Robertson’s Fantasmagorie

The images of the Fantasmagorie were projected from a magic lantern placed behind a translucent screen (left). With the lantern stand mounted on wheels, the operator could make images larger or smaller by rolling the apparatus toward or away from the screen. An ingenious contraption of belts and rods connected the wheels to the lens, which automatically adjusted focus as the stand moved. Étienne Gaspard Robert (aka Robertson) employed several assistants, who used smaller lanterns strapped to their chests in order to supplement the main images of the spectacle. Robert included the rendering of his Fantasmagorie on the right in his Mémoires (1830-34). Often, he recalled, audience members would strike out at his specters with sticks, and one French reviewer suggested that pregnant women should stay away from the show for fear of miscarrying. The Fantasmagorie reminds us that the traditions of the cinema must be traced back to the spectacles of the circus and fairground, through 17th-century experiments in optical illusions, and not merely to the invention of more sophisticated apparatus in the late 19th century.

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