du Hauron invented a projector that used only eight moveable lenses. He also developed a means for transferring photographic images to opaque paper strips for his projector. Unfortunately, none of these strips or any of his projectors is extant (252-61). Here, and throughout his work, Mannoni shows his clever use of primary sources: patents. Mannoni has discovered a treasure trove of primary documents for the technological history of the pre-cinema. These patents reveal a varied and elaborate history of moving picture production that scholars in other countries should investigate.

 

Part three ends with a discussion of the widespread appeal of magic lanterns by the second half of the 19th century. Indeed, by this point magic lanterns were being mass-produced for the home market. In addition, slides, both static and moving, were also mass-produced. The manufacture of lanterns and slides employed thousands by the end of the 19th century. Thus, all levels of society owned their own lanterns or had frequent access to lantern shows. (280-96) In addition to mass-produced lanterns, elaborate, exquisitely designed professional-grade lanterns were also produced. The Lumiere brothers, for their 'Cinematographe shows of 1895', used one of these professional-grade lanterns (287). This, however, was the beginning of the end for magic lanterns. In 1908 Lapierre Freres, one of the largest producers of magic lanterns, merged 'with Jules Demaria's photographic and cinematographic camera manufacturing company: a turning point which symbolized the fact that magic lanterns could no longer compete with the cinema on the *grands boulevards*' (286).

 

Part four brings the reader into more familiar territory with names like Eadweard Muybridge, Thomas Edison, and the Lumiere brothers. However, in addition to these, Mannoni, true to his theme that the development of cinema was not inevitable, presents important work by others. As Mannoni correctly argues, 'there was no single-handed inventor of the technique, spectacle and art of cinematography, but a long chain made up of many generations of researchers, all dependent on each other' (299). For example, Mannoni relates the story of Muybridge's development of photographing human and animal (especially horse) movements (304-19). While many previous works on the development of cinema jump immediately to Edison, Mannoni demonstrates that important developments took place in the interim. In particular, he shows how the development of chronophotography by the French physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey was absolutely essential for the further development of cinematography. Marey and Muybridge corresponded with each other (and even met in Paris) to discuss the use of 'instantaneous photography' to chronicle the movement of animals. As Mannoni demonstrates, this was a most fruitful intellectual collaboration (312-16, 330-33).

 

Not content with Muybridge's 'instantaneous photography', Marey sought to capture physical movement more clearly and more precisely. At first, he used a 'photographic rifle' to capture movement on glass slides. While this device was an improvement over Muybridge's bank of some forty cameras, the glass slides still had to be handled very carefully and the captured image tended to appear as only a silhouette (326-33). In 1888, using the sensitized paper strip patented by George Eastman, Marey created, according to Mannoni, 'his first 'film' on paper: a series of pictures . . . at the rate of twenty images per second' (340-41). Not content with this, Marey eventually turned to celluloid film (like most inventions associated with the development of cinematography, celluloid film was developed by several inventors in many different places at different times, but it was patented by the Eastman Photographic Materials Company in 1889). In 1891, in his own words, Marey noted that with chronophotography using celluloid film:

 

'one may operate in front of all types of background, illuminated or dark; this allows the study of movements which it is of interest to know in the place where they occur. In this way one will capture the movements of practitioners of different trades in the factory, those of runners and gymnasts on their training grounds, those of all kinds of animals in menageries and zoological gardens.' (344)

 

Thus, once again, Mannoni's first theme of movement is a central concern to one of the great early practitioners of what would become cinematography.

 

Mannoni is correct to say that these brief sequences of carefully timed photographs -- which, when viewed through a zoetrope or projected by Marey's 'chronophotographic projector', produced the illusion of movement, despite having only 'ten to forty images per film' -- do in fact represent a 'film' (342-46, 350-53). Many scholars of film studies have forgotten that the early films, such as those by the Lumieres, Pathe, Paul, Hepworth, Edison, and others, were less than a minute long. Thus, the short duration should not prevent us from considering these chronophotographs as some of the first films. Most of Marey's films would have been clearly recognized by film audiences in 1899 as 'actualities'.

 

In this fourth section of the book, Mannoni provides a vivid portrait of a little known film pioneer, Emile Reynaud. Reynaud is brilliant proof that the cinema as we know it was not inevitable and that there were important failures along the way. Reynaud developed a machine called the Praxinoscope that, through hand-drawn figures on gelatin strips and the ingenious use of mirrors, created the illusion of three-dimensional action. Between 1888 and 1900, using a machine he called the Theatre Optique, he projected films made up of 300 to 700 images. The longer strips could show a film lasting 12 to 15 minutes -- a feat not equaled by the cinema for several years (364-86) -- but Raynaud's plan of painting each individual frame was too expensive and too time consuming to compete economically with cinema. Yet despite his eventual failure, Reynaud's work should not be dismissed or forgotten:

 

'Between the Theatre Optique and chronophotographic or cinematographic projection there is no disjuncture, but a continuity, an essential relationship . . . Reynaud was therefore not a 'precursor'; what he made was true cinema, both as spectacle and as 'inscription of movement'' (386).

 

Mannoni's description of Edison's Kinetoscope in this fourth section of the book is reasonably solid. Of particular interest to American audiences is Mannoni's detailed discussion of the Kinetoscope's progress through Europe. The only problem, and it is a small one, is Mannoni's assertion that, 'The Americans view Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) as the inventor of the cinema, in terms of technique, spectacle, and industry.' (387) This is an overly broad statement. Perhaps most of the American public (those who have heard of Edison) assume this, but film specialists in the US do not believe that Edison invented the movies.

 

In his concluding chapter, Mannoni persuasively argues that the Lumieres were not the sole inventors of projecting chronophotographic images -- the cinema -- rather, they were part of a large group of inventors and 'newcomers' including 'the Lathams, Jenkins, Armat, de Bedts, Joly, Skladanowsky, and others, who between them launched cinematography as both industry and spectacle' (417). Just like the magic lantern, it was the 'newcomers', the showmen, and not the inventors who benefited from the 'gold rush' of cinema (467). And most of these were rascals.

 

One of the most significant parts of Mannoni's work is his thorough use of patents to describe the technological progression of machines to project moving images. In many cases, without extant examples of these machines, these patents are the only way to learn what happened in the past. However, Mannoni has overlooked another fine source of primary sources. The British Film Institute has a number of early British film producer catalogues. Many of these, especially the earlier catalogues, contain pictures and descriptions of both magic lanterns, film projectors, and film cameras. These might have proved useful for Mannoni's study.

 

Mannoni has written a wonderful social history of the development of motion pictures from the Middle Ages to the 1890s. Too often writers refer to their work as social history when it is, in fact, cultural history. That is, their histories focus on the players at the exclusion of the historical stage. Mannoni, on the other hand, brilliantly weaves an intricate tapestry of cultural and technological history to create a true social history. Mannoni focuses on the individuals and their accomplishments (sometimes to the point of telling us the exact street addresses where they made their developments), thus his work is cultural history. However, he helps us realize that these individuals were creators. They created not just their art, but also the technology crucial to their art form. Thus, this is a lucid, detailed technical history of the development of cinema. Mannoni has produced a terrific model of how history of the *longue duree* should be written and how a real social history should be written. Laurent Mannoni's _The Great Art of Light and Shadow: Archaeology of the Cinema_ is highly recommended for all academic libraries as well as personal collections of any person studying film.

 

University of West Alabama

Livingston, Alabama, USA

 

 

Notes

 

1. Many, if not most of these showmen probably were not all that political. As I have argued in my own work on early British cinema, these showmen were simply providing what the consumer wanted -- in this case, they wanted to see scenes and stories critical of the aristocracy. For my argument, see, ''Celluloid Heroes Never Die in Vain': British Cinema and the Depiction of War on the Eve of the First World War, A Textual Analysis', _Film and History Annual_ (1999).

 

2. As in the first section, Mannoni demonstrates in the second section how the lantern and the various innovations in lantern projection spread rapidly around the world. This comes close to an argument I have made in various papers on early British cinema that the 'language of film' is universal to all cultures of the industrialized west and is not arbitrary. See the article above, as well as the unpublished paper, 'Working-Class Hegemony: The Portrayal of Working-Class Characters in Early British Silent Film Comedies', presented at the Southern Conference on British Studies (2000).

 

3. This point was made all the more poignant to me a few weeks ago when I took my daughters to see the film _Spy Kids 3-D_.

 

 

Copyright © Film-Philosophy 2003

 

 

Richard Schellhammer, 'Moving Pictures before Cinema: Mannoni's _The Great Art of Light and Shadow_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 7 no. 39, November 2003 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol7-2003/n39schellhammer>.

 

 

 

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