Magic Lantern Shows
A magic lantern is an optical device that projects light through a glass transparency, usually referred to as a lantern slide, onto a flat surface such as a wall or a screen. Magic lanterns can be traced back to seventeenth-century Western Europe, where they appeared in courts and festivals as objects for mass entertainment, and they are the predecessors of digital projectors, which are still widely used today. Throughout their history, magic lantern slides remained associated with both knowledge and entertainment, as they served both elite and popular audiences. Given their diverse viewers, magic lantern slides varied in subject matter greatly, ranging from light-hearted motifs that included exotic animals, children’s literature, and folk tales to images recording sociocultural events.
In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, magic lanterns became the main attraction of traveling shows that took advantage of the communal viewing experience generated by projecting images in large spaces such as theaters or auditoriums. Unlike peep shows or stereographs (pictures that appear three-dimensional when seen through a special device), which could only be enjoyed by one viewer at a time, magic lantern shows were a visual spectacle that entire families and communities could experience together.
Curtis’s Picture Opera
Edward S. Curtis presented his lantern slides in a broad range of locations and types of venues as he traveled throughout the United States to promote and raise funds for his monumental project, The North American Indian. In 1911, Curtis launched the Indian Picture Opera. The event was not a standard magic lantern show; in addition to the projection of hand-painted photographic transparencies, the performance also featured Native American-inspired orchestral music specifically composed for the event, snippets of cinematic footage, and a lecture about the images and Indigenous traditions delivered by the artist himself. The Picture Opera was, therefore, a multisensory experiment that attracted all sorts of audiences. A significant example of Curtis’s ability to capture the interest of specialized viewers was the show’s New York City premier at Carnegie Hall. Here, the audience included museum specialists, college professors, and art and archeology collectors. The success of this presentation led Curtis to receive invitations to perform the Picture Opera at other cultural institutions, including the Brooklyn Institute and the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Anthropology. In contrast, the venues where Curtis presented his show on the west coast were smaller in size and attracted general audiences. The event was advertised variously as “lecture-entertainment,” a “picture-musicale” or, even occasionally, as “not an illustrated lecture” in local newspapers. These descriptors demonstrate that in order to attract general audiences of different ages, class backgrounds, and educational levels, promotion for the show sometimes deemphasized its artistic and anthropological dimensions while highlighting its innovative audiovisual components.
The Picture Opera was most successful in New York City, where it was reviewed by several periodicals. The New York Evening World, for example, praised the spectacle’s use of color and sound and described viewers’ enthusiasm. The audience, which “taxed the capacity of the auditorium,” was described as “lifted out of prosaic into the wild, romantic life” of Native Americans “from the first series of pictures with their barbaric, colorful musical setting to the last example of Mr. Curtis’s photographic art.” This review acknowledges the immersive effect of the Picture Opera’s audiovisual elements, but it also speaks to the racist view toward Indigenous peoples as remnants of the past that both Curtis and white American elites promoted. Other reviews, in contrast, focus more on the informative aspects of the spectacle: The New Evening Sun stated, “The novel entertainment certainly proved that there is a good work for ethnologists to do […] with the camera;” The New York Tribune claimed that the Opera was a “decided addition to the authoritative information the present generation has of the race found on the continent;” and The New York Evening Telegram declared it “a valuable contribution to American anthropology.” These reviews position both Curtis’s photographic work and show as ethnographic, scholarly products that expanded educated white Americans’ understanding of Indigenous peoples.
On the other hand, reviews of the show published in small, local newspapers speak to the general audience’s relationship with the Picture Opera. The Pullman [Washington] Herald’s review of the spectacle, for instance, referred to the Opera as a “treat to the audience” and a box office success, as the auditorium that hosted the spectacle remained packed during the time of the show’s run. When describing the audience’s reaction to Curtis’s lectures and his lantern slides, the reviewer notes that “[b]y the repeated applause given the various scenes it is evident that the picture musicale was no disappointment.” The colorful quality of the hand-painted images projected on the screen and the atmospheric music are carefully characterized by the reviewer, who also praises Curtis’s ability to connect with the individuals who attended the show. The review also mentions that “as the pictures were thrown on the screen, the author explained them and added many humorous incidents which kept the audience in repeated laughter.”
Despite the predominantly positive reviews written about the show, the Picture Opera’s 1911–1912 and 1912–1913 tours were financial failures. The venture’s astronomical production costs, which included remunerating and transporting up to twenty-five musicians, advertising budgets for each town, and splitting earnings with venue managers, severely undercut the spectacle’s profitability. The show was a hit on the stage, but a flop on the balance sheet.
Edward S. Curtis’s photographs of Native peoples have played a significant role in the creation and reinforcement of racist stereotypes, such as the inaccurate idea of a “vanishing race.” Curtis’s The North American Indian publication was collected by a limited number of cultural institutions and specialists across the country, but most individuals who interacted with these images encountered them either as reproductions in periodicals, or in the context of the Picture Opera. Like motion pictures depicting the “Old West,” popular magic lantern shows featuring Native American themes associated Native communities with spectacle while simultaneously introducing Indigenous peoples into the visual culture of modernity.