Review by Jeffrey Bain, The University of Memphis

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

Erkki Huhtamo
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013. 438. Non-fiction.


Cover of Illusions in Motions

"Panorama" as a concept has had several meanings since the term appeared in 1791, and "panorama" as a cultural object has had a variety of iterations around the world. Static, 360-degree panoramas created the illusion of place, offering viewers to grand vistas by surrounding them with detailed and cleverly-presented artwork. The medium created a market for "mediated realities…capable of transporting its audience to another location, and dissolving the boundary between local existence and global vision" (5). Then the moving panorama emerged, a popular innovation that put its audience in front a scrolling painting to create the illusion of motion, of situatedness in time as well as place. Despite the apparent significance of the new technology, past studies of visual culture treated this iteration of the panorama only fragmentarily. Erkki Huhtamo’s Illusions in Motion brings the fragments together through a massive undertaking of original research, and links the virtual worlds people encountered in the nineteenth century to the virtual worlds we encounter today.

Huhtamo provides an expert history of a medium demonstrated today through only about two dozen surviving examples, listed in the appendix. He traveled to all of the panoramas still in existence and participated in finding and restoring several of them. His text is rich with relevant details and accompanied by over 120 black-and-white images ranging from handbills to advertisements to illustrative representations—many of these taken from the author’s own collections. Most related documents at the time were vaguely written (in favor of grandness or whimsy) and treated as ephemeral, so his process in uncovering, locating, and otherwise bringing together these sources could likely fill a book of its own. Recognizing the uncommon topic and interdisciplinary nature of the research, the author adds that he has "learned much from researchers working at the fringes of academia" (xiv). In the resulting scholarly but not stereotypically academic fashion, the volume examines the development of the moving panorama from various antecedents to its contemporary presence.

Chapter one introduces the rise of the panorama as cultural concept and object. The concept began in reference to the stationary object, the painted rotunda forming the circular panorama, but the costs and limited mobility meant relatively few people witnessed it firsthand. The moving panorama turned the concept into a mobile spectacle, new yet "steeped into centuries-old traditions of ambulatory entertainment" involving lectures, music, and special effects (8). Huhtamo introduces three ways of regarding the moving panorama: as something painted (the roll of images), as something performed (the presentation), and as something discursive (a written, spoken, or illustrated representation). He establishes his approach to media archaeology as an exploration of how interactions shape the media. Chapter two introduces the entomologies, technologies, and cultural interactions leading to the development of moving panoramas, setting up the discussions of other panorama types and their historical relations to moving panoramas in chapters three, four, and five.

Chapter three looks at peristrephic panoramas, a transitional form between the circular and moving types. Chapter four explores the development of theatrical panoramas as a fusion of panorama and sceneography, and as a cultural marker in its uses from travelogues to dramas. Chapter five studies the Diorama, fundamentally different from the panorama in principle yet similarly fungible on meaning; many exhibitions eventually combined the two. Using period materials, including eyewitness descriptions, Huhtamo builds the history and even seems to settle one or two mysteries of genre terminology in the process. Each of these chapters considers the material, method, and influence involved.
The what, how, and why join more fully with the who in chapters six, seven, eight, and nine. Chapter six tackles the "panoramania" of the 1850s, when moving panoramas were not merely popular but rather a full-blown craze in England and America; Huhtamo describes people and events (or, referring to the absence of ambition in panoramas the decade before, the non-events) leading to the medium’s heyday. For chapter seven, Huhtamo presents the case study of British writer turned showman Albert Smith, a key figure in the era and creator of the most popular moving panorama. Discursive regard for the medium is a vital component, seen in Smith’s marketing and in the emergence of copycats. Chapter eight delves into a study of the moving panorama itself as a performance built by people for people for specific purposes and subject to particular quirks and pitfalls. Ambiguities and rivalries appear in chapter nine, which sees competition over the best methods to visually represent the American Civil War leading to reframing older technologies and developing new ones. Moving panoramas were still popular—toy manufacturer Milton Bradley released a miniature panorama for reenactments of the Civil War shows in one’s own home—but photography, the dissolving views of "magic lanterns," and unrestricted hyperbole made the competition intense.

Hybridization of ideas occurred for some exhibitors, as happened with the Diorama. The medium’s "final fanfares" as roadshow attractions and as parts of multimedia exhibitions are the subjects of chapter ten (287). By the twentieth century, the ambitious exhibitions brought panoramas closer to their circular kin by providing fields of play for immersive experiences rather than the window-on-the-world view of earlier moving panoramas. They now played supporting rather than feature roles.
The medium previewed and then stepped aside for our more familiar screen-based attractions and entertainments, but its discursive presence lives on. Chapter eleven points to the enduring and sometimes vital representations of panoramas in narratives by the likes of Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Nathanial Hawthorn, and Huhtamo provides further examples of panoramas serving to preach, refute, manipulate, inform, inspire, or entertain. Today, the concept of life as a panorama flashing before our eyes before death gives moving panoramas a continued, albeit not conscious, presence. These discussions and ideas are "discursive panoramas persist[ing] in cultural memory" (351). The twelfth chapter concludes the history by considering the future of media culture in relation to the influence of a nineteenth-century apparatus.

Huhtamo writing this solid history out of a fragmented historical record is impressive. His acknowledgements and preface note the considerable work and assistance required but also the costs of time and frustration (he uses two paragraphs to come down firmly on the side of Google Books). The author likewise admits the book is a lengthy read. The comprehensiveness of the text has corresponding volume, and Huhtamo justifies the volume "as an argument against those who think an understanding of anything can be found on hastily scribbled blogs, text messages distributed to hordes of ‘friends,’ or haphazardly cutting and pasting from Wikipedia or other online sources...There are no shortcuts on the ‘information superhighway" (xix). Length aside, his style rarely becomes a dreary recitation of facts; instead, he sets the text up as a figurative panorama, so large portions of it move in an accessible scenic or narrative manner. Ironically, the book’s big weakness is visual. Many of the images suffer from the absence of color, an absence made more distracting in relation to what is an otherwise visually impressive edition. (If a more technical excuse is necessary to promote a second edition, I did see a scattering of typos.)

Although the book is about moving panoramas (and related spectacles), the overarching subject is media culture. Huhtamo defines media culture as "the accumulation and assimilation of media forms" economically, socially, and as "a shared state of mind, internalized in different degrees by each individual living under its spell" (364). His conclusions are tentative but optimistic. Perhaps we are having "a conversational relationship" with our media (or, if you will, our illusions) and are thereby engaging with other individuals (368). Something to consider as we scroll on our computers, tablets, and phones.



Jeffrey Bain is a doctoral candidate in the Professional Writing program at The University of Memphis, where he is pursuing interests in online discourse and the rhetoric of science.


© 2016 Jeffrey Bain, used by permission

Technoculture Volume 6 (2016)