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Illustrated Lectures and Their Authors


In the eyes of spectators and critics, the exhibitor, not the slide producer, was the author. It was the presenter’s role that shaped the material, and as with John Stoddard, it was his art that the newspapers reviewed. Stoddard delivered his first lecture, without illustrations, at a Boston church in the spring of 1877, but two years later, he started his professional career with illustrated talks on St. Petersburg, Moscow, and Spain. His second “season,” 1880-1881, with its elaborately illustrated account of the recent passion-play performance in Oberammergau, Germany, established him as a prominent lecturer. By the following season he was playing all major cities from Chicago to Boston and receiving $250 a lecture. For many years he was content to purchase his slides from Levy & Company and other dealers, but eventually he began surveying the firm’s collection in advance and then hired local photographers to take special views that he needed and he alone could use. While his programs during the 1880s were limited to Europe and the Mediterranean, in 1890 he traveled through Mexico and in 1891 went around the world. By 1893–1894 he was giving a five-part course of lectures that included two sessions on Japan, one on China, and two on India. 39

The large fraternity of illustrated travel lecturers also included E. Burton Holmes, who would subsequently incorporate motion pictures into his programs. Born into a cosmopolitan Chicago family in 1870, Holmes left school at age sixteen and traveled to Europe with his grandmother. A camera fanatic, he gave his first travel lecture, “Through Europe with a Kodak,” before the Chicago Camera Club in 1890. It was a success and was repeated the next year. After traveling to Japan (and meeting Stoddard on the trip), the young man embarked on a professional career, beginning with a lecture at the 350-seat Recital Hall in Chicago on 15 November 1893. As he toured other Midwestern cities, Holmes was applauded for his delivery, the quality of his photographic work, and the beautiful hand-tinting of his slides. The Milwaukee Sentinel judged his presentations “among the treats of the season.” “In the first lecture,” explained Holmes in the program of his first professional lecture, “the audience is taken to the heart of the Real Japan, far beyond the reach of foreign innovations. The experiences of three Americans on a tramp of over three hundred miles through the interior provinces, are vividly described and illustrated.” Oscar Depue, then working for a Chicago supplier of optical goods, was hired to project the slides at Recital Hall; he subsequently remained as the lecturer’s full-time operator and longtime associate. By the 1895—1896 season Holmes had a full course of five programs just like Stoddard. 40

As the documentary tradition matured in the era between Reconstruction and the Spanish-American War, the travel lecture provided the dominant paradigm. From within the travel genre, however, there emerged examples of what we would now call ethnographic programs, such as “Land of the Eskimos,” delivered by Lieutenant Robert Edwin Peary in 1894. These explorations of distant places and seemingly primitive, impoverished peoples were mirrored by an investigation of another group of “others” who lived much closer to home. In 1888 former police reporter Jacob Riis almost single-handedly launched the social-issue screen documentary, which prospers, now primarily on television, to this day. His ground-breaking exhibition, “The Other Half: How It Lives and Dies in New York,” made use of new photographic techniques utilizing a flash. It enabled Riis to go into New York City’s slums and to capture photographically those people who lived in dark alleyways and basements amid destitution and disease. His illustrated lectures shocked the well-to-do and did much to stimulate the burgeoning movement for social reform. In exploring differences of class, ethnicity, race, and even gender, in focusing on the dislocations between the private and public spheres that were symptomatic of the daily life of the poor, and by conveying a powerful sense of claustrophobia through the succession of enclosing images, Riis challenged the implicit assumption of a metropolitan experience shared by all city dwellers, articulated in previous illustrated lectures on urban life delivered by the Langenheims and their successors. 41

Alexander Black of neighboring Brooklyn explored the growing urban landscape of his city in a less disturbing manner. Enjoying an excellent local reputation in the early 1890s, Black became well known for his illustrated lecture sometimes called “Life Through a Detective Camera” and other times “Ourselves as Others See Us.” Relying on “instantaneous photography” and hidden camera work, Black constantly reworked the presentation so that audiences would see a different program on return dates. He not only took his own slides but authored Photography Indoors and Out: A Book for Amateurs, which was published by Houghton, Mifflin in 1893. He ultimately distinguished himself from his colleagues by writing, photographing, and presenting a full-length fiction “picture play,” Miss Jerry, which premiered in New York City on 9 October 1894.

Unlike Stoddard, Black was committed to an aesthetic of seamless realism. As he subsequently described his achievement in the preface to Miss Jerry (published by Scribners in 1897):

In this triangular partnership between the art of fiction, the art of the tableau vivant and the science of photography, I have sought to test certain possibilities of illusion with the aim always before me, that the illusion should not, because it need not and could not safely be that of photographs from an acted play, nor that of an artist’s illustrations, but the illusion of reality. If it is the function of art to translate nature, it is the privilege of photography to transmit nature. Thus, I sought to illustrate art with life (p. ix).

Although Black thought of his exhibition as a kind of play, the camera enabled him to use a wide range of exterior locations. Interiors were generally sets, though real locations were used in at least one instance (the office of Chauncey Depew, president of the New York Central & Harlem River Railroad). For each scene, many stills were usually taken from a single camera position. These were shown on the screen at the rate of three or four a minute with one dissolving into the next, thus providing not an illusion of motion but an indication of the characters’ actions and movements. For his monologue, Black played all the different parts and changed his voice to mimic each character. The enthusiasm that greeted this undertaking encouraged him to produce additional picture plays, including A Capital Courtship, set in Washington, D.C., and Miss America. As Terry Ramsaye has remarked, they anticipated many aspects of the feature film by almost twenty years. 42

Although stereopticon lecturers (as well as photographers) were overwhelmingly men and represented the world as they saw and understood it, they directed their exhibitions to mixed-sex audiences. Travel scenes, by focusing on landscapes and local customs, were generally non-erotic and appealed to spectators in non-gender-specific ways. However, the exhibitor often became a strong figure of identification for his audiences. Men commonly saw these authoritative world travelers as individuals to respect and even emulate. Women’s admiration not uncommonly turned into infatuation with their matinee idols.

The propriety of illustrated lectures appealed to two important cultural groups in American life. The first was the refined culture associated with Harper’s Weekly and polite literature. In the form and ideological attitudes of Stoddard’s lectures, one finds the social, cultural, and aesthetic concerns underlying Frederick Olmsted’s vision of Central Park in New York: harmony, cultivated sensibility, propriety, genteel elitism. 43 It was places like the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, one of the nation’s foremost cultural institutions, that most warmly received Stoddard and Black. Black, who had the same agent as Mark Twain—Major James Burton Pond— also exhibited on the Lyceum circuit, which sponsored popular middle-brow cultural events.

The second group that embraced the illustrated lecture consisted of church-based institutions. Churches regularly sponsored cultural events, usually as an alternative to corrupting amusements (melodramas, musicals, and so forth) at the local theater or small-town opera house. They were engaged in a more or less explicit crusade for the souls of the community. Ministers considered the illustrated lecture to be just one of many weapons in their arsenal and frequently presented them. In Orange, New Jersey, the Reverend J. Lester Wells gave a Riis-inspired “flash-light lecture” on “Lower Jersey City and the People’s Palace” at the Orange Valley Congregational Church. According to the Orange Chronicle, “He projected upon canvas a series of stereopticon views which graphically portrayed the changes which have been going on in lower Jersey City, showing how the population has almost entirely changed in the past few years, the wealthy moving away and the industrial classes taking their places.” Two weeks later, the First German Presbyterian Church in the same town offered a stereopticon lecture on the Worlds Fair and Alaska. 44

These two groups did not constitute a monolithic bulkwark of middle-class culture; at various points, genteel culture with its underlying humanistic philosophy was in conflict with the evangelical nature of many Protestant denominations. Yet a deep compatibility was often evident. Alexander Black, for example, periodically delivered his picture plays at church-sponsored events. In the mid 1890s, on the eve of projected motion pictures, it was these two groups that provided the most receptive audiences for screen images. By contrast, producers of popular, urban commercial entertainment rarely employed the stereopticon.

Vaudeville houses seldom hired showmen to project lantern-slide images in their theaters in the mid 1890s. In St. Louis, for example, over a hundred programs for a leading variety theater during the 1870s refer to the magic lantern only twice, for a two-week engagement in November-December 1874, when Professor Schaffher of the Royal Polytechnic in London showed “dissolving views and comic illustrations.” Similarly, in Boston during the fall of 1894, stereopticon slides appeared in vaudeville houses only once. At the New Lyceum, reported the Boston Herald, Professor George H. Gies “gave his first presentation in this city of his beautiful art pictures, and to say that they were admired and appreciated but mildly expresses the effect they had upon the audiences. The pictures they presented are exact copies of the originals, and are the most fascinating of paintings.” The following fall, projected views in Boston vaudeville houses were advertised only twice. In October, Howard and Emerson “sang a number of descriptive songs illustrated with beautiful dissolving views” at Benjamin F. Keith’s theater; two months later, Professor Gies presented “Beautiful Dissolving Views” there. Although New York managers showed greater interest, the increasing use of the stereopticon (particularly for illustrated songs) by vaudeville and popular theater would more or less coincide with their adoption of moving pictures in 1896-1897. In some localities, such as San Francisco, the two forms of screen entertainment made virtually simultaneous appearances. 45

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