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Kircher and the Demystification of the Projected Image

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While recent research has clearly shown that Kircher did not invent the magic lantern, his Ars magna lucis et umbrae still occupies a privileged place at the start of the screen’s history. 7 In the first edition of Ars magna (1646), Kircher described a “catoptric lamp” he used to “project” (“reflect” might be the more accurate word) images onto a wall in a darkened room. While this lamp was an improvement over earlier devices of a similar nature, Kircher’s improvements were less important than his militant stance toward the demystification of the projected image. He laid out the apparatus for all to see (at least all who had access to his book), not only through description but by illustration. He also urged practitioners (exhibitors) to explain the actual process to audiences so that these spectators would clearly understand that the show was a catoptric art (involving reflection and optics), not a magical one. Kircher’s argument suggests a decisive starting point for screen practice: when the observer of projected/reflected images became the historically constituted subject we now call the spectator. The history of the pre-screen is therefore concerned with the period before this demystification took place, the period when projecting apparatus were used to manipulate the unsuspecting spectator with mysterious, magical images.

Kircher actually offers a historical section in Ars magna that is a history of the pre-screen thus defined. When such an instrument was used in the time of King Solomon, he points out, the rabbis thought it was magic. And, he adds, “We’ve read of this art in many histories in which the common multitudes look on this catoptric art to be the workings of the devil.” Again and again he warns his readers that in the past these techniques produced “such wonderful spectacle that even those considered philosophers were not infrequently brought under suspicion of being magicians” (pp. 792–794). Since someone practicing the devil’s art might suffer torture and a slow death, such accusations were not to be taken lightly.

Kircher’s text indicates that the revelation of the technical base of projection to the audience was a necessary condition of screen entertainment. The instrument of projection had to be made manifest within the mode of production itself, so that projected images did not appear as magic but as “art.” Images were subsequently described as “lifelike,” not as life itself. This demystification, however, cannot be assumed. Into the nineteenth century, mediums used projected images, concealed their source, and claimed these images were apparitions. Indeed, the potential for deception remained an underlying concern of early cinema, which enjoyed an even greater level of technical illusionism. R. W. Paul’s THE COUNTRYMAN’S FIRST SIGHT OF THE ANIMATED PICTURES (1901) and Edwin Porter’s UNCLE JOSH AT THE MOVING-PICTURE SHOW (1902) spoof the country rube who lacks the cultural framework needed to distinguish an image from real life.

The genesis of the screen coincided with a profound transformation in Western culture, particularly in Holland (where magic-lantern inventor Christiaen Huygens was working), and in England. As Christopher Hill argues, the English Revolution of the 1640s marked the end of the Middle Ages in key areas of English social, economic, and cultural life. The resulting political and social structure was much more open to—and even encouraged—capitalist production. Accompanying this development was an intellectual revolution that moved from proof by authority toward rationalism. 8 While the emergence of the screen as a form of entertainment resulted from social and cultural changes often referred to as the seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution, it was not merely rapid progress in science and technology that made this emergence possible. As belief in ghosts declined, as witch burnings ceased, the apparent logic and effectiveness of projecting apparatus as instruments of mystical terror also diminished.

The demystification of the screen established a relationship between producer, image, and audience that has remained fundamentally unaltered ever since. Kircher’s own description of his primitive (yet amazingly elaborate!) catoptric lamp suggests ways in which continuities of screen practice can be traced to the present day, even though the means and methods of production have been radically altered. The illustration accompanying Kircher’s text shows how images were “projected” into a darkened room. Words or other images were etched or painted upside-down and backward onto a mirror. A lenticular glass or lens was placed between the mirror and the wall on which the image was to be thrown. The sun usually provided the necessary illumination, although Kircher claimed that artificial light could be used if necessary. It was possible to use several catoptric lamps at the same time, so that both writing and images appeared on the wall independently yet simultaneously. The images were colored with transparent paints (to “increase the audience’s astonishment”). Theaterlike scenes incorporating movement also could be made. Kircher suggested:

Out of natural paper make effigies or images of things that you want to exhibit according to their shape, commonly their profile, so that by the use of hidden threads you can make their arms and legs go up and down and apart in whatever way you wish. With these shapes fastened on the surface of the mirror it will work as before, projecting the reflected light along with the shadow of the image in a dark place ( Ars magna, p. 794).

Kircher offered other ways to present moving images: “If you wish to show live flies, smear honey on the mirror and behold how the flies will be projected on the wall through the surface of the mirror with extraordinary size.” Finally, objects could be moved using a magnet behind the mirror. Already Kircher emphasized the combination of words and images, the use of color and movement, the possibility of narrative, and the special relationship between theater and the screen that has continued to this day. While the manner in which these fundamental elements were used, as well as the technology that produced them, has changed radically over the intervening three hundred years, their existence within the repertoire of screen entertainment has not.

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