Lanterna magica! L.S, has a box of hand-colored glass slides at 4-inch x 3¼-inch each — approximately 75 of them. What are they, and where are they from?
He had no idea that they were exotic 1930s Moroccan, but with the help of UC Santa Cruz professor Allan Langdale, a friend of mine, we were able to piece together where many of these slides were shot.
Magic lanterns were early types of image projectors, shining light through glass slides through the invention of the arc lamp in 1860. The slides were imprinted with the image, and hand-colored with dense pigment. When these slides were projected, they were visually compelling, radiant, a feast for the eyes in a time before TV.
The American Magic Lantern Theatre of today says that nothing comes close to the magic lantern slide. It is hard to imagine the impact of these slides upon audience into the beginning of the 20th century. By the 1940s, these were things of the past, although many libraries and museums have large collections.
L.S. has a collection shot by one person, who was, as Dr Langdale suggests, not a scholar of North Africa, but a tour guide around Fez, specifically of the Medina (Fez el Bali). We see the daily life in and around the old walled Fez medina, the former capital of modern Morocco, today a UNESCO World Heritage site.
I found a slide of the famous market’s entrance, the French-constructed “Blue Gate,” the Bab Bou Jeloud, built as an entrance to the medina in 1912. Once I identified that gate, I was sure L.S.’ collection was Moroccan; then I identified the Andalusia Mosque, old men having their mint tea, and village scenes of the Berbers (Amazighs).
Exceptional views were a snow scene of the Atlas Mountains, secret Sufi Tombs, and evidence of French control, as seen in a movie marquee in French for a Sherlock Holmes movie, and a donkey pulling a street car with the destination “C. le Bor.” I did not know that Morocco had roman ruins, but Dr Langdale pronounced one slide a scene of Roman Volubilis, 1st century A.D.
Like all objects, these speak volumes about the maker, the unknown photographer. I asked Dr Langdale, who knows how period scholars documented such sites, if the person who shot the magic lantern slides was aiming at scholarship or entertainment. Is this collection the work of a scholar in 1930, or the work of a tour guide who presented to the popular ladies’ groups of the era?
These views, according to Dr Langdale, are cliché. These are images meant to show that the Moroccan people were exotic, simple, pure and devout.
These are ethnographic scenes, such as you would see in early National Geographic Magazines, in the genre called “orientalism,” both a style and a theory of thought in a time (1880-1920) when the European eye gazed romantically upon exotic cultures.
The problem was that the “other” culture being romanticized remained “other,” and that was the point. “Unspoiled’”cultures were perhaps more devout, more closely tied to the land and their communities, and definitely more colorfully dressed and more dashing (or undressed, as was often the case.) It is fascinating to see in L.S.’ collection that the slides, the objects themselves, have such a voice.
I chose to illustrate this article with a slide that tells its story well. Here you see a handsome European or American man, dressed in the blazing heat in a suit, raised above the white-robed exotic Berbers beneath him, looking fondly down, lecturing.
Another slide is equally telling. We see the map of North Africa, with the map of France above, titled, “How big is France?” What that slide says is that although French North Africa is much larger than France, French North Africa was “held” by the superiority of France 1912-1956. Think of the famous Bab Bou Jeloud — the gate to the Fez medina, built in the Moorish/Moroccan style BY the French — and you get the idea of one culture overlaying ideology upon another.
The value of such a collection? Because cases of these were so common to lecturers of travelogue series, many of these cases exists: LS’ case of slides offers no more and no less that the expected views of Morocco: wonderful, quaint, exotic, with camels, mosques, tiled columned archways and men in robes.
I would put the value at $650 for the set. As a statement of how an object can speak of the biases inherent in a retelling of history, it is invaluable.