Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive

The Virtual Window: From Alberti to Microsoft

by Ann Friedber
The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2006
448 pp., illus. 113 b/w. Trade, $34.95
ISBN: 0-262-06252-7.

Reviewed by Ian Verstegen
Philadelphia, PA


Anne Friedberg’s new book is about the ubiquity of windows in our lives, from paintings and the camera obscura, to photography, film, televisions, computers and iPods: "screens are now everywhere — on our wrists, in our hands, on our dashboards and in our backseats, on the bicycles and treadmills at the gym, on the seats of airplanes and buses, on buildings and billboards" (p. 87). We are invaded by multiplying windows, and this provides an opportunity to reflect on the understanding of windows, real and metaphoric, that have informed our notions of visuality. Although writing from the institutional locus of film studies and aware of every nuance of the latest theories, Friedberg’s point of view refreshingly questions some of the standbys of postmodern media theory. The hegemonic model of scopic visuality is broken down, and objectivity peeks its way through; the Lacanian mirror is traded for the plate glass window.

Friedberg’s study is especially timely since she writes at the moment of the loss of material differences between cinematic, televisual and computer screens (p. 236). A historical treatment is called for, lest this situation in which we find ourselves where one can watch television, movies, and compute all on a laptop, become a new historical teleology. In other words, the historical specificity of each of the distinct media must be respected. This Friedberg does admirably from discussions of fifteenth century linear perspective (Alberti), to the seventeenth century camera obscura, commercial windows in the nineteenth century and movie houses of the twentieth.

Friedberg begins, as the title suggests, with Leon Battista Alberti, the codifier of linear perspective and an often-invoked figure in establishing the Western regime of visuality. Unlike most retrospectively oriented (and caricatured) discussions of Alberti, however, Friedberg’s is historically informed, and she notes the disjunction between Alberti’s discussion of the subject of painting — istoria — and the putative windows he would have painters look through. Turning next to Descartes, whose philosophy is often seen as the full-fledged rationalization of trends begun by Alberti, Friedberg coins the "Cartesian coincidence," that is, the "shaky conflation" (p. 47) between centered perspective and the Cartesian subject.

If the window is only a metaphor for painting, Friedberg turns in chapter 2 to the camera obscura for something that functions much more like a window, for it projects real light and movement. Jonathan Crary’s plea for discontinuity between the camera obscura and photography is amended by Friedberg, who endorses the gradualistic ideas of Laurent Mannoni and Deac Rossell. Moving next to photography, Friedberg is not surprised that Niépce would choose a long exposure out of his window, but the window "did not frame a transparent plane for seeing through but, rather, uses its frame to encase a surface, its virtual substitute" (p. 73).

Chapter 3 begins with a history of glass production and its improvement through the ages. Arriving at modern plate glass and a new visuality: "Its transparency enforced a two-way model of visuality: by framing a private view outward — the ‘picture’ window — and by framing a public view inward — the ‘display’ window" (p. 113). Contrary to Le Corbusier’s horizontal windows in homes, Sergei Eisenstein wanted to transform the already rectangular 1:33.1 ratio of the early film to one more vertical and, frankly, manly and virile. The ‘virtual’ window of film turns opaque walls into virtual windows, the situation to exist until the present.

Given this duality of window and screen, Friedberg in Chapter 4 proposes to give the same attention to "the architecture of light of the darkrooms" as given to Paxton’s 1851 Crystal Palace. What kind of virtual architecture was created on the screens of the new cinema? Discussing two paradoxes, Friedberg first points to that of ‘the materiality of the theater and the virtuality of the image,’ discussing the so-called "train effect" where early moviegoers were terrified by oncoming trains. The second paradox is the ‘mobility of the image’ and ‘immobility of the spectator.’ Here, instead of an image approaching the viewer, the panning camera movements simulate the viewer’s movement.

Remarking on the way that television’s multiple channels and remote control and next computers numerous on-command windows have surpassed the fixed, single program cinematic experience, Friedberg in Chapter 5 notes that the "armchair televisual viewer is a montagist" and that digital moving-image is postcinematic (p. 193). Interestingly, as magic lantern and photographic projections systems improved, viewers were content with single images. The newest paradigm of on-command digital material deliverable through any number of windows is the culmination of television’s interactivity. Friedberg’ study will remind us that the early, metaphorical window has only recently become a genuine if still virtual window onto experience.



Updated 1st June 2007

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@sfsu.edu

copyright © 2007 ISAST