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The Magic Lantern: A Photographic Tool between Mimesis and Imagination


Magic Lantern, 1960, Photograph Collection, Archives and Special Collections, Jafet Library, AUB

The invention of the Magic Lantern dates to the 17th century and is credited to both Christiaan Huygens and Athanasius Kirchner. Kirchner’s early magic lantern was made up of a lantern with a simple concave mirror and a candle, with a tube at the side, housing convex lenses at each end. The hand-painted glass slide was placed between them to allow for a projected image with some depth. These early magic lanterns were simple fore-runners of the slide projector and later film projector, and were initially used for scientific and mostly pedagogic purposes (similar to current projector or power point slide shows). However, their entertainment value was soon recognized, and in 1802, "the "Phantasmagoria" opened in London, as a ghostly show of magic lantern slides with spectral figures projected onto diaphanous screens that swooped and howled around a darkened room as a narrator told a tall tale of horror to a supposedly terrified audience. The combined thrill of magic, fantasy, and terror made the Phantasmagoria, its spin-offs, and the magic lantern slide technology of painted and photographed images on glass slides among the most popular public visual spectacles of the nineteenth century.

[Abdul Baha garden, Acre. Water terrace]16972v.jpg

Lantern Slide Abdul Baha garden, Acre. Water terrace,  1925

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

By the late-nineteenth century magic lantern slides had two major markets: they were sold in large collections for public entertainments or for educational (or therapeutic) lectures, and they were sold in small collections for viewing in the home. The viewer was led to believe that the image on the magic lantern slide, when used educationally, was indexical: it bore a direct, unfiltered relationship to the real or original object. It functioned as a transparent slide-literally and metaphorically-and it was intended to be read as a visual surrogate for the "real" thing. Lecturers even called these slides "transparencies." When used to entertain, the slide was presented with a fictional image: frequently it was altered, manipulated, or even openly falsified. These images told moral, romantic, and sad stories; they presented visual deceptions such as giant fleas beside tiny men or they "revealed" ghostly apparitions. They were manipulated in both content and meaning, and were thus opaque on two levels: literally (manipulated) and metaphorically (fictional).”

  This section is taken from J. Sperling, "Magic Lantern Slide to Digital Image: Visual Communities and American Culture,” Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)