Sam Cotter

Carousel, 2016

Among the first recorded Lantern slide image sequences was Dutch scientist Christiaan Huygens’ illustration of Death in skeleton form marching along and removing its skull and holding it in its hand. These simple drawings and newly invented projector solidified image’s potential as portable analogy and entertainment, offering new compactness and dazzling effects.

The lantern slide and magic lantern predate photography as a mode of visual storytelling — they have many precursors but took a recognizable form in the mid-1600s during the same investigation into optics and vision that gave birth to the modern microscope and telescope. During this time, the lens extended the reach of the eye far beyond anything previously imaginable and created new forms of spectacle.

The magic lanterns of this period were an inversion of the logic of the camera obscura; a painted scene was placed behind a lens inside of a box with a light source and projected out into a darkened room, altering a device for rendering the world into one for displaying the world rendered.

The development of the magic lantern brought two centuries of whirling devils, ghouls and phantoms contained in phantasmagoria shows, spectacular displays of scientific progress, and special effects used in occultism and spiritualism. These hand-crafted and performer-mediated shows shared suspension of disbelief as a core value — like shadows dancing across the cave wall, the projected impressions and imprints offered atemporal two-dimensional windows of understanding into otherwise inaccessible worlds.

Through the mid 1700s Johann Georg Schröpfer’s elaborate magic lantern-centric séances were perfected in the brotherhood of Freemasons and brought to the general public in cafes, salons and theatres. Schröpfer summoned deceased relatives, monsters and all manner of ghouls, leaving breathless crowds trembling in their seats long after the show had ended. Eventually driven mad by the demons of his own design, Schröpfer became convinced the devils he created were pursuing him and fatally shot himself during one of his performances to escape them, promising his audience he would resurrect himself free of this curse.

In the illusions of Schröpfer and his contemporaries the boundary between fabrication, event and representation was becoming blurred to a point of near erasure, and with the advent of photography in the next century this erasure was completed. Using photographic reproduction, lantern shows were quickly industrialized and tamed to themes of Christianity and temperance fitting with a conservative Victorian sensibility. With newfound efficiency and respectability the lantern show became quickly regimented into educational institutions, with glass plate photographic slides replacing their hand painted forbearers.

Jacob Riis’ traveling slideshows through the 1890s were not without precedent, but perhaps forged new connections between the circulation of images and the altering of social consciousness. Riis attempted to trade the allegorical for the specific, to show struggle as real and palpable — real bodies and real plight. His slide lectures took up moral indignation