Q&A with Erkki Huhtamo

We recently shared a few images from Erkki Huhtamo’s Illusions in Motion, and the UCLA Daily Bruin took a peek inside Huhtamo’s office and interviewed him about his artifact collection in a neat video. Today, we’re pleased to share our extensive Q&A with Huhtamo about Illusions in Motion. Enjoy!


What is a moving panorama?

The moving panorama was a highly visible form of education and entertainment for the nineteenth-century people. In the very basic sense, these words refer to huge rolls of painted canvas that were unrolled in front of an audience. A lecturer interpreted the scenes, and the atmosphere was heightened by live music and sound effects. To make the moving pictures livelier, they were often illuminated by dioramic “special effects.”

The moving panorama show was a “multimedia” experience, to borrow a term from later times. Countless examples were exhibited by touring show people. They depicted wars, exotic lands, geographic adventures and even biblical stories. Fictional narratives were less common. As an omnipresent ambulant medium the moving panorama became an important element in the civilizing process. It was particularly popular in the United States and England, a form of media culture in the making, now largely forgotten. Illusions in Motion is the first comprehensive history of this fascinating topic.


What made you originally interested in this topic?

In retrospect, it is a logical synthesis of my very varied interests. I studied cultural history as well as art history and theory, and even world literature. I have always been intensely interested in reconstructing the past; understanding how people of other eras lived and made sense of everything. I have also been deeply involved in contemporary culture. From classical feature films and film theory, my attention gradually shifted to more recent forms of audiovisuality, including digital media. I have worked with them not only as a scholar and educator, but also as an exhibition curator and, in a minor way, as a creator as well (I have realized some media art installations and stage performances).

Around 1990 I became intrigued by the so-called virtual reality craze. People were wearing funny helmets and claiming they were transported into new ontological realms. The enthusiasm was tangible, but it led me to ask: is all this really so new, a true cultural rupture? So I went back to the past and discovered phenomena like the mid nineteenth-century “panoramania” and the Victorian stereoscope craze; they already produced similar cultural reactions. The virtual reality craze was partly new, but it was also about recycling old ideas in a high-tech package. Such thoughts inspired me to do theoretical work that has since evolved into an approach I call “media archaeology.”


What is media archaeology? Why did you choose to use this method of study for this book?

Although I have been speaking and writing about media archaeology for at least twenty years, it is not my private project. There are others, particularly in Germany. Everyone understands media archaeology in a somewhat different way. I tried to raise this issue in a book I recently edited with Dr. Jussi Parikka. Its purpose was to bring together the main proponents who have contributed to media archaeology, and to challenge them to start a theoretical discussion about its foundations, which is long overdue.

However, there are issues most media archaeologists share. Everyone is trying to correct omissions and mistakes in our understanding of the media culture(s) of the past. Another common feature is resistance to traditional narratives that emphasize the linear evolution of media and technology. That is the “engineer approach.” The situation is much more complex; leaps across time and space, as well as cyclically repeated processes can be found. Discourse analysis, particularly Michel Foucault’s archaeology of knowledge, has been a huge influence for everyone, but there are also those who emphasize material factors as prime movers, sometimes verging on technological determinism. I don’t share their point-of-view.

My own approach, exemplified by Illusions in Motion, emerged from my backgrounds in cultural history, art history and literary theory, and has affinities with cultural studies. I investigate media culture as a layered construct, trying to figure out how its countless aspects have influenced each other. I am very interested in understanding how material things become “transfigured” within literary and visual traditions. Moving panoramas rolled not only in community halls and local opera houses, but also in the literary and visual imagination. Hawthorne and Dickens were influenced by them, but so were philosophers and religious propagandists. Tracing the ways in which cultural motifs leap from one context to another and become transformed excites me.


Your book took more than a decade to research and write. Why did it take so long?

Once I had found my topic, I discovered that there was very little reliable research I could lean on. I had to do everything from scratch. That meant endless traveling from one archive to another around the globe. Grasping some minor detail could take weeks, not to say anything about my ambition of placing the moving panorama and related media spectacles (such as magic lantern shows) within a broad cultural framework. Although the book is about panoramas, it is also about the formative process of media culture. I investigate, among other things, how media came to dominate minds, giving rise to what I call the media cultural imaginary.

About half-way through the writing process, I discovered Google Books which had just been released. It grew parallel with my research process. It did not necessarily speed up my research, but it influenced it considerably. The words “moving panorama” are rarely included in tables of contents or book indexes. Discovering them from works lined up on library shelves takes an enormous amount of time and also depends on luck. Google Books allowed me to make targeted searches inside long forgotten books. This revealed to me the extent to which the moving panorama had effected the culture as a discursive phenomenon. I profited from many other online databases as well, so my book also became a contribution to the emerging field of “digital humanities.”


Why do you think this multimedia phenomenon has been almost completely forgotten?

One reason is that it reached its zenith already in the 1850s. Its wild success around the mid-century was appropriately labeled by contemporaries: panoramania. Moving panoramas remained popular until the early twentieth century, but they had to compete with other spectacles such as magic lantern shows, and pastimes like circuses, vaudeville theaters and spectator sports. The moment of truth came when films were introduced at the end of the century. When film culture matured and the film industry grew, moving panorama showmen had few tricks left up their sleeves.

Painting huge canvases had always been cumbersome, slow and costly. The paintings were unique, but the future belonged to mechanical reproduction: huge numbers of film positives could be printed from one negative. The moving panorama was poorly adapted to the era of mass media, although as late as 1913 a British showman named Poole still had a hit with a moving panorama of the Titanic catastrophe. No photographic or cinematographic cameras had documented the tragedy, so a colorful and imaginative rolling canvas, supported by a dramatic commentary, still appealed to audiences.

It is ironic that the early film culture appropriated many features from moving panorama shows, a medium that had matured during a century. It may be surprising to state, however, that the moving panorama never entirely disappeared. The idea of the moving panorama lived on as a metaphor, and still does. Moving panoramas still roll in literary discourses–for example, at the moment just before a person’s death–even though the writers may not always fully understand the implications of what they have written.

Interestingly, in the United States there is now an emerging grassroots movement known as “the crankies.” Its practitioners create small scale moving panoramas and accompany them with live music. It represents both a continuity and a rebirth. This is a topic for a future article.


Many histories of the panorama relegate the moving panorama to a secondary role. Why do you think that the moving panorama’s cultural significance has largely been ignored?

One explanation I offer in my book is geographic and related with language. The showman’s lecture was important, sometimes more so than the painting itself. American and British showmen did not find it difficult to reach audiences in the English-speaking world. Things became more complicated when they attempted to tour the continental Europe, which was crisscrossed by national and linguistic boundaries. Also, the circular panorama, which was exhibited in a dedicated rotunda, remained a more highly appreciated cultural institution in continental Europe, and has been logically endorsed by panorama historians from that region.

The painters of circular panoramas claimed to have invented a new serious art form. They stressed that their huge canvases had cultural and nationalistic value. Circular panoramas were oil paintings, which linked them to academic traditions, at least to an exxtent, whereas moving panoramas were rapidly painted in distemper, a cheap medium favored by theatrical scene painters. The latter products often lacked higher artistic ambitions (although there were exceptions). The moving panorama was an itinerant proto-mass medium, more related to quack doctors and fairgrounds than with academic art.

It could be claimed that moving panoramas reached many more spectators than the better remembered circular panoramas ever did. The latter were exhibited in large cities and universal expositions. They attracted a refined bourgeois audience, whereas the moving panorama showmen welcomed anyone who could afford the entrance fee. Art historians have been drawn toward circular panoramas, because of their links with traditional art. Moving panoramas, if noted at all, have remained a curiosity, a lowly spin-off product. My book demonstrates that this is a misconception. When most nineteenth-century people heard the word “panorama,” they thought first about moving panoramas. 


How did moving panoramas change the theater?

Moving panoramas appeared on the theater stage early in their development, already around 1800. Although they must have been inspired by the circular panorama, which had been introduced a few years earlier, they were also a logical development of what was happening in the theater itself. The theater was getting spectacular; the role of the scene painter was emphasized; the actors were often subordinated to the sumptuous stage set, which was supported by optical and mechanical effects. The moving panorama became one of the new tricks of the stage.

Moving panoramas were most common in pantomimes, where their role was often semi-independent. Scene painters who created theatrical moving panoramas also produced them for touring showmen or became entrepreneurs themselves. The history of moving panoramas on stage, which I have explored in detail in the book, cannot be easily summarized here. But I can say, once more, that considering the moving panorama just as an offspring of the circular panorama is a mistake. The use of picture rolls in theaters was a logical development from scenographic techniques, and may also have been influenced by other forms, such as the eighteenth-century habit of presenting picture rolls inside peepshow boxes; these were familiar both at fairgrounds and the salons of the nobility. 


Many believe that the moving panorama is an American invention, despite the fact that moving panoramas were used in Europe much earlier. Where did this idea come from, and how was it perpetuated?

The mistaken idea of the moving panorama as an American invention takes us into the heart of the history of the medium. Moving panoramas originated in England, where they were shown many years before they were first imported to the United States. However, the mid-century panoramania was triggered by American developments. The late 1840s saw a wave of American moving panoramas, several of which depicted trips up and down the Mississippi (the direction depended on the performance one happened to attend: the showmen did not want to damage their fragile picture rolls by rewinding them).

One of the Mississippi panoramists, John Banvard, brought his “three-mile painting” to London, where it became a sensation. Others followed, and British painters also noticed the opportunity. This resulted in panoramania, an early form of media madness. The word panoramania was coined by the literary man Albert Smith, who himself became the most successful panorama showman of the era, perhaps of all times. With his brother as his business manager, Smith developed ingenious marketing strategies that anticipated the operations of latter-day culture industry. The career of Albert Smith is so important that an entire chapter has been dedicated to it. But one should not forget that the impulse for his career came from America, not only from Banvard but also from P. T. Barnum. 


Why did Americans become attracted to moving panoramas rather than circular panoramas?

This had probably something to do with the historical moment and the state of the American civilization. The society was growing, more immigrants arriving, and the Westward movement was taking speed. There was a huge continent to discover and to inhabit. Static circular panoramas were too academic to appeal to the American mindset. Theirs was a civilization in motion, which matched neatly the character of huge and long pictures in motion. Such a conclusion would of course be schematic and simplistic, but it contains some seeds of truth. American society was expansive, varied, in a state of flux, and divided into many small communities. Spectacles had to reach their audiences, which exactly what touring moving panorama showmen did.


How did moving panoramas open up new prospects for visual education?

As I have already stated, moving panoramas were an important factor in the civilizing process. Their trajectories pointed from urban centers toward the periphery. They introduced cultural motifs, habits, and topics of discussion to remote communities. They did so by visualizing the world, even though their depictions may not have been perfectly accurate. Moving panoramas familiarized people with mediated communication. The canvases were still introduced by a living human, but in the future the flesh and blood presence of the lecturer was going disappear; with film the humans were turning into moving likenesses on a screen. The moving panorama anticipated such developments; it was a transitory phenomenon.

Of course, the moving panorama did not do this alone. It was part of a wide process that included illustrated magazines, photographs, and other media forms. It was also related with advances in transportation technology, also concretely: the rolls of canvas were transported by river boats, steam ships and trains. The moving panorama was therefore an element of a wide network of cultural factors preparing the ground for full modernity. It should be added that it reacted to cultural challenges rapidly, often choosing as its subject matter the cultural processes it was itself part of.


What most surprised you in your research for this book?

Writing this huge book has been an adventure that I would not hesitate calling immersive. I have spent a good part of my life tracing the trajectories of panorama showmen,  immersed into a world that is different from ours, but not entirely. Through this cumbersome, but also gratifying and at times exhilarating process, I have discovered a long lost realm that is rich, detailed, and colorful. I found out that moving panoramas were not just the humble beginning of something much more important; they were already part of a full-blown culture of spectacles. This is my message to other media scholars: the culture of moving images did not begin with film and has not only blossomed since the twentieth century. We have to go further back in time to grasp the full picture and the full story – one we are still part of.

I have tried to communicate what I have learned to the reader in an accessible way, but without trivializing the matter. Still, no matter how hard we try, we can only perceive bleak shadows of what used to be living realities. But, let me stress, going back in time to the formative stages of media culture is not only important for its own sake. The journey has much to give as we negotiate our relationships to the gadgets and spectacles surrounding us today. The game consoles, smart phones, tablet computers and 3D movies also give rise to “manias.” They are seemingly different from but also strangely similar to the panoramania that raged more than one and half centuries ago.


Last but not least, the book’s highly visual design is quite unusual for an academic work. Could you talk about that?

Indeed, it is an essential aspect of Illusions in Motion. The book was designed by the illustrious Dutch graphic designer Willem Henri Lucas with Jon Gacnik, his brilliant student apprentice. Henri happens to be my department chair at UCLA, and has his studio in the same corridor as mine, on the opposite side. As you can imagine, giving the book its final form was very much a process of constant social interaction. Henri and Jon contributed substantially to the ultimate outcome. I am very grateful for them.

Because I write about (mostly unknown) visual culture, it is important to visualize the discourse. The illustrations have been carefully calculated to support the text; there are no random choices (on the contrary, there are hidden “Easter eggs” for the reader to discover). The captions (placed under a horizontal line that evokes the horizontality of the moving panorama as a medium) provide additional information, and mini-analyses as well. Working on the illustrations was particularly exciting, because most of them come from my own private collection, and have never been published before.

Being able to see with one’s own eyes what I am talking about is essential; most academic books don’t offer such an opportunity. The illustrations also form a kind of parallel discourse. I can imagine someone using the book without even having a peek at my text, imagining a world from the illustrations only. That would be just fine (books can be used in many different ways), although I do hope there are readers who will have the patience to study my work from cover the cover, just as I have studied the works of the great scholars who have inspired me: Ernst Robert Curtius, Fernand Braudel, Johan Huizinga, Erich Auerbach, Carlo Ginzburg, and many others…