Pre-Cinema



THE INFLUENCE OF LOUIS DAGUERRE

One of the most important figures in the development of various forms of optical culture that preceded and contributed to the development of the early cinema was Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (1789–1851). In 1822 Daguerre displayed an invention called the diorama, which featured natural and urban landscapes—such as mountain views, cathedrals, and city street scenes—painted on both sides of a massive (approximately 71 feet by 45 feet), transparent linen canvas. At Daguerre's Diorama theater in Paris, the canvas was viewed through a proscenium arch by an audience seated on top of a platform that could rotate the audience to face two different screens. Daguerre illuminated his canvases from behind and in front by means of sunlight admitted through ground-glass windows. This light was filtered through numerous colored, transparent screens and shutters controlled by a system of pulleys and counter-weights. Daguerre manipulated light, shadow, and the opacity and transparency of his pigments to create stunning representations of the sun rising and setting or to represent the approach and departure of astorm. A newspaper review of Daguerre's first diorama, The Valley of Sarnen (1822), described the changing effects of his mechanical aestheticization of natural light:

… from a calm, soft delicious serene day in summer, the horizon gradually changes, becoming more and more overcast, until a darkness, not the effect of night, but evidently of an approaching storm—a murky, tempestuous blackness—discolors every object.… This change of light upon the lake (which occupies a considerate proportion of the picture) is very beautifully contrived. The warm reflection of the sunny sky recedes by degrees, and the advancing dark shadow runs across the water—chasing, as it were, the former bright effects before it. (Quoted in Gernsheim and Gernsheim, p. 17)

As this description suggests, the diorama's visual pleasure was closely linked to the illusion of the passing of time and motion on screen. Later dioramas created the illusion of human movement. Daguerre's A Midnight Mass at Saint-Étienne-du-Mont depicted an empty church at sunset; as daylight faded, candles were lit at the back of the church and slowly a congregation appeared to fill the church in preparation for mass.

As exhibitors increasingly used artificial light sources (such as gaslight) to illuminate these canvases, they became vulnerable to fire, and indeed in 1839, one of Daguerre's dioramas in Paris went up in flames. Like other popular pre- and proto-cinematic forms of visual entertainment, the diorama visually transported audiences to distant landscapes and landmarks without requiring any movement on their part, and they made such an experience both repeatable and available to a large audience. Spectators took delight in the unprecedented realism of the depicted scene and the persuasiveness of the illusions it offered to the eye; that pleasure was heightened by the knowledge that these were, in fact, only illusions, dependent on the exhibitor's virtuoso deployment of new technologies and scientific principles. In short, the diorama made pleasurable the intersection of rational knowledge and "magical" illusion and made such an experience commercially available on a relatively wide scale.



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