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Illusions in Motion. Media Archaeology of the Moving Panorama and Related Spectacles

by Erkki Huhtamo
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2013
456 pp., illus. 120 b&w. Trade,  $45.00
ISBN: 9780262018517.

Reviewed by Jan Baetens

I would like to start with two indirect words of praise. First for the publisher, who has accepted to follow the author’s passionate journey to the treasure island of the moving panorama, allowing him to enrich our lives with a splendid book of nearly 450 large, tightly printed and wonderfully illustrated pages. It is reassuring to know that there are still publishers willing to fight the scholarly habits of reading only articles, preferably online, and who believe in the future of research in print. Illusions in Motion is without any doubt a book the will prove them right. Second for the author, not because he knows his subject so well and is able to communicate his knowledge in such a pleasant and convincing way (after all, this is what can be expected from any serious scholar), but for the love and passion that he has put in his research, and which are visible in every page this book. No great scholarship without deep personal commitment, and of this statement as well Huhtamo’s book is a great example. True, love and passion do not necessarily make great books, but great books become even greater if the take their origin in the author’s fascination and awe (for it is not only the sublime and art with capital A, or death and horror, that may fill us with awe).

But why is Illusions in Motion such an impressive achievement? On a first level, the book offers a precise and detailed historical overview of a kind of panorama whose existence, although often acknowledged by many historians and contemporary witnesses, has never really been taken into account as a specific apparatus and independent cultural practice, different from the larger category of the 19th Century panorama. Huhtamo defines his “missing medium” as follows: “Instead of being surrounded by a stationary wrap-around painting, the spectators sat in an auditorium. A long roll painting was moved across a “window” (often with drawable curtains) by means of a mechanical cranking system. The presentation was accompanied by a lecturer, music, and occasionally sound and light effect. Other attraction, such as musical acts of feats or legerdemain, could be added. The duration varied, but by the mid-century a length of ninety minutes or more had become common” (p. 6-7). The author, then, completes this first definition by distinguishing three major dimensions: 1) painted: a moving panorama was an object, a roll of pictures, 2) performed: it was also an event, for the painting was unrolled in front of spectators, who listened to a lecturer, 3) discursive: the moving panorama was also something that was evoked by words and illustrations, and which was thus part of a culture’s imaginary. Given the relative absence of direct evidence, since only a handful of moving panoramas actually survived, the role of this discursive dimension was key, and the story told by Huhtamo knits objects, events, and discourses seamlessly together.

From the very beginning, Illusions in Motion emphasizes the great diversity of the moving panorama. Not only is there not one basic model of format that determines the form and function of all variations, but the very distinction between the moving panorama and other forms of theatrical and optical devices and representations is far from being always very clear. Thanks to the impressive evidence gathered by Huhtamo, we do know however how important this “missing medium” has been during the 19th Century (with a peak in popularity around 1850). Huhtamo’s work is not only descriptive, however. Although historical accuracy is generously featured throughout the whole book, Illusions in Motion represents also an important contribution to the field that the author has help build over the last two decades; media archeology. Within this domain, Huhtamo defends a modest, but dramatically inspiring stance. Contrary to theoreticians such as Friedrich Kittler, who approach media archeology as a Grand narrative of the Machine in which there is hardly any room left for human agency, Huhtamo foregrounds a methodology that insists on concrete people, concrete desires, concrete aims, concrete objects that do not shape a “theoretically correct”’ meganarrative but try to fill in small gaps in our current knowledge in media history. The importance of people and objects is displayed in the often amazing iconography of the book (most of the times based on items from the author’s private collection, the result of a life-long fascination with media technology) and the biographical information given on all those who made or unmade the moving panorama (for there were competitors relying of other media, unsuccessful lecturers or entrepreneurs, resistant or parodying audiences, etc.)

The making of a moving panorama went beyond the mere act of painting and installing it. Huhtamo evokes in great detail the performative aspects of the medium as well as the many ways in which the contemporary spectators wrote about what he rightly circumscribes as a storytelling medium (most paintings did not represent action, which was added by the lecturer). Chapter 7, for instance, on the career of Albert Smith, a moving panorama showman who was a celebrity in the 1850s, should be compulsory reading for all media historians, literary students, film scholars, as well as for all those who major or minor in marketing, business administration, and the creative industries. The more one progresses in the book, the more one becomes aware of the fact that the moving panorama, although “missing” in current media history and “lost” as far as its concrete material forms are concerned, has played a key role in the emergence and development of modern media culture. On this topic as well Huhtamo has many sound things to say, and his both modest and profound ideas may prove very helpful in freeing us from either a purely technological or a strictly ideological approach. Huhtamo makes not only a plea for agency (against a dominating strand of antihumanist study of technology), but also for participation and interaction  (and this goes against the grain of many fashionable ideas on the society of the spectacle and the culture industry).

Last Updated 1 July 2013

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