Embracing Photography and the Art of Projection

Magic Lantern

Biunial Magic Lantern.

First Magic Lantern show in Philadelphia

Early public lecture using a Magic Lantern for projection.

The proliferation of reproductions and their unavoidable role as a vehicle for information sharing have impacted how museums move forward in fulfilling their mission in a mechanical age. So then, what are the ways in which museums have embraced technology to make their gallery walls more transparent? Prior to photography, the only way to share a likeness of a masterpiece was through a personal sketch or engravers. These were the primary sources of disseminating a facsimile, though the disadvantages were plenty: accuracy, coloration, distance from the original, and interpretation on the part of the engraver. Though it too gained more practicality with advancements in technology, the magic lantern, and projection in general, proved to be an early option for disseminating images through academic or public lectures. Thanks to the work of commercial photographers such as the Langenheim Brothers, glass slides could contain drawings of significant architecture or images in museum collections and be projected for the public. Some of these images, especially non-photographic slides, were even painted to further reflect accuracies of the original. As magic lantern and slide technology progressed, some models even had multiple lenses for a skilled projectionist to add special effects and really become a storyteller of a collection, an art movement, or even the content held within.

The relationship between art historical discourse and projection was not a symbiotic relationship at first. Most obviously, without the introduction of photography, masterpieces could simply not be as accurately reproduced through projection—they would simply be projections of already ubiquitous engravings. Prior to photography, and even well into its early periods, art history was taught through grand tours of Europe or professors orally describing works with the assumption that students would someday pursue their own grand tour. Art history as a recognized discipline only gained measurable traction and legitimacy with the help of photography, though the relationship was somewhat cumbersome and hotly debated at first. Charles Eliot Norton, the first chair of the History of Art department at Harvard University, had amassed a notable collection of illustrative and photographic material for the Fogg Art Museum, but still relied on his oratory tradition and descriptive material of the time to portray the ‘aura’ of the works he discussed in his lectures. His teaching style “endeavor[ed] to instill through literature the right receptive attitudes so that the originals which they would all eventually see in situ would have a predictable impact” (Freitag, 1979). English critic John Ruskin, on the other hand, agreed that photography had am ameliorating quality for art history education, however he was more specific on the limits of that quality and how it should be elicited. He wanted to limit photography’s function “to that of an initial recording device, one suitable for transmitting only the cruder, purely archaeological aspects of the work of art” (Freitag, 1979). This crude documentation was certainly a function that could be useful, but perhaps less enforced, especially as both amateur and professional photography continued to expand. 

Clarence Kennedy’s PhD Dissertation on Art and Photography

Kennedy, "The tomb by Antonio Rossellino for the Cardinal of Portugal", 1930. Gelatin Silver Print.

Scholar/photographers, such as Smith College’s Clarence Kennedy, began to embrace the issue as a valid topic for research. While a student at the American School in Athens around 1915, Kennedy began experimenting with photographing sculpture, specifically using lighting to capture the essence and significance of the work. Though he cautioned of the practice, “the photographer dare not allow himself to use the sculpture for spectacular effects of his own invention...He is not creating something of his own" (Getty Museum). For Kennedy, the use of photography could be used to enhance our understanding of the work itself and the atmosphere and context in which it is situated, however photography shouldn’t be used to exaggerate the meaning of a work through the new medium.

With the eventual acceptance of photography and photographic projection into the field, the focus returned to the works themselves and allowed an audience to experience a minimally interpreted view of a work outside its physical location. Early German art history professor Herman Grimm, a strong supporter of a visual approach to teaching, opined, “The slide projection apparatus enables us to make a clear distinction between that in art which moves the soul and that which is merely of interest from the aspect of art history” (Freitag, 1979). Kennedy’s photographic work stove to perfect and encourage this middle ground between the opinions of Ruskin and Grimm. Despite a continued debate, the concept of projection in art history had found a following and would only continue to develop.

With the magic lanterns in particular, photography greatly improved the accuracy and quality of the reproductions used in the slides. Glass positives, like those used by the Langenheim brothers, became early precursors to 35mm slides and other forms of projection images. The main critique of magic lantern slides was on the inconsistency of light, which resulted in color manipulation. Specifically, weaker light sources inside the lantern produced tinted light and the illumination produced from light shining through a color positive slide often distorted the tone of images (Hankins, 1995). 

Kodachrome 35mm slides

Selection of Kodak Slide Transparencies. 

Creation of Eastman Kodak Company by George Eastman

Eastman Kodak Company of New York incorporated in 1892.

If there was ever a doubt that art history’s link to projection would fade, George Eastman’s Kodachrome slides, first introduced in 1935, forever linked the two disciplines. Cheaper and more easy to handle, these film transparencies became the quickest and most efficient way to see reproductions of art works. Shortly following the invention of the film itself, the first electrical slide projector became available in 1937 in order to show images captured with the film. Unlike other laborious and cumbersome photography techniques such as the wet plate process, the 35mm kodachrome slide was originally designed for the amateur. The film was easily portable and with nine layers of filters and emulsions, the color documentation and the resulting stability made this method ideal for art history teaching specifically. From the start, the color aspect of this new technology changed the way a viewer could interact with a reproduction in comparison to its monochromatic predecessors. In an assessment of the technology, A.D. Coleman remarked, “Monochromatic photographs…inherently signal to us –by the very absence of full color in their representation of the world—that they’re abstractions, derivations, or something other than the situations, objects, and spaces they depict…color photography makes the medium that much more transparent, credible, and effectively illusory” (Coleman, 2002). Rather than relying on the viewer to imagine the full color spectrum and detail of a work, the kodachrome transparency provided color in a more ‘truthful’ manner, as opposed to illustrators who in the past would enhance black and white slides with color to make them appear more life-like. Though similar to the magic lantern, one critique of the medium was the accuracyof the color once projected. When light passes through a transparency, it “adds the illumination of the stained-glass window indiscriminately to a fresco, panel, or a canvas” (Freitag, 1979). Despite color’s downfalls in transparency, Coleman defends the method by adding, “the technological development of applied and vernacular photography has always moved toward an increasing capability to encode and even greater amount of data: image sharpness and clarity reflect this concern most obviously, but so does the impulse toward color, which—aesthetics aside—is first and foremost another kind of data” (Coleman, 2002).

Projection technology was paramount for the establishment of art history as a legitimate cultural discipline, and photography certainly helped professors and museum professionals disseminate their collection for the purpose of scholarship. However, photography was also fundamental in bringing reproductions to the masses in a cheaper form than the high quality print reproductions that were often available for purchase. For the masses, simply being able to see a work of art was more important than the quality. The ubiquity of the kodachrome slides helped broaden the access of color imagery especially through teachers and museums offering color slides of their collection for sale for a nominal fee. 

Embracing Photography and the Art of Projection