Saturday, 11 December 2010

From Magic Lantern to Movies: The Optical Magic Lantern Journal 1889 – 1903 – A review

Digitisation of old newspapers and journals is making a wealth of hitherto difficult-to-access material available to researchers. At one time you might have to travel long distances to a specialist library which carried increasingly fragile (having generally been considered ephemeral when first produced) periodicals you wished to examine. The situation was improved by microfiche, though even if a title was available this still entailed a trip to use expensive, cumbersome and often fiddly equipment, and searching was difficult (and off-puttingly noisy). Since then digitisation is increasing apace, though many very worthy projects are only available online via academic institutions, and therefore not generally accessible.

Sometimes material appears on CD and DVD, making it easy to search large quantities of text at home. Instead of having to devote several feet of shelving to yellowing publications, or travel to see them, one can obtain the lot in a convenient form. One such venture is this DVD, published by PhotoResearch. Its genesis lies in the purchase by a pair of collectors of 139 issues of the Optical Magic Lantern Journal and Photographic Enlarger on eBay, and these have been supplemented with copies from Oxford’s Bodleian Library to complete the set.

The OMLJ was published from 1889 to 1903 as a trade paper for lanternists, though it did stray into general photographic matters (the editor for all but its last year was J Hay Taylor, son of J Traill Taylor, editor of the British Journal of Photography). One hundred and sixty issues were produced, totalling nearly 5,000 pages. The complete run is presented here as PDFs in two versions – a high definition copy of each issue, and a lower resolution one that is searchable. The issues are arranged by volume, all thirteen of them, so if a particular issue is required, it is simple to access.

To make navigation easier, the issues are indexed with a couple of thousand content items, with links to the issues. These are arranged in several ways: by title, listed alphabetically; by contributor; by type of item – editorials, articles, letters, obituaries and so forth; by people mentioned, including contributors, with biographical information where available; and by advertiser. Fortunately all the advertising, often discarded when journals are bound, is included, providing important information on the trade.

Despite the journal’s title there much here to interest early film enthusiasts. It allows the reader to track the magic lantern as it gives way as an entertainment medium to films (or rather, “animated photographs”), which move from a novelty in the mid-1890s to an increasingly significant medium in the early twentieth century (hence the disc’s title). Thus the April 1896 issue could imply that they were a passing fad with “The present boom, as regards the lantern, appears to be in the direction of ‘animated projection.’ Some time ago we had Friese Greene's apparatus, but latterly quite a host have arisen.” A mere seven years later, J Page Croft was surely swimming against the tide when he wrote an article which appeared in the last issue, entitled ‘How to Become a Lantern Lecturer’. A lesson that the Journal teaches is that cinema did not spring ex nihilo, but came from a well-established culture of projection.

It could be argued that using a disc instead of leafing through the pages removes something from the experience of research, and it is true that a connection is formed when handling paper that is missing from a computer screen. But the advantages of being able to scan large quantities of information quickly, along with the conservation aspects, and the sheer convenience of being able to do it at one’s desk, means that ventures such as this are to be applauded. One day such individual initiatives will be integrated into a Grand Unified Database, with sophisticated search facilities that can range widely over vast tracts of newsprint. In the meantime this will do nicely.

From Magic Lanterns to Movies, published by PhotoResearch, October 2010, ISBN 978-0-9523011-1-0, £60 including UK and international airmail postage. Contact: Mike Smith, South Park, Galphay Road, Kirkby Malzeard, Ripon, North Yorkshire, HG4 3RX, UK or email: