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The Stereopticon: Projecting Photographic Images

slides lantern

The development of photography did not give lanternists immediate access to projected photographic images: this had to wait for the development of the albumen and collodion processes in the late 1840s. These new techniques enabled a photographic image to adhere to a glass surface, whereas previous methods (daguerreotypes and talbotypes) had used either a silver-plated copper surface or paper as a base. When John A. Whipple and William B. Jones of Boston patented an albumen process (using egg whites as an adhering agent) in June 1850, they had been using it for several years. The Langenheim brothers, William and Frederick, who had also been working with the albumen process, played an important role in the introduction of photographic lantern slides. 24

During the 1840s, the Langenheims facilitated the introduction of several new photographic processes into the United States. Interested in the paper photography developed by William Henry Fox Talbot, they became its exclusive agents in the United States. While licensing the talbotype process was not commercially rewarding, the venture encouraged them to adopt and to improve the albumen process. Employing glass as a support for the emulsion, the Langenheims began making photographic lantern slides, for which they claimed:

The new magic-lantern pictures on glass, being produced by the action of light alone on a prepared glass plate, by means of the camera obscura, must throw the old style of magic-lantern slides into the shade, and supersede them at once, on account of the greater accuracy of the smallest details which are drawn and fixed on glass from nature, by the camera obscura, with a fidelity truly astonishing. By magnifying these new slides through the magic lantern, the representation is nature itself again, omitting all defects and incorrectness in the drawing which can never be avoided in painting a picture on the small scale required for the old slides ( Art-Journal [London], April 1851, p. 106).

By 1851 they were exhibiting slides at London’s Crystal Palace Exhibition, where these “hyalotypes” received extensive praise. Subjects included buildings and landmarks in Philadelphia (United States Custom House, Pennsylvania State Penitentiary), Washington (Smithsonian, the Capitol), and New York (Croton aqueduct) as well as portraits of well-known Americans. These were mounted in rectangular wooden frames that measured 3? × 6? inches with a 2¾- or 3-inch circular opening for the image. From the outset, many of these stereopticon slides, which cost four to five dollars apiece, were hand-colored. For a tour of South America in 1852, Frederick Langenheim used such slides in a four-part program that included “1. Views of Niagara Falls; 2. Interesting Views of the United States and other countries of the world; 3. Microscopic Views magnified two thousand times; 4. Magical and Comical Pictures.” 25

In 1850 the Langenheims also introduced the stereoscope into the United States. This peephole-viewing instrument owed its immense popularity to the illusion of depth that was created when the spectator looked at two pictures of an object, each taken from a slightly different perspective. These stereo views were often transfer printed onto ground glass so the spectator could hold them up to the light. Since the Langenheims and other dealers sold both stereoscopic views and lantern slides, they often cut the double images in half and projected individual slides with a magic lantern. Because these slides were so frequently used in the lantern, Americans often called the projector of photographic slides a “stereopticon.” 26

P. E. Abel and T. Leyland exhibited the Langenheims’ slides at the Concert Hall in Philadelphia on 22 December 1860, calling their magic lantern a “stereopticon.” Images from Europe and North America were shown—initially without a lecturer, though one was soon added. The rapidly approaching Civil War distracted potential patrons, and the stereopticon closed after twelve weeks, only to reopen in Boston on 8 July 1861. Chemist John Fallon of Lawrence, Massachusetts, developed an improved stereopticon and exhibited it with considerable success in the 1860s. Leyland supervised the Brooklyn, New York, debut of this “scientific wonder of the age” at the Atheneum on 14 April 1863. Although audiences were embarrassingly small at first, the city’s leading citizens (including Mayor Martin B. Kalbfleisch and Charles J. Sprague) urged Fallon and Leyland to remain “so that all may enjoy its beauties and profit by its instructions.” It ultimately ran almost continuously for six weeks, with a twenty-five-cent admission fee. The evening debut consisted of “a choice selection of landscapes, architectural views and sculptures gathered from travels in the most illustrious parts of Europe, Asia and our own country,” and one reviewer suggested that “you can imagine yourself borne away on the enchanted carpet of the Arabian tale, and brought where you can look down upon the veritable Paris, and Rome, and Egypt.” Leyland soon made almost daily program changes, devoting each illustrated lecture to a specific country or region: “Great Britain,” “France,” “Switzerland and the Rhine,” and “Italy.” For another popular program, the “wall photographer” exhibited photographs of statuary. These evening shows—with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at reduced fee—reportedly were “attended by the learned and scientific portion of society as well as others.” For the last ten days of its run, Fallon’s stereopticon was presented under the auspices of the Central Congregational Sunday School. 27

While strong ties between the stereopticon and the cultural elite were being forged in Brooklyn, P. T. Barnum hastened to appropriate the invention for his own amusement purposes in Manhattan. On 4 May 1863, the “Great English Stereopticon” opened as the principal attraction at his American Museum with “photographic views of scenery, celestial and animated objects, buildings, portraits, &c, &c.” For this “new pleasure,” which Barnum claimed to have cost thousands of dollars, “the picture stands out upon a curtain with the same perspective that is seen in nature, and thousands of people can see it at the same time.” 28 After two weeks, the stereopticon was being shown between acts of Dion Boucicault’s drama Fauvrette.

Fallon’s “great work of art, the stereopticon” opened in Manhattan on 15 June at Irving Hall, where it ran for five weeks. Returning the following May, the showman gave exhibitions every evening (with matinees on Wednesdays and Saturdays) for seven weeks. His collection included one thousand slides, and programs changed each week. The return engagement commenced with “Celebrated Places and Statuary,” which included portraits of various Union Army generals. A subsequent screening offered local views—images of New York harbor, a recent fair, and the new Worth Monument. 29 The final week was devoted to a program on the war, “The Army of the Potomac,” which used photographs taken by Alexander Gardner, the official photographer for the army of the Potomac, and a corps of his associates. Advertisements announced:

The views illustrate the army from the first battle of Bull Run up to its present position under the commands of Gen. McDowell, Gen. McCellan, Gen. Burnside, Gen. Hooker, Gen. Meade and Lieut. Gen. Grant are vouched for by all our generals, and bring the battle fields, their incidents and localities, before us in the most faithful and vivid manner, each view being reproduced on a canvas covering a surface of over 600 square feet ( New York Daily Tribune, 27 June 1864, p. 3).

The journalistic praise accorded the stereopticon evokes the amazement that greeted the first screen images and anticipates the later enthusiasm for the novelty of projected motion pictures. “The dead appear almost to speak; the distant to overcome space and time and be close and palpable,” noted the New York Tribune. When Professor Cromwell acquired Fallon’s stereopticon and returned to New York City in the late 1860s, a publicist wrote:

It will be seen that the [stereopticon] exhibition differs from the exhibition of painting [on glass], in that it presents us with a literal transcription of the actual, heightened into all the beauty and effect of the chiaro obscuro, by the combination of optical laws so feebly hinted at in the Magic Lantern. Stereoscopic Pictures are placed before us which are the exquisite shadows of the photograph, freighted with all the minute details of the subject as it really exists, not a flat monochromatic shadow, but a rounded, glowing picture, thrown up into splendid relief with all its marvelous accuracy magnified, all its tints preserved, and the whole character, subtle and sublime of the existing thing itself, reproduced in a splendid shaft of artificial life, so that for the moment, we seem to be looking at bold picturesque facts and not ingenious and shadowy fancies (A Guide to Cromwell’s Stereopticon, introduction by A. C. Wheeler [New York, ca. 1869], p. 8).

Audiences, accustomed to projected images painted on glass, were overwhelmed by the realism of life-size photographs on the screen.

The shift from painted images to photography was one aspect of the complex transformation of screen practice occurring shortly after midcentury. Before the stereopticon, the screen had been strongly associated with the phantasmagoria’s mystery and magic. In the minds of a growing group of enthusiasts, the application of photography to projection provided the lantern with a new scientific basis. Photographic slides not only enhanced the lifelike quality of the screen image but offered a much more accurate record of reality. For popular scientific demonstrations, reality itself was often projected on the screen via specially constructed slides in which small living insects were able to move about. Professor Henry Morton designed “Refraction; or, Prisms and Lenses,” his February 1866 illustrated lecture at Philadelphia’s Academy of Music, as much for its aesthetic effect as for the information it conveyed:

A little aquarium containing living fish and plants was placed in the lantern, and an immense image thrown upon the screen. Salt water was then poured into the aquarium, as it gradually mixed with the fresh, it refracted the light at all surfaces of contact, thus producing beautiful, changing, cloud-like shadows on the screen, and also causing a great commotion among the frightened fish, lizards, &c., which greatly amused the audience to see their singular acrobatic and gymnastic evolutions and contortions ( Philadelphia Photographer 3 1866, p. 119).

The technique Kircher had used to show "live flies ’ was thus resurrected in a new form. Crystals, leaves, and microscopic materials were also commonly shown, usually sandwiched between two pieces of glass. 30

Photography provided the first key element of standardization in screen practice. With the ability to make multiple copies of a single image, slide producers now had a process of manufacture that was much more efficient than hand painting, and this development was accompanied by corresponding advances in lithography, which was also used to make lantern-slide images. Multiple photographic images could be smaller than painted slides yet provided greater detail and were much cheaper to produce. Lanterns could be scaled down, made more portable, and sold for less. Screen practitioners had begun to adopt methods of industrial manufacture.

Slide production and exhibition increasingly became specialized, independent branches of an industry whose relations were characterized by the maturing system of capitalism. Until after the Civil War, magic lanterns and slides were only one line of goods sold by the optical trade. John McAllister opened a Philadelphia shop dealing in optical goods in 1796. Renamed McAllister & Brother when it was taken over by his grandsons (W. Y. and T. H.) in 1855, the enterprise became the country’s first major dealer in lanterns. In 1865, T. H. McAllister moved to New York City and set up his own business, which came to specialize in lanterns, slides, and related supplies. By the 1880s, McAllister was best known for its calcium-light lanterns, which cost between $100 and $450. 31 T. H. McAllister would subsequently deal in motion-picture projectors and films as well.

In 1850 Daniel H. Briggs of Abington, Massachusetts, found himself painting slides for his own lectures, then a common practice. Fellow exhibitors were soon buying his highly regarded slides, and the demand for these hand-painted glass images became greater than he could supply. In 1853 he learned of the collodion process developed by Frederick Archer and adopted it as a way to increase the efficiency of his production. He prospered and moved to Norton, Massachusetts, where his son, Casper W. Briggs, assumed active management of the slide business in 1868. Exhibition was forgotten and the focus placed on manufacture and sales.

C. W. Briggs moved his business to Philadelphia in 1872 and two years later purchased the Langenheims’ business when William died and Frederick retired. The Briggs firm, which remained the dominant American slide producer through World War I, specialized in drawings that were then photographed and usually hand-tinted. Among the many artists employed by the firm, the best known was Joseph Boggs Beale, who had established a reputation as a magazine illustrator. From about 1890 to 1917 he made roughly 1,800 drawings, or an average of less than two a week. Beale’s biographer, Terry Borton, indicates that approximately six hundred images were of historical events (recent or past), focusing on subjects like the American Revolution or the Boer War. Another six hundred slides were religious. Others were made for secret societies or emphasized temperance themes or comic incidents. Many of these images reworked and evoked well-known paintings, such as Emanuel Leutze’s Washington Crossing the Delaware (1851), but most were original, based on art direction provided by Briggs. The addition of color was often critical to these slides’ visual effect, although the manner of execution varied widely according to the range of tints employed, as well as the talents and care of the colorists. Briggs had a dozen women working on the slides, which were often passed down the line, with each woman specializing in a different color. 32

Beale’s slides embody a strong presentational approach. In illustrating a narrative, Beale selected melodramatic high points and drew them with heightened emotional effect and gestures. This is evident in a twelve-slide rendering of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem “The Raven,” which he made around 1890. The series is theatrical in style: the character’s posture and gestures recall a histrionic acting tradition, while the entire tale unfolds within the confines of one setlike room. The “fourth wall,” where the spectator is supposedly sitting, is never shown; the foreground remains empty; and a proscenium arch is likewise suggested. Nevertheless, the viewpoint offered the spectator is a mobile one. The perspective shifts, “moving in” and “panning” from right to left for the first three slides and “pulling back” for the fourth. This spatial instability creates a mood of unease and disorientation well suited to the poem. It also sets up the next slides, in which specters appear. Specifically the progressions from slides four to five and then from seven through ten retain single perspectives and display excellent continuity. By dissolving from one view to the next, the exhibitor could thus create a particularly haunting succession of images.

A reading of Poe’s poem was meant to accompany these images, and lines suggesting the cues on which to “cut” were placed along the edge of each slide. The reader who compares the images to the text will note that the slides of specters are projected in quite rapid succession in comparison with the others. The passage of time is suggested by the interaction of verse and image, with the text perhaps dominant. Individual exhibitors would have varied these impressions through the pace of verbal delivery and successive slides, or might have more fundamentally determined them by dropping lines and rearranging or even repeating slides. Temporality, however, is underdeveloped—suggested or indicated by this string of frozen moments rather than rendered continuously in some analogous or verisimilar form.

Philadelphia functioned as the center of the American photographic and lantern-slide industries for several decades. Optician Lorenzo J. Marcy, for example, patented a series of improvements on the magic lantern in the late 1860s, then moved from Newport, Rhode Island, to Philadelphia. There he marketed his sciopticon, a double-wick lantern that burned kerosene oil and generated a stronger light (as much as ten times the brilliance) than previous oil-burning projectors. Small and inexpensive (forty-five dollars), it enjoyed considerable popularity. Other Philadelphia lantern and slide dealers included M. F. Benerman and Edward L. Wilson, T. J. Harbach, and the optician Sigmund Lubin. Lubin established his business in 1882. Within five years he had fourteen employees and a reputation as a “sharp, shrewd businessman.” On more than one occasion he was in court contesting a claim. Although he went bankrupt in the late 1880s, he managed to recover and eventually assumed a prominent role in the motion-picture industry. 33

French and English lantern suppliers had a large share of the American market. In 1874, Benerman & Wilson acquired the American agency for Levy & Company, a French firm whose photographic slides were considered among the best in the world. These images were almost exclusively actuality scenes of various sights throughout the world. To promote them, Wilson wrote and published a series of “lantern journeys”—lectures that could either accompany the slides or be read while privately examining the corresponding stereoscopic views. Levy slides cost a dollar each, while others sold for as little as seventy-five cents (before discounts). A one-hundred-dollar outfit with sciopticon and one hundred slides was meant to “enable everybody to go into the exhibition business.” Benerman & Wilson also published the Magic Lantern, one of the country’s earliest trade journals for lantern enthusiasts. It was started in September 1874 by partner and chief editor Edward L. Wilson, who was already editor of the Philadelphia Photographer. 34

Although New York City was of only secondary importance in the lantern world, it claimed several noteworthy enterprises. Besides T. H. McAllister, E. and H. T. Anthony prospered as producers and dealers in stereoscopic views and lantern slides. Charles B. Kleine opened a small optical firm in 1865 and soon was selling stereopticons. Two sons followed him into the business, including future movie producer George Kleine, who moved to Chicago and opened the Kleine Optical Company in 1893. 35 By then, Chicago had become another important commercial center in the “optical trade,” serving as a distribution point for the sale of lanterns and slides throughout the Midwest.

Although early screen practices varied, all methods shared certain underlying characteristics in terms of both production and exhibition. As one approach, manufacturers produced negatives or lithographic masters from which they could make large quantities of slides. Reliance on photography became more pronounced after the late 1870s with the introduction of factory-coated gelatin plates, which further reduced the cost of manufacturing slides and increased the sensitivity of emulsions. Exhibitors bought these slides either individually or in sets. Having selected the images, they sequenced the slides and then projected them with an accompanying lecture, music, and perhaps even sound effects. Using another approach, lantern exhibitors frequently made their own slides, either by photography or by painting on glass. Photographers such as J. W. Bryant supplemented their regular income with evening lantern shows. In an article titled “How I Push the ‘Show’ Business,” Bryant reported:

At the beginning of winter I commenced preparing for the lantern entertainments, and although I employ three assistants, and work constantly in the [photography] gallery myself, I am making more clear money from the evening entertainments than from my regular business.

In addition to the slides obtained from [Benerman & Wilson], I make slides of my best negatives, being careful to take those best known and most respected. My experience is, there is nothing that pleases better than portraits of persons well known by the audience. I also display outdoor pictures, taken of scenery, public buildings, and private residences, which I have taken in and around this city; in short, anything I can get of a local character ( Magic Lantern, April 1875, p. 9).

Like many showmen, Bryant hired an advance man who booked engagements for him at Sunday schools, churches, lodges, societies, and public schools.

In the selection and juxtaposition of images, which is a key aspect of the process we now call editing, exhibitors could impose different degrees of continuity and discontinuity. As photographic slides became more widely used, their organization relied less on principles of diversity and variety and more on what one commentator called “the continuous plan”:

The continuous plan is liked best. By that we mean the arranging of your exhibition into one or more parts, and so connecting the pictures that they are made to illustrate some one subject continuously. The old-fashioned, spasmodic, hitchy way, of showing first a view of Paris, say, then a comic slide, and then a scripture scene, and then another Paris view, and so on, is without interest. You should interest your audience at once, and then keep up the interest. You would grow very tired if you were travelling, and had to jump out and change cars every mile or two. You want to keep on—the scene to change, yet all the time working towards the completion of some interesting story or journey (Magic Lantern Journal, February 1875, p. 7).

Spatial continuities became important in the later part of the nineteenth century. Surviving documentation, some as early as 1860, indicates that in sequencing photographic views, practitioners were often preoccupied with the creation of a spatial world. 36 As travel lectures became more elaborate, they often placed the traveler/photographer within the space constructed by a narrative. Thus, spatial relations between the slides—such as cut-ins, exterior/interior, point-of-view, and shot/counter-shot—became codified within the framework of the travel genre. Edward Wilson’s lectures from the mid 1870s to the mid 1880s indicate frequent dissolves from exterior to interior and continued spatial references on a reduced scale: “We are looking in the opposite direction from our last picture” is a typical remark. The later travel lectures of John Stoddard, who was active in the 1880s and 1890s, included shots of the traveler/lecturer in his railway car that were intercut with scenes of the countryside through which he was traveling. In some instances, the spectator saw Stoddard in his car, then saw what he had seen out the window. Such connections between images were usually made explicit through the lecture. 37

The lanternists’ preoccupation with the faithful duplication of reality and the creation of a seamless spatial world remained limited, however, and disparate mimetic techniques were routinely juxtaposed in the course of a program. Lithographic and photographic slides, for example, were frequently integrated into one program. In travel lectures like Stoddard’s program on Japan, actuality material and studio photographs were combined in the same sequence. 38 This syncretism might even occur within the same slide. Slide producers often placed actors against sets that combined real objects and objects painted on the backdrop; sometimes the actors were shot against a white background and the milieu subsequently drawn in. When the opportunity later arose, these showmen did not hesitate to juxtapose moving and static images.

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over 6 years ago

I have a telescope passed down many years ago, I was around 9 at the time.
It is brass, encased in wood
and wy.mcallister of Philadelphia etched on the brass. Could this be related
to the above? I am now 61 years old and have always inquisitive of its history.
Thank you for your time..