Memories of a Lost World by C. Fiell & J. R. Ryan – Review

memoriesofalostworldCharlotte Fiell & James R. Ryan  England

Fiell Publishing (2013), 704 pages

Chapters Bookstore, €12

Memories of a Lost World: Travels through the Magic Lantern contains 900 images as well as two introductory essays by the authors.  This book highlights the role of travelling magic lantern projectionists as sources of entertainment and education in the pre-photograph and cinema age.  The earliest glass slides (in the 1600s) had images painted onto them but from the mid-1800s the slides used a photographic process.  Excitingly the glass slides could be hand tinted to give the effect of colour.  The quality of the tinting varies from the crude to the exquisite.  There were essentially two standard slide formats, one square, and one rectangular.  It’s interesting to see the square format as it’s a format not often used today (even if it’s very easy to crop digital images to a square format).

The authors have divided up the slides into separate geographic zones.  As the images were created for a largely western audience it’s interesting to see the different focus of the images depending on where they’re taken.  Images taken in Europe more often than not focus on buildings and landscapes.  Any people depicted in European images are very much incidental except where their costume is in some way out of the ordinary for the potential audience (such as Beefeaters at the Tower of London or Breton children in traditional costume).

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Plate “44, Sackville Street (O’Connell Street), Dublin, Ireland, 1880s”
O’Connell St. still looks remarkably similar, people still sit on the steps of O’Connell’s statue. However the shop awnings are gone and Nelson’s pillar (on the right) was blown up by the IRA in 1966.

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Plate “40 Giant’s Causeway, Northern Ireland, c.1900”
Of course Northern Ireland didn’t exist in 1900 but these rock formations still fascinate even if the dog doesn’t seem so interested.

Once outside Europe (and to a certain extent North America) the gaze is focussed on the dress (or lack of it in the African images) and the customs of the natives.  Many of the Japanese images are clearly staged and it’s up to the viewer to judge how closely these reflect reality.  It could be argued that some of the images smack of Orientalism but the images in this book are more historical than the exotic depictions of the Orient found in paintings of the period.  Indeed the subjects of the images often confidently return the gaze back at the audience such as the Peruvian mother (p.562).  Even the term “Chola” used in the caption was originally a derogatory term used as an identifier in the complex caste system created by Spain in it’s imperial possessions.  The captions are often blandly descriptive so it’s impossible to know how these images were originally presented to their western audience.  Some magic lanternists followed set scripts, sometimes with musical accompaniment, to create a narrative frame for the slides but it’s possible that others were less rigid in their presentations.  Either way it’s impossible to tell if African subjects were presented as exemplars of an equally valid culture or as a savage race to be partly feared and partly pitied whose only hopes lay in the benevolence of imperial patronage.  It’s easy to poke fun at the original audience but as a modern viewer it is not the images of the Eiffel Tower, the Colosseum, or the Parthenon that are most captivating.  Like the original audience the most interesting images are those which contain people (incidental or otherwise).  To look into their eyes, even at a distance of more than a century, and wonder how they lived and how they died makes us realise that the basics of human existence haven’t changed that much over the last century.

7/10

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Plate “533 A Chola mother out for a walk with her baby and spinning vicuña wool, near Tamoraque Mines, Peru, 1920s”

Related Reading

Orientalism by Edward W. Said (1978)

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