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A History of the Lantern Slide

Making Lantern SlidesShrapnel Valley Cemetery

Since its invention in the mid-nineteenth century, the lantern slide, also known as a magic lantern slide, has played a pivotal role in the history of projected images. The lantern slide is a positive transparency that can be projected. It comprises the photographic emulsion containing the image, which is bound to a glass plate and covered by another thin layer of glass; the plates are then secured with strips of gummed paper tape. Various processes are used to create lantern slides including the albumen, wet plate collodion, gelatine dry plate and woodburytype methods. 

Before photographic lantern slides were introduced in 1849 by the Langenheim brothers of Philadelphia, images were projected from hand-painted glass plates using a lens. In 1851 Frederick Scott Archer published his wet collodion process, which enabled details to be captured in higher quality, using cheaper materials and shorter exposure periods. The wet plate process helped to popularise the practice of photography among amateurs and professionals, and continued to be used widely until the gelatine dry plate process emerged in the 1870s. 

Unlike wet plate photography, dry plates could be prepared in advance and did not require copious chemicals and equipment, or immediate and on-site development in a dark room (photographers had used cumbersome portable tents for this purpose when working in the field). It was the dry plate method that allowed photographic processing to become commercialised in the 1880s.

Projecting Lantern Slides

The lantern slide was projected using a magic lantern, the forerunner of today’s digital projector. Many different types have emerged since its development in the fifteenth century as the camera obscura. The magic lantern was fitted with a lens, slide carrier and, for earlier models, a chimney. Initially, magic lanterns were illuminated with flame-based sources (kerosene was used widely), but as technology progressed, limelight, arc lamps, and incandescent lights were all used to power lanterns before the 1910s. Multiple lenses and ‘dissolving’ mechanisms were also used to produce special illusionary effects.

The magic lantern functioned alongside other amusements such as stereograph viewings, magic tricks, theatrical performances and vaudeville shows. It was also a popular instrument for classrooms and public lectures. Together, the lantern slide and magic lantern are an important precursor of the motion picture and can be credited with smoothing the path for cinema’s rapid ascent in the early years of the twentieth century. Despite competition from roll film, the cinema, and 35mm slides, the lantern slide and magic lantern remained in widespread use until the mid-twentieth century. 

The Lantern Slide in Aotearoa

In New Zealand, the earliest lantern slide practices coincided with an influx of Pakeha (European) settlers arriving in the 1840s, with collodion plates produced within a decade after their invention, primarily for entertainment purposes. The colony’s early photographers were hampered by long delays in new supplies and many struggled to keep up with technological developments in Europe and North America. Some lanternists relied on hand-painted slides until the establishment of a magic lantern and slide industry in New Zealand, which enabled more people to purchase the necessary equipment to create and exhibit their own slides.

Rangihoua Dunedin Railway Station Lantern slide show ad

Left to right: lantern slide of the Church missionary settlement at Rangihoua, N.Z. (ATL); lantern slide of the Dunedin Railway Station (Art History & Theory Collection, LS.02.0159); lantern slide with advertisement for a lantern slide show (ATL).

Commercial photographers, travelling entertainers, missionaries, and middle-class amateurs produced lantern slides as part of their photographic pursuits. It was this latter group of settled, ‘gentleman’ amateurs, whose interest in photography complemented their professional occupations, that practiced regularly as lanternists, holding private showings, public lectures, and fundraising entertainments. Some were also members of local photographic societies. Like journals and trade catalogues, these organisations offered a support network of enthusiasts who shared their expertise, facilities and equipment, in addition to competitions and demonstrations of the latest models and techniques. 

Various organisations around New Zealand recognised lantern slides and the magic lantern as important tools of self-improvement, mass communication and entertainment. Numerous educational institutions, religious organisations (such as the Salvation Army), asylums, and government departments bought, commissioned or made their own lantern slides. Regionally, slides were shared around schools, while tertiary colleges developed their own specialist collections for teaching and research. 

The introduction of the motion picture in New Zealand had begun to push public magic lantern amusements aside by the late 1900s. Yet lantern slides and the lantern continued to serve the needs of clubs, societies and educational institutions until the 1950s, when they were generally superseded by 35mm acetate slides. More recently, a renewed interest in lantern slides and magic lantern paraphernalia has emerged with reenactments and creative projects by collectors and artists. As an archival source for researchers, lantern slides are also contributing to new research on the production and exchange of images in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. 

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