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2003-2004 Visiting Fellows

Ralf Remshardt
University of Florida

My research work at Firestone Library was concentrated on the Alexander Black Collection. Alexander Black (1859-1940) was a journalist, novelist, and amateur photographer whose interest in narrative photography in the 1890s led him to experiment with a form of public performance he came to call "Picture Plays." A Picture Play was a sustained feature-length story told through several hundred projected lantern slides which used a sophisticated system of image transitions between two stereopticon projectors to suggest movement and continuity. Accompanied by a musician, Black himself recited the text and gave voice to the various roles. The critic of the New York Sun, on occasion of the first Picture Play, Miss Jerry, in 1894, wrote: "One loses the sense of viewing pictures and fancies the figures as real." Well in advance of the Lumière Brothers' first public display of a motion picture in 1895, Black's unusual experiments drew on photographic technique, dramatic structure, literary recitation, and the subjects of the popular novel in ways that later became normative in the developing cinema. Black (who always emphasized that he regarded himself as a pioneer not of film, but of the "screen play") is thus an important intermediary figure for any investigation into the genesis of the dramaturgy of the cinema, and in particular its debt to other genres. My research on Black is part of a book-length study of the intersections of 19th- century theatre and early motion pictures, tentatively titled Muse of Fire/Muse of Light: Theatre and the Rise of Motion Pictures. It concerns the nexus between theatre and cinema from approximately the middle of the 18th century to the early 20th century, that is, from pre- or proto-cinematic forms of spectacle through the development of cinema in the 1890s and 1900s with its often "stagy" appearance to the mature interactions between both media immediately preceding and following World War I. In particular, the book addresses the multiple ways in which theatre and film, sometimes in a complementary manner, other times through vastly contradictory strategies, have fed what film theorist Christian Metz has called the ?scopophilic urges of their audiences. The aim is a revision of what, with respect to the theatre, has mostly been a rather crudely Darwinist understanding of the emergence of film.

The Alexander Black Collection at Princeton comprises 144 lantern slides as well as diverse ancillary materials such as the novels Black published, based on his Picture Play scripts. The collection came to Princeton after Black's death through unknown provenance; it is one of three sets of Black-related holdings in the United States (the others are at St. Lawrence University and in the New York Public Library Manuscripts Division) but the only one to contain slides. Although no complete Picture Play has been preserved (the lantern slides are made of glass and thus quite fragile), I was able to examine sequences of slides belonging to the three narrative Picture Plays Miss Jerry, A Capital Courtship, and The Girl and the Guardsman, as well as the slide lectures Miss America and Modern Daughters. Close study revealed Black's careful compositional work and gave insight into the structuring of his pictorial sequences. I was able to visit the New York Public Library during my stay in Princeton and examine the typescripts of several Picture Plays as well as Black's letters; in combination with the Princeton materials, these sources allowed me to re-imagine Black's unique contribution to the emergent cinema.

I want to thank the Friends of the Princeton Library for granting me this opportunity, and express my particular gratitude to the staff of Rare Books and Special Collections of Firestone Library who have made my stay pleasant and productive, especially Margaret Rich and AnnaLee Pauls. It should also be noted that my work on the collection was made infinitely easier by the extensive and skillful inventory of the holdings which Paula Entin completed upon my first inquiry.


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